Is self-plagiarism bad?

Duplicating text from one’s own work is widely regarded, in India at least, as a lesser crime than plagiarising from someone else; some (including senior members of our science academies) don’t see it as much of a problem at all.

Elsewhere, however, as reported by Retraction Watch, a senior and heavily-cited Columbia University chemist, Ron Breslow, has been tripped up by this. He is the sole author of all three articles, so there is no question about who is responsible. His comments to Nature suggest that he has a similar point of view on these things to many Indian scientists — in particular, suggesting that this sort of thing is OK in a review article. The journal editors disagree. The matter is still under investigation.

My take on this is, when you write an article for a journal — as opposed to an e-mail to a colleague, or privately circulated notes for your course — the journal assumes that the content is new and original. This assumption is equally made of a review article as for an original research article. If you cut and paste from your own earlier work, without making it clear that you are doing so, then it is a problem. In particular, if you have published the previous work in another journal and transferred your copyright to that journal, then you legally cannot re-use the same text in your later article — even if you wrote it yourself! But even if you retain the copyright, it seems ethically dubious.

To quote, while making it clear that it is a quote, is a different matter: that is neither legally nor morally wrong, in my opinion. However, it is still a problem if you overdo it. Journal editors, who want to publish original content, may look askance at an article much of whose introduction consists of quotes from elsewhere.

[Update] This is much worse than what I realised from the Retraction Watch writeup. This particular example of self-plagiarism is without question bad — it’s not even a close call. See Abi’s post (and his comment below), and the linked pics from Stuart Catrill.

[Update 2] The Nature article from 1992 mentioned by Abi, about two researchers’ efforts to correct erroneous papers from Breslow, is unfortunately paywalled. Fortunately Ashutosh Jogalekar has written a detailed summary of that article. Go and read it to appreciate the true extent of collusion that can occur between influential scientists, journal editors, and reviewers in these cases. And I would add, in the interests of science, Nature and other journals should not paywall such articles. Even if you are not an open-access convert, please open at least the commentary articles to the wider public!

And I have inserted the scientist’s name into the text above — I didn’t originally name Breslow, perhaps because my point was about the question of self-plagiarism and not about the individual. But I now see that the individual’s actions are sufficiently egregious to deserve being called out — as many others have done in recent days (see Ashutosh’s blog for links).

The academic publishing model is broken

For some reason I never blogged about the Boycott Elsevier movement, though I signed up early on. Today the 10,000th scientist signed up to it, so it is a good time to bring it to your attention.

Why boycott Elsevier? Because of their obnoxious policies as listed on that page. Specifically, exorbitant prices; bundling, which makes it impossible for libraries to buy only the journals they want; support for retrograde legislation designed to protect their business model. To which I might add, publishing journals that range from merely obscure to:

  • purely self-promoting — the journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals was edited for years by Mohamed el Naschie, who published and self-cited extensively in that journal, driving its impact factor up to over 4;
  • promotional material disguised as science — The Australasian Journal of Bone & Joint Medicine, published by Elsevier, was marketing material for Merck disguised as a scientific journal;
  • outright quackery — the non-peer-reviewed Elsevier journal Medical Hypotheses gave a respectable platform to much dubious speculation and some outright pseudoscience;
  • frankly hilarious. (The author in question has several other mirth-making works, but Elsevier is the only “respectable” publisher on the list.)

Think of these points in combination. If you want to buy a “good” math journal, you are likely forced to buy a bundle that includes “Applied Mathematics Letters” with its joke-papers too. And pay through your nose for it.

Are other academic publishers better? Marginally, but the entire model seems to be broken, as Michael P. Taylor argues powerfully. Quote:

Let’s take a look at the flow of money in the production of research. The government takes tax revenue from citizens and uses it to fund university research groups and libraries. Researchers obtain government grants and use the money to conduct experiments. They write up the results in manuscripts that are destined to become published papers. Manuscripts are submitted to journals, where they are handled by other researchers acting as unpaid volunteer editors. They co-ordinate the process of peer-review, which is done by yet other researchers, also unpaid. All these roles—author, editor, reviewer—are considered normal responsibilities of researchers, funded by grants.

