The Editor of Journal B, in which you’ve recently published a review article, contacts you and your co-author. A reader has written to the Editor to point out that a number of sections of the article are very similar to a review article published a few years ago by your co-author in another journal, Journal A.
The Editor has compared the two articles and found the following similarities: a third of the abstract and introduction are virtually the same; around half of the sections are very similar, with only minor rewording and a few additions in the later article; and two of the images and one table in the recent review appear in the earlier article.
The Editor of Journal B considers this level of duplication to be unacceptable and to be ‘a case of self-plagiarism’. She is considering retracting the article but would first like to have an explanation from the authors.
Your co-author (who was the corresponding author for the paper) is based in another country and his research area is complimentary to yours, the two areas forming a new emerging interdisciplinary research field. You met at a conference a year ago, he’d mentioned that he’d been invited to write a review about the new research field by Journal B, and he’d asked you to join him as co-author. He felt this would be beneficial to your two respective research communities, and provide the knowledge and perspective of experts from both the research areas. You’d readily agreed, pleased to have been asked by this well-known researcher, seeing it as an opportunity to establish a position in the new field early on.
You feel very concerned about the letter from the Editor, to the extent that you are losing sleep over it and about the possible consequences. The duplicated parts all occur in sections contributed by your co-author, so you ask him how the situation has arisen.
Your co-author admits to reusing earlier material of his own, but he says he doesn’t feel he’s done anything wrong – the articles are reviews, they don’t report original research, and it’s very difficult to continually produce original text and express ideas differently, especially when you are an acknowledged expert in the field and are frequently invited to write reviews.
Questions for discussion
- Do you agree with your co-author that what he’s done is acceptable, or do you agree with the Editor that this is a case of ‘self-plagiarism’?
- Should the ‘rules’ for review and original research articles be different?
- What complications/problems might there be with reusing previously published material even if it is the author’s own?
- What would you now do? How would you respond to the Editor?
- What precautions might you take in future when embarking on similar collaborative projects?