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Case study: ‘prior publication’

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

You’ve recently published an article in quite a prestigious journal. The work is the result of a collaborative project with a researcher in another discipline, and you’re rather pleased with the work and the publication. You feel it may even become a seminal paper. You are therefore rather shocked to receive an email from the Editor of the journal raising concerns about the originality of the paper.

The journal has been contacted by a reader to inform them that a very similar article appeared some time ago on a popular website. The Editor would like an explanation, as she says it is a strict requirement of the journal that material submitted for publication must not have been published before.

You look at the material the Editor has sent, as well as doing some searching of your own, and it’s clear that your co-author did post an early version of the paper both on his blog and in a subject repository. You contact your co-author to explain the situation and its seriousness.

Your co-author says that in his field it is accepted practice to allow public posting of material before submission to more conventional publication venues such as journals. What are known as ‘pre-prints’ have been common for many years, and are not viewed as ‘prior publication’. The problem is that this practice isn’t something that is the norm in your discipline, and any kind of prior publication is likely to prevent publication in a top-ranked journal.

Questions for discussion

  1. What can you do to try to resolve this particular situation?
  2. What procedures and safeguards could you adopt to prevent similar situations occurring in the future?
  3. How can early-career researchers keep up-to-date with changes in publication policies and practices, and, importantly, know which are acceptable and which are viewed with suspicion or haven’t been widely adopted?

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