At this point, researchers have worked together to produce a publication-ready, peer-reviewed manuscript. But rather than posting it on the Web, where it can contribute to the world’s knowledge, form a basis for future work, and earn prestige for the author, the finished manuscript is then donated gratis to a publisher: the author signs away copyright. The publisher then formats the manuscript and places the result behind a paywall. Then it sells subscriptions back to the universities where the work originated. Well-off universities will have some access to the paper (though even they are denied important rights such as text-mining). Less well-off universities have access to varying selections of journals, often not the ones their researchers need. And the taxpayers who funded all this? They get nothing at all. No access to the paper.

It’s pretty outrageous.

Yes, it is. George Monbiot, activist-journalist who likes to back up his assertions with scholarly references, thinks so too.

What is the alternative? Two have already manifested themselves. First, physicists, mathematicians, computer scientists and others have been using the preprint (“e-print”) server since the 1990s, often depositing their works there before even sending it to a journal. The system is so successful that many journals in those fields accept links to arxiv preprints during the submission process. But this is only a partial solution: the journals are still closed-access, and many authors simply forget to upload the “final” pre-publication version on arxiv.

Second, in the biological sciences, “open access” journals have caught on: publishers like BioMed Central (BMC) and Public Library of Science (PLoS) have pioneered an alternative “author pays” model of publication, where the author pays the processing charges for a manuscript to be published, but accepted papers are made available free on the internet, under a Creative Commons licence. This has grown so popular that many traditional publishers now offer an open-access option, while many funding agencies have requirements that the full text of papers from research funded by them must be deposited in a public repository like PubMed. The Wellcome Trust is going a step further and starting its own journal.

Ultimately, the feeling among many scientists is that in the internet age, post-publication peer review is much more useful, and much more effective, than the pre-publication anonymous review that has characterised the academic model so far. Therefore, why not get the journal out of the way — or, at least, have a journal that considers only correctness as a criterion, and leaves issues of “importance” to its readers? That is the thinking behind PLoS ONE, an online-only journal that has published a surprising number of newsworthy papers during its short existence.

And this clash between the old and new worlds perfectly illustrates the situation. John Bargh, psychology professor at Yale, published a study in 1996 suggesting that people’s movements are slowed down by infusing the concept of age in their minds. Stephane Doyen and colleagues recently tried and failed to replicate these results, despite (or because of) using a larger set of volunteers and being much more careful in certain aspects. They published their negative results in PLoS ONE. Bargh responded with an intemperate criticism of the authors, their methods, and, of course, the journal (“which quite obviously does not receive the usual high scientific journal standards of peer-review scrutiny”). He has been quite nicely rebutted in the comments on his own post, as well as elsewhere: Ed Yong’s overview, that I linked to above, summarises it well.

The new ways of communicating science will undoubtedly show up their problems, but they are already working better than the old ways. Now the academic community (especially in fields untouched by the e-print and open-access revolutions) needs to recognise this.

An erratum, and hopefully the end of the story

Abi notes that Prof Ashutosh Sharma of IIT-Kanpur, whose paper turned out to have plagiarised some text and figures from a student’s M.Tech. thesis and who turned belligerent when this was pointed out, has issued an erratum to that paper acknowledging the duplication, regretting the failure to cite, and apologising to all concerned. (See links in Abi’s post for a history of the case. He has been active in trying to resolve the issue.)

Somehow this reminds me of Churchill’s comment about Americans, that they “can always be counted on to do the right thing, after exhausting all other possibilities.” Nevertheless, the right thing has now been done and hopefully the student and the IIT-K group can get on with their lives and careers.

