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).

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  1. 1. Ron Breslow is no stranger to publication-related controversy. This account would shock even the most hardened cynic.

    2. That happened in 1992, but didn’t come in the way of his getting elected to the presidency of ACS in 1996. Evidently, he’s some big cheese with serious clout.

    3. The JACS piece seems to be a “Perspective” type article, so it was probably an “invited article”. It’s going to be interesting what JACS does with it.

    4. I presume you have seen the pics posted by Stu Cantrill?

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  April 30, 2012

      Abi – thanks, I had no idea. Sounds like there will be some schadenfreude in the community.

  2. You might want to have a chat about Breslow with Prof. Uday Maitra of the organic chemistry department at IISc. Prof. Maitra was a graduate student with Breslow in the 80s.

  3. Brahmappa

     /  May 1, 2012

    Apologies to be sounding condescending of a profession here. I work in a fairly renowned industrial research lab in applied science that works on subsurface imaging technologies after having been a part of academia for three years in a teaching-cum-research position. Of late, there has been a tendency that is slowly creeping into research laboratories in the corporate world about how less and less of the stuff published in papers is reliable. I have heard senior research scientists in my group saying ‘Oh, who cares about journals anyway? I cannot reproduce most results. Either the premise is flawed or something more fishy is going on’.

    Some even go to the extent of saying ‘Well, I got a PhD. I got training on how to do research but I don’t want to write trash just to get tenure. I would rather make money’.

    Until and unless some strict protocols about reproducibility become the norm, I am afraid more and more people care little about the publication system. After having published a few papers in fairly reputed journals, I think it is a ‘I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine’ kind of a sham. In my humble opinion, this is more of a rule than an exception.

    PS: Of course, this is from my view of the American academia. After having studied in India for my undergraduate degree and worked at IISc as an intern, I tend to hold them in a higher regard despite the metrics not talking highly of them compared to the other world universities.

    PPS: I admire Rahul and Abi for being crusaders against this ‘academic corruption’ :-)

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  May 1, 2012

      Brahmappa — yes the lack of importance given to reproducibility is a huge problem. I don’t know much about chemistry research. I doubt things are as bad as you say in, for example, biology. Bombastic and sometimes outlandish claims (like the arsenic-feeding bacteria) do regularly get published in Science and other big journals, but usually they fizzle away. But I believe there are some fields of chemistry and physics where, basically, nobody is interested in the results except other practitioners of those fields. And then the sort of back-scratching culture you mention comes up, and there is no correction because there is no outside review of the work. And perhaps Indian scientists are less prone to this because they are “out of the loop”? They may try to reproduce the results, fail, and conclude that their equipment is not sophisticated enough, or something…

      I do believe that it is mostly the “stupid” fraud that gets caught. Schon was nailed because the noise in two graphs was the same — if he had simulated some noise he would have got away much longer. There are certainly intelligent fraudsters in science who have been at it for years or decades without getting caught. How many they are, what proportion of the community, what impact their research has, and whether they have succeeded in seriously corrupting science, is anyone’s guess… but I also believe that it is not truly high-impact research (if it was, then the irreproducibility would eventually trip them up).

      • Brahmappa

         /  May 1, 2012

        In the field I work in, at least in academia, there is a movement to publish ‘computational recipes’ so that people could generate a figure from the data ( – so that, the reader does not have doubts about the claims made in the paper. Of course, this is something that the whole community does not follow.

        I would agree with your point on truly high-impact research though. But then again, most of this high-impact research gets a lot of impetus when they are published in ‘prestigious’ journals like ‘Science’ or ‘Nature’. With increasing retraction rates, I don’t really know which journal to ‘trust’. Implicit in the form of scholarship is some ‘trust’ that this might be right. Of course, most things can be verified if it does not require special conditions to reproduce. If it is one of those experiments that require specialized resources, there is no way to check the claims. It is precisely this loophole that these funding greedy and publicity greedy academics will misuse.

        And, in my opinion, with the crazy competition for tenure-track positions, there will be more scientific misdemeanors and more retractions too. You cannot run universities like a company.

        As a colleague put it, ‘PhD is the MBA of academia. Stay long enough in academia and be an academic manager’.

        PS: In my opinion, Indian academia is still ‘academia’ and not a company. Most professors need not ‘hunt’ for funding like professors do in North America. Perhaps, that makes it better? ‘Out of the loop’ is a valid point too. As far as I have seen, it is hard to get favorable reviews if you aren’t networked very well. Besides that, if you publish good science from a relatively unknown institution in India, it is a lot more harder to get favorable reviews than mediocre science from a well known place in the US of A.

        PPS: Perhaps, this whole tenure-publish-retraction would make an interesting problem in the social sciences?

        Anyway, apologies for spamming on your blog. :)


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