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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

What happens to researchers who publish duplicated papers? At one university, they’re promoted

with 17 comments

oaklandOne of the things we try to do here at Retraction Watch is see what happens to researchers who’ve had to retract papers. There’s Naoki Mori, who lost his job because of extensive image manipulation but sued successfully to get it back, for example.

Now, courtesy of the Oakland Press, we have the story of two academics at Oakland University in Michigan who were promoted after being forced to retract two papers for duplication — and earning a ban on publishing in one society’s journals.

Oakland faculty members Timothy Larrabee and Mary Stein published “A Computer-Based Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Science Teacher Education in 2006, and the perhaps uwittingly titled “What Are They Thinking? The Development and Use of an Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” in the Journal of Science Teacher Education in 2007.

Both papers were retracted. Here’s the Contemporary Issues in Technology and Science Teacher Education notice:

The editors of Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education hereby retract this article, “A Computer-Based Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” by Timothy Larrabee, Mary Stein, and Charles Barman. The article is being retracted because a substantively duplicate manuscript was subsequently published by the same authors in the Journal of Science Teacher Education, Issue 2, Volume 18, April 2007: “What Are They Thinking? The Development and Use of an Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” by Mary Stein, Charles R. Barman, and Timothy Larrabee (pp. 233–241).

And here’s the Journal of Science Teacher Education retraction notice:

The editors of the Journal of Science Teacher Education hereby retract the article “What Are They Thinking? The Development and Use of an Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” by Mary Stein, Charles R. Barman and Timothy Larrabee, which appeared in issue 2, Volume 18, April 2007, of Journal of Science Teacher Education (18:233–241). The article is being retracted because it substantively duplicates a previously published manuscript by the same authors, “A Computer-Based Instrument That Identifies Common Science Misconceptions” by Timothy Larrabee, Mary Stein and Charles Barman, which appeared in Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, Volume 6, issue 3, 6:306–312, published online September, 2006.

The retractions led to some sanctions, the Tribune reports:

The most severe consequence was that submissions from any of the three authors would not be accepted by Association for Science Teacher Education, or any sponsored publications for a period of five years — ending January 2015.

In the meantime, however:

In September 2010, Stein was promoted to associate dean of the School of Education and Human Services. In 2012, Stein was promoted to interim associate provost,..

And:

At the Oct. 4, 2012 Board of Trustees meeting, Larrabee was appointed as the associate dean of education and human services — effective Aug. 15, 2012. Stein was appointed to interim associate provost and professor of education — effective Aug. 7, 2012.

Stein later became Interim Dean of the School of Education, and Larrabee returned to his post as associate professor of science education.

Now, duplication — often inelegantly referred to as “self-plagiarism” — is pretty low on the hierarchy of publishing sins. According to the Tribune, Oakland University “does not consider resubmission of one’s own work to be a form of plagiarism.” That’s more than likely because technically, it’s not.

But the researchers’ own society thought duplication was serious enough for a five-year ban. It’s one thing to say that sanction was probably enough, but promotions? To paraphrase the authors, what were the board of trustees thinking?

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Written by Ivan Oransky

August 1, 2013 at 9:40 am

17 Responses

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  1. Ach, I’m with the board. Self-plagiarism is a sin against bean-counting. Data fabrication undermines the very spirit of science itself. Self-plagiarism does not tell any direct untruths, just indirect ones among people who think that counting publications is important. Data fraud can lead to millions of dollars and countless hours of wasted research, and outcomes as serious as patient deaths. Self plagiarism simply can’t.
    Save the outrage for outrageous sins, I say…

    Robert Insall

    August 1, 2013 at 9:52 am

    • I’d like my academics/scientists to show some integrity please. Is that too much to ask? Sometimes it seems a concept beyond their grasp.

      ‘Yes, but it was only a minor transgression’ seems a weak defence to me. It’s a culture where publications *are* counted and reward follows. There is no moral difference between them and the guy with his hand in the cookie jar. The mechanism might be different, but the effect is the same…gaining a reward which has not been earned.

      Latimer Alder

      August 2, 2013 at 2:23 am

    • I disagree. There is a direct untruth: that the duplicated manuscript is an original piece of scholarship. Every journal with which I’ve ever associated has insisted that all submissions be original. This means that they have not previously appeared in print elsewhere.

      The Iron Chemist

      August 2, 2013 at 11:52 am

    • This comment (Robert Insall) is pure wisdom. Of course self-plagiarism is bad, but fabricated data can kill, and this not a metaphor, sad examples can be found.
      What happens to all of us, is having painfully a manuscript published, and finding later that nobody cares about it. That’s life. Counting publications is not important.

      Cello biology

      August 2, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  2. It is remarkable that the self-plagiarism resulted in retraction of both articles. I remember a case, a geneticist submittet two identical grant applications to two different grant funding societies, but ended up with the same reviewer who got very angry. At the end, the questionable applicant just retracted one of the identical grant application (with just two different headlines) and became the other funded. So, science in Germany would be better if fraud would not be so tolerated.