New Fellows of the Royal Society, and a personal tribute to one

Six scientists of Indian origin have been elected[Nature’s Indigenus blog; hat-tip: Abi] to the fellowship of the Royal Society this year. Congratulations to all of them. Two have spent significant parts of their career in India: M. Vidyasagar, who spent 20 years at CAIR Bangalore and TCS Hyderabad before moving to the US recently; and K VijayRaghavan, the director of NCBS, Bangalore, who has spent almost his entire professional life in India.

Vijay is the only one I know personally: I first met him shortly after moving back to India (and moving into biology), in 2004. I previously wrote about him here, on his winning the Infosys prize in 2009. To quote:

At the time [2004] I was reasonably well known in sections of the [Indian] physics community, but a total unknown in the biology community. We first met at a seminar on developmental and evolutionary biology where he was speaking and I was attending; we struck up a collaboration that, though certainly not the world’s most active and vigorous (the fault is mine), continues to this day(*). I am perennially astonished at how he finds time for everything. At the same time that he has been doing outstanding science, he has, as director, built up NCBS (admittedly already an excellent place when he inherited it) into easily one of the best and most competitive biology centres in the world. And, on top of all that, he’s a great guy personally.

In fact, his contribution in building up NCBS into a “world-class institution” figures significantly in the Royal Society’s citation. I continue to be amazed at how he finds time for everything. And he is one of those scientists always willing to speak his mind, without causing controversy, and participate civilly in online discussion: he has commented occasionally (including very recently) on this and other blogs, and himself blogs at Indiabiosciences.

(*)That was 2009; we since published a paper, and there has not been much active collaboration after that, but it is always stimulating to meet him and talk to him.

Update 23/4/2012: NPNI adds more examples of online interaction with Vijay. The first is particularly amusing, but unsurprising!

How will other returning scientists react to Partho’s case?

Here is an NDTV interview with Dr Partho Sarothi Ray shortly after his release on bail. While he doesn’t regret coming back to India and West Bengal, he worries that other scientists who planned to return will have second thoughts. A valid worry, certainly. Additionally, he talks about the slum dwellers and his fellow activists, civil rights and the necessity of all sections of society being vigilant to safeguard democratic rights.

As Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao say, Partho’s experience is more what you would expect from China than India. He has been released, which one can say is in India’s favour. But he has not yet been acquitted, and his fellow activists, as well as many others who have protested for basic democratic rights, are still in jail. But we know that scientists from all around the world are flocking to work in China, Singapore and other undemocratic regimes. So one could imagine that most scientists will not be perturbed by Partho’s experience — they will imagine that they can ignore issues of society and democracy and do their work undisturbed.

But I don’t think it will work that way. Life, both scientifically and otherwise, is certainly more comfortable in many other countries than in India. Within India, there are elite research institutions that are arguably more comfortable than the IISERs — no undergraduate teaching, for example, and much more money [update – Kapil disputes this, see comment below]. So a scientist who returns to India and joins an institute like IISER must be driven by a certain amount of social motivation in the first place. (This is not to say that scientists abroad lack such motivation — quite the contrary. But one is always more moved by problems in one’s own homeland.) So, on the one hand, I don’t think most scientists returning to India will imagine it to be a Singapore or Shanghai where you can ignore the ugly underbelly and focus on your work — on the other hand, I hope that Partho’s case will only increase their, and our, recognition that the problems of the dispossessed are our problems, and our determination to change the system.


A quick note to say Partho Sarothi Ray (see previous two posts) was granted bail late today. He will be released early tomorrow.

Letter to scientists on Partho Sarothi Ray

Update 17/4/2012: Partho was released on bail today. The case remains.

Below is a letter to Indian scientists from Dibyendu Nandi, one of India’s top astrophysicists, recent winner of the Karen Harvey prize, and colleague, at IISER Kolkata, of Partha Sarothi Ray.  Needless to say, I endorse every word and am repeating it verbatim with his permission.

