Rage is rampant in the chemical community over the issue of self-plagiarism. It smacked me in the face today when I was editing a coworker's conference abstract due to four identical sentences. These sentences were on the same topic as our previous work even though the science is different. In my mind they seemed viable. However, with this issue blowing up, we knew the risk was not worth taking.
Ronald Breslow of Columbia University, has been 'charged' with self-plagiarism. To begin, I want to fully elucidate this guy's rock start status:
-He used to be president of the American Chemical Society.
-He has also won their highest award and MANY others.
-He is a full professor at an Ivy League university.
Not convinced yet?
-He is also a member of the US National Academy of Sciences.
Basically, he is a big deal. So when someone who is a big deal is surrounded by controversy then it is a big deal.
So what is the uproar about? He published his own text verbatim in several different journals. The research topic recently got some press that resulted from an American Chemical Society press release titled: "Could advanced dinosaurs rule other planets?". Anytime something like this is said, people start to notice. And notice they did…
The first two papers were published in 2011 in the Israel Journal of Chemistry and Tetrahedron Letters. These journals each have different publishers and are dissimilar to where his most recent paper got published, the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). Publishing papers here is generally perceived as prestigious. It is one of the most well read and cited journals in the chemical community. So when he used redundant text here, people began to catch on. Stuart Cantrill, chief editor of Nature Chemistry, did a side by side comparison of his previous works to the current JACS paper. He (@stuartcantrill) tweeted these pictures earlier this week:
In case you were wondering, it is the highlighted text that is copied verbatim from his other works.
That is some serious self-plagarism. The American Chemical Society specifically makes a statement in its code of ethics about this issue:
Authors should not engage in self-plagiarism (also known as duplicate publication) – unacceptably close replication of the author’s own previously published text or results without acknowledgement of the source. ACS applies a “reasonable person” standard when deciding whether a submission constitutes self-plagiarism/duplicate publication. If one or two identical sentences previously published by an author appear in a subsequent work by the same author, this is unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication. Material quoted verbatim from the author’s previously published work must be placed in quotation marks. In contrast, it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source.
It seems that Breslow is catapulting across this boundary. Since the publication of his JACS paper, it has been removed by the publisher. The editor, Peter Stang, is determining whether or not an ethics violation has occurred. Either way, some serious politickin' will occur to determine whether or not the paper is retracted. Allegedly, the science is different from the other two papers (it got removed before I could take a read myself), but it is obvious that significant portions of the paper is redundant.
I think a major line here has been crossed, but it is not the first time I have noticed something like this in the scientific literature. On more than one occassion I have seen some *achem* similar works.
However, this leads me to my next question. What is a "reasonable person" standard when deciding what constitutes self-plagarism? I am sure the language here is purposefully vague.
They specifically mention that 1-2 sentences will likely be overlooked. However, as an author this creates some concerns. For example, methodology sections are often similar to authors' previous papers. Reserchers generally use the same techniques, so is it self-plagarism to copy your own methodology sections? Once the quality of the writing is optimized, I think it hurts the overall product if you have to rewrite it just so you don't plagarize yourself.
Today I took an abstract from a recently published paper that we wrote and performed some minor rewrites on a similar abstract for a different system. Let me be clear, the science is different. To be honest, I am not sure if it hindered the overall quality of the writing, but was it necessary?
The initial sentence:
Hydroxyurea is the only FDA approved treatment of sickle cell disease. It is believed the primary mechanism of action is associated with the pharmacological elevation of nitric oxide in the blood; however, the exact details of this are still unclear.
The rewritten sentence:
Hydroxyurea, the only FDA approved treatment of sickle cell disease, is believed to increase pharmacological nitric oxide (NO) levels as its primary mechanism of action. Despite this fundamental understanding, specific details are still undetermined.
Sure these are minor changes. I only showed you 1-2 sentences and that might be overlooked, but I changed a total of 3-4 redundant sentences. The remainder of the abstract was completely different. Again, the science is different and I believe that this is the important part.
Is there a line? Would I have crossed it by leaving 3-4 verbatim sentences? Should following ethical guidelines leave this much gray area? Does following ethical guidelines always leave this much gray area? There isn't a consensus about Breslow's self-plagarism yet, but the fall out will certainly be interesting.