    Eibl

    August 1, 2013 at 10:33 am

  3. I don’t know that “self-plagiarism” is necessarily a punishable offense. If I publish a paper, and five years later I want to publish a follow-up paper that expands on the original paper, I might “self-plagiarize” large chunks of my original paper as a way of saying “Here’s what I thought back then…here’s what I think now”. If it’s my own data I’m expanding upon, and others in my scientific community know and recognize that, big deal. Having said that, in the interest of demonstrating that I do know how to properly cite my sources, I’d do it anyway just to CMA. Plagiarism in its most benign form boils down to simple laziness. How can I be taken seriously as a scientist if I’ve demonstrated I’m that lazy? I don’t know that my position in the scientific community necessarily needs to be taken away from me…but I certainly don’t deserve to be promoted!

    Jennifer R. Ewing

    August 1, 2013 at 10:50 am

    • If one uses the exact same methodology, let’s say for 6 separate experiments, and one clearly indicates in inverted commas, or as a clear statement, that the wording is identical to a previous publication that lists the full methodology, then how can this be called self-plagiarism? Indeed the words may be the same, but if the authors clearly indicate that the methodology is clearly different, a rejection by a journal of such a text is wrong. There are only so many ways a person can re-phrase an already perfectly phrased description of the methods, without the methodology starting to sound like something else. In SOME cases, self-plagiarism is over-hyped. One of the problems about bloggers is that they fail to differentiate different types of self-plagiarism. Some deserve a mere slap on the wrist, others deserve a retraction, for exmaple where a figure has been duplicated for two species that are clearly different. So, my advice, from experience, is that things need to be defined at a fine-scale, and quantified, rather than be given a broad stamp of “evil academic”. If I am not incorrect, even ORI has some difficulties dealing with the fine-scale issues of the term self-plagiarism, despite an attempt by Roig to define it (somewhere on the ORI page there is a less-than-professional 2012 multi-page PDF about the ethics of plagiarism, in which self-plagiarism is slapped on as an extra, without due attention). I stand corrected on the last point.

      LibSci

      August 1, 2013 at 12:07 pm

      • A figure used for two different species is likely to indicate some kind of fraudulent representation of the data. So there’s no need to say “Oh, it’s the bad kind of duplication” – just say they presented fraudulent results, that’s the big problem. Duplicating chunks of a method section when you use the same method, or an introduction when you’re studying the same/a similar problem, is the kind of thing that should be described as duplication (and where from a science perspective, it’s not a big deal)

        Andrew

        August 12, 2013 at 11:40 am

  4. I have noticed a case where a professor published the same paper, with only minimal variations, in five different publication venues, from 2005 to 2012. The University (University of Arkansas) was informed. The official in charge of research integrity stated that no “research misconduct” had occurred. Duplication is not considered “research misconduct” by the definitions of the federal Office of Research Integrity. The ORI is concerned with data falsification and such, which is certainly more serious than padding one’s CV by duplication. The federal office cannot be expected to police every aspect of academic integrity, but Universities certainly are expected to take a more comprehensive view of academic honesty. Ironically, they expect their students to live up to high standards of academic honesty that faculty (in this case at least) are actually not subject to. A student can be punished for submitting the same essay in different classes. For faculty members, at least at UA, there are no such rules!

    The editors of all the journals were informed by May 14. Only one responded initially. He accepted the author’s claim that the papers were actually distinct and focused on different aspects of the study. They did not. (All papers have identical summary of results sections). The journal finally retracted (http://www.scirp.org/journal/PaperInformation.aspx?PaperID=22024).

    On July 15, a representative of the publisher (Taylor and Francis) announced that an investigation would be conducted, which might take “two months or more”. The whole development sadly shows how little editors and academic officials still care about duplication. The COPE guidelines have proven to be very helpful in convincing editors to take the issue more seriously. I recommend to quote extensively from the guidelines whenever you are in the position to discuss duplication issues with editors.

    Academic Daylight

    August 1, 2013 at 11:09 am

  5. Self plagiarism is misconduct. If you publish a follow up paper with new data, then you have something new to say, so why bother repeating what you said before – that is why you cite the prior article. Alternatively, you can quote. If a student submitted the same work twice without proper attribution (quotes, citations, etc), one piece would receive a zero. So I am with the publisher here, who has been exemplary. If other publishers followed suit, we would not have much of a problem.
    Does this mean that students at Oakland University in Michigan are free to re-use their work without any attribution? The obvious logic here is that they can submit the same work over and over again and earn multiple degrees. I suspect that this is explicitly forbidden in the University’s ordinances. The Trustees could do with reading the latter and consider the corrosive effect of having two sets of standards, One for the students, whose fees pay the salaries and one for senior staff.

    ferniglab

    August 1, 2013 at 11:09 am

    • You’re battering a straw man. Driving slightly above the speed limit is against the law. Premieditated murder is also against the law. If I say one is worse than the other it’s not the same as saying one is free to speed. If you try and say self-plagiarism and data fraud are both misconduct and should thus both be punished with equal severity, you seriously understate the damage caused by data fraud.
      In this case the publisher is probably correct (it is the publisher that has been sinned against, so restrictions on publication are appropriate) but trying to disbar the scientists from future promotion would be a foolish overreaction.

