I’m a journal editor, one of a collective that edits the Educational Action Research Journal.
One of the conditions of getting published in our journal is that authors sign an agreement which, among other things, says that the work isn’t published elsewhere.
We recently had a potentially difficult problem just as one issue was just about to go to the printers. On the very last day when corrections could be submitted we got an email from an author whose work had been refereed and accepted, and who had the proofs back for correction. They had submitted an earlier version of the article to an online journal which used open reviewing – that is where the original submission is published online together with the reviews and eventually the corrected article will also be published. The author now realised that the original online version, even though not the same as the one that we had accepted, still had substantial chunks identical to the manuscript we were about to publish.
One of my colleague editors and I took responsibility for trying to sort this out. We had a difficult decision. We didn’t want to publish something that was substantially already out there. So we had to ask the author how much our article was the same and how much was different from the one that was online. Only then could we decide what to do.
But the problem didn’t stop there. Even if we were convinced that the version we had was substantially different from the first version, and we went ahead with publication, there was another difficulty. Our publisher advised us that we were looking at an issue of self-plagiarism. We would need to get the author to formally quote the previous work, AND to seek permission for its use if they didn’t have copyright.
Fortunately, in this case, the author contacted the editors of the online journal who generously agreed to remove it from their site, even though they clearly didn’t have to. This was a great relief to the author and to us as editors. It was a narrow escape. We nearly had to literally stop the presses to remove the article and change the editorial. This would have delayed publication of the journal for the first time in its 19 year history.
Apart from the very obvious lesson here about not submitting an article to two journals, the incident raises some other questions about self-plagiarism.
It used to be the case that self-plagiarism was understood only as the substantial cutting and pasting of text from one article to another without any by your leave. This was pretty common practice until relatively recently and I confess to having occasionally done it myself.
But growing awareness of plagiarism per se combined with software that detects it (and audits of academic publications) have made all of us more aware that this is not really on. If it’s published it’s published – and a new article needs to start afresh or self-cite. There are of course exceptions to this, as in descriptions of research sites and research methods from a particular project – these really aren’t fluid, and need to stay substantially the same across project publications.
It’s the spread of online publications that complicates the question of self-plagiarism quite considerably. Many of us have for example put early versions of papers online in conference repositories. We generally still own the copyright on these but technically these are now published articles. How many of us own up to these when we submit the paper to our chosen journal? How many of us actually acknowledge in the journal text that an earlier published version exists, let alone formally quote from it?
As a journal editor, one of the things I now wonder about is whether we are approaching a time when we have to do online searches to find out whether one or more versions of a paper submitted for refereeing already exists out there as a publication. If they do, then the decision that faces any editor is whether we want to publish something that is already available.
I have heard of some journal editors who have already decided that the answer to that question is no. And that response raises a whole raft of other questions about what counts as originality and contributions to knowledge, not to mention the small matter of the ownership and purposes of scholarly knowledge production…