Oh, the irony: Paper on “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process” retracted for duplication
In a case whose irony is not lost on those involved, an article about publishing ethics has been retracted because one of the authors re-used material he’d written for an earlier piece. But the authors and the journal’s editors have turned the episode into a learning opportunity.
The above article from Management and Organization Review, published online 7 SEP 2011, has been retracted by agreement between the authors, the journal’s outgoing Editor-in-Chief Anne Tsui, the journal’s incoming Editor-in-Chief Arie Y. Lewin, and John Wiley & Sons Asia Pty Ltd. The retraction has been agreed due to unattributed overlap with work previously published in Academy of Management Review, 34(4): 586–591: ‘Editor’s comments: The better angels of our nature – Ethics and integrity in publishing process’ by Marshall Schminke. The editors and authors jointly wrote a letter, available below, to explain the process used to come to the retraction decision.
The paper has been cited six times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. Here are some excerpts of the letter:
Emotionally, [retraction of a published paper due to self-plagiarism] brings embarrassment to the authors and disappointment to the editors. In the spirit of advancing understanding of publication ethics, the editors and two authors have agreed that further explanation of the process from the discovery of this problem to the decision of retraction is desired. With support from Wiley, the publisher of MOR, an agreement was reached between the editors of MOR and the authors of the retracted paper to jointly write a letter explaining and clarifying the circumstances leading to the decision as an accompaniment to the statement of retraction. The editors of MOR are committed to not only adhere to publication ethics but also to help authors and readers learn about publishing ethics whenever an opportunity arises. The authors of the retracted paper hold the same values because they are ethics educators, with Schminke being the chair of the Ethics Education Committee of the Academy of Management for three years (2008–2011).
The question remains: How could this have happened with these authors? Unraveling this puzzle might provide valuable insight on the extent of vigilance required to comply with ethical standards. A further irony is that the retracted paper (Schminke & Ambrose, 2011) is the introduction essay to the Editors’ Forum on Research and Publishing Ethics. The particularity of this incident provides a valuable opportunity to explain in some detail, beyond a simple factual statement, on how the self-plagiarism occurred, what the editors did to determine an appropriate course of action, and the authors’ responses to addressing the situation.
According to the editorial, the problems in the paper were noticed by a doctoral students in management taking a class on research ethics. The professor teaching that course notified the journal on November 12, 2013:
Arie Lewin asked Anne Tsui to take the lead to investigate this matter since the paper in question was published under the editorship of Anne. Anne repeated the process, going through the two papers line by line and found 20 instances of either phrases or paragraphs that are similar in the two papers. She asked the Managing Editor of MOR to run the MOR 2011 paper through iParadigm’s iThenticate software from the ScholarOne system. The result is an 18% overlap. After removing the section explaining the papers in that Editors’ Forum, the overlap is 26%. However, iThenticate checks only for similarity in words, phrases, or sentences, it does not identify similarity in ideas if different words were used. For the paper in question, there are similarities in both words and ideas.
With this information, Anne consulted the Ombudsman of AOM and discussed possible actions that the editors of MOR could take, ranging from engaging in an informal discussion with the authors to filing a formal complaint with the Ethics Adjudication Committee of AOM. The two editors (Anne and Arie) decided to pursue the informal process and, on November 26, 2013, contacted the authors with an email that laid out the facts. In this email, the editors also invited the authors to jointly discuss and identify possible options for the piece in which the self-plagiarism occurred. The editors expressed a desire to turn this incident into an educational opportunity for members of the Academy of Management (which publishes AMR), members of the International Association for Chinese Management Research (which publishes MOR), the authors and readers of both journals, and the management research community as a whole. The authors’ response to our email was surprise, contrition, and humility. They proposed several possible options to address the issue including the possibility of retraction. They expressed a readiness to accept and support any decision the editors might consider appropriate.
Meanwhile, Anne kept in contact with the reader who reported the discovery, in an attempt to understand the students’ reactions and what they would consider to be a fair decision regarding the paper. This reader remarked that doing nothing would be the worst outcome but recognized that retracting the paper without some explanation might not be informative of what actually happened. In our minds, given the considerable overlap, the retraction of the MOR paper seems like an appropriate action, which is consistent with guidelines provided by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) regarding papers involving plagiarism. However, it is the educational mission that prompted us to consider writing a letter to inform the readers of the circumstances surrounding this paper. We consulted the AOM Ombudsman again to ensure a fair and just decision. We then wrote the author on December 6, 2013 with our decision and invited the authors to jointly write this letter of clarification. The authors accepted our decision without any reservation. Their report follows.
The authors — “I” here is Schminke, who was chair of the Academy of Management’s Ethics Education Committee for three years — write:
So how does something like this happen? I can offer an explanation, but not an excuse…
For over three years I accepted every opportunity to address management scholars about the importance of knowing, understanding, and following our codes of ethics. My script for these talks took shape quickly as I learned which stories and lessons had the greatest impact on audiences. Over time it grew and evolved, but as is often the case in our teaching, some of the earliest and most effective narratives stayed put. The AMR editorial in 2009 was an early effort in delivering this message in print form. The introductory essay in MOR was one of the last. At the time each was written, they represented my best effort at conveying the most powerful message possible on the importance of ethical publishing practices. But I goofed. Big time. When translating the most current form of my ‘script’ into the MOR piece, I did not pull up the AMR editorial from two years prior to make sure any overlap with it was properly credited to that earlier piece. Unfortunately, that’s the very definition of self-plagiarism. And perhaps even more unfortunate is that all of this could have been avoided with the simple insertion of ‘(Schminke, 2009)’ in the appropriate place(s) in MOR so as to guide readers to the original location of those ideas.
Failure to cite prior work properly, even when it’s yours, does not meet those expectations. Don’t let it happen to you.
Lastly, we want to express our appreciation to the authors for their professionalism, humility, and courage in responding to this incident. Their dedication to ethical education is unshaken by this experience. Our respect for them is even stronger than it was before. They have set a good example for all of us in living up to a commitment of ethical research and publishing practices.
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