      Robert Insall

      August 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

      • Self-plagiarism is a misleading term that should be avoided. At issue, according to the journal statement, was not a copy-paste of a limited portion of an earlier article – “driving slightly above the speed limit” – at issue was the wholesale duplication of an already published article. To say that as long as it ain’t murder, don’t take it seriously hardly merits a response. The reaction of the University, to promote faculty members who engage in dishonest practices instead of reprimanding them, is simply a way of signaling that academic dishonesty isn’t taken seriously at this University. This simply won’t do and the academic community and the wider public are right to be concerned.

        Academic Daylight

        August 1, 2013 at 1:31 pm

      • I think you have missed an important point: that of leadership and the responsibility of those in positions of power. Just as a captain has (and should) take full responsibility for what occurs on his/her ship, a member of Faculty must lead by example. Given the responsibilities of faculty in teaching and our strong culture of citing sources and giving credit to the originators of information and text, I see no straw men here, but rather gross hypocrisy. One rule for the ruled, another for the rulers. This never works out well.

        ferniglab

        August 2, 2013 at 2:52 am

  6. All you have to do to avoid self-plagiarism is put the section in quotes and give the citation. Most publications grant automatic permission for authors to reuse their own content. It’s not rocket science, but the problem is without using quotes and citations, it looks as if the content is all-original, which is isn’t. In my opinion, it is dis-honest to self-plagiarize since it is easy to ensure everyone knows where the content originated.

    ajbergren

    August 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm

  7. I guess it may be easier to break it down this way. Using small amounts of content between papers would be “failure to attribute/failure to cite” (yourself). Republishing the same work in different journals would be analogous to some other guy stealing your work and publishing it in another journal as their own; and it should be egregious for its own reasons. Not because of “plagiarism”, but because you are attempting to pad your publication count. Taking someone else’s work and publishing it as your own, along with publishing your own work in duplicate should be considered equally sly. We’re at a point where the word plagarism is probably being applied to every type of malfeasance under the sun: for instance going 5 mph over speed limit is treated the same as +1 mph or +20 or +70.

    Deidentified

    August 1, 2013 at 5:41 pm

  8. I’m surprised at how many here are willing to downplay the significance of duplication. Just ask yourself this: why would an author go through the hassle and publish the same paper five times if there was nothing in it for them? Of course they gain an unethical advantage over non-cheating colleagues if that practice is tolerated. In addition, there is the problem of cluttering journals with redundancy, overusing a common resource (journal space), stealing the time of editors and readers. Duplication is not a “victimless crime”, it does hurt the academic community and individual scholars. In addition, the individual who engages in duplication is dishonest – they have signed a declaration stating that this is original work never published before – and while I don’t want to invite hyperbole, I do have to wonder in what other ways that person’s dishonesty might manifest itself. And further, journals that accept duplicate submissions are exhibiting disturbingly lax review standards, which also questions their overall quality.

    There are worse transgressions, thanks to everybody for needlessly pointing that out, but can we set the bar of Academic Ethics a bit higher than “as long as nobody gets killed, it’s fine”, or “as long as there’s no federal law against it, it’s fine” (which is the position taken by many institutions)? Scholarly lying is not ethically acceptable (even though it may be legal) and the academic community should make that very clear. Journals should enforce strict standards and institutions should make it clear that faculty members will not be allowed to gain an unfair advantage through cheating. The as yet unspoken problem is of course that institutions have little interest in preventing duplication – their institutional publication record looks better too. I have found that my institution systematically exaggerates its publication record in public reports, for example by claiming conference abstracts as peer-reviewed papers. They have officially stated that there was nothing wrong with that. We have set up a system in which scholars and institutions are judged by quantitative publication counts and the widespread gaming of that system is a predictable consequence. Maybe we need to change the bean-counting system. Be that as it may, I’m not willing to turn a blind eye to lying and cheating.

    Academic Daylight

    August 2, 2013 at 3:18 pm

  9. Different question: How many people who wrote a dissertation self plagiarized? I mean some Universities allow you to compile a bunch of papers as the dissertation. Since the University and/or the student hold copyright, is it not plagiarism to publish the work in a journal?

    Joe Stang

    August 11, 2013 at 4:26 pm


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