Fellow Scientists,

I am writing to you as an individual and in my personal capacity of having known you. You are perhaps, by now, aware of the plight of Partho Sarothi Ray — a faculty at IISER Kolkata, whom I consider to be one of our most talented scientists. Partho was picked up by the police for a peaceful demonstration against the eviction of slum dwellers in Kolkata and is still in judicial custody. I would like to bring to your attention that a website detailing the case of Partho has been set up by some of us and is available at:

Personally for me, it has been difficult to come to terms with this case; however, I have come to realize that whether we completely support Partho’s activities beyond academics, or not, is not the point. What is important is that there has been a miscarriage of justice to one of our fellow scientists; somebody who has never compromised on his science and his teaching at our Institute.

I encourage you to peruse the material in the website, including the many news stories and testimonials about Partho that are in the public domain and make an independent assessment. Based on this, I also request you to consider giving Partho’s case and this website wide publicity within your Institutes, Scientific Organizations, Academies and beyond and join the appeal for justice. If you would like to give a testimonial on behalf of Partho and are willing to have it hosted in a public domain, write to us at:


The website linked in Dibyendu’s mail is the best source for updates on this case. Regarding Partho’s “activities beyond academics”, there are many of us who are disturbed at the systematic dispossession of the underprivileged that has taken place over decades in every part of the country (but especially in the so-called Naxal belt). I am full of admiration for those like Partho who find time to campaign for the victims without compromising their scientific activity (Partho’s publication record is as good as any I have seen in India). In this specific case, as Dibyendu says, there is a miscarriage of justice. But it is not accidental: it is a deliberate attempt to intimidate and silence someone who points out inconvenient truths.

Thanks to the persistence of Partho’s colleagues, the word is getting out, and several media outlets have by now covered this case, including Nature News which is read internationally. Today’s India Today article is also worth reading and describes Partho’s motivations and personality.

Scientist, others arrested for protesting peacefully

Update 17/4/2012: Partho was released on bail today. The case remains.

UPDATE 16 April 2012: The case is beginning to appear in the mainstream media. One hopes the PM, a former academic himself, takes some interest. Also, see this blog post on Nature. That writer has previously been impressed with Dr Ray’s sense of social responsibility.

Also there is now an official site for justice for Partho.

UPDATE 14 April 2012: Here’s a letter in support of Dr Ray from Prof Mriganka Sur, FRS, an eminent neuroscientist at MIT.

UPDATE 13 April 2012: Apparently Dr Ray and the other activists were not produced in court yesterday, but were sent to jail for 14 days in absentia. [Update 2: According to ToI, the magistrate asked for the defence but was told they had left the building. The magistrate turned down police remand, instead putting the activists in jail custody: one hopes that is a positive sign.]

If Dr Ray is lying about his activities on April 4, then his colleagues at IISER Kolkata — among the brightest scientists in India — are lying too. The government can either let the scientific community be tarnished in this way, or it can step in right now and have these activists released. I’m not sure what the scientific community can do other than make a noise, but a sufficiently loud noise may work: I hope that the seniormost scientists — at the IISERs, at IISc (Dr Ray’s alma mater), at Wellcome-DBT (where Dr Ray is currently a fellow), at the Indian Academy of Sciences (where Dr Ray is an associate), and elsewhere — will make their voices heard to the powers that be.

I received the following from a colleague and trusted friend in Kolkata.

To forestall possible criticisms:

  • You may or may not agree with Sanhati’s philosophy or goals, but that has nothing to do with it. Dr Ray was arrested at a peaceful protest, and subsequently detained on trumped-up charges relating to a day when he was provably elsewhere. This is not meant to handle law-and-order: it is to scare and silence dissenting voices.
  • Of course Dr Ray, and the others arrested with him, are not the first to fall victim to the police state in this manner. Many innocent people are languishing in jail under the “war on Maoism” and they are not less deserving of justice than Dr Ray. My hope is that by highlighting the absurdity of the charges against Dr Ray, the entire machinery will come under a fresh scanner.

Below is the mail I received, verbatim. For updates go to [UPDATE – also consider signing this petition.]