Readers of three science publications may be wondering, “Where in the world were the editors?” after retractions appeared recently in the journals sounding the same theme: The articles in question had too much “overlap” between previous publications.
For example, the Journal of Fish Biology notice reads, in part: “The retraction has been agreed due to overlap between this article and several previously published articles.”
Translation: Our bad!
The latest retraction notices from the journals Environmental Toxicology, the Journal of Fish Biology and the Journal of Clinical Neurology aren’t scandalous, but they are certainly embarrassing. (Ironically, the paper in the Journal of Fish Biology dealt with gene duplication.)
In fact, redundancy in the science literature is more common than you might think. A 2007 paper in Science and Engineering Ethics suggested that between 10% and 25% of publications contain data that were previously reported in another paper, a practice known as “salami slicing” in the trade.
Although we doubt that a quarter of all papers meet the threshold for déjà vu, even 10% would be troubling enough.
After all, journals have at least three lines of defense against redundancy. First, section editors should know their particular niches better than anyone — including what has been published in competing journals. Second, competent (by no means a given) peer reviewers should filter out things they’ve read before. Finally, the editorial staff should be aware of the literature.
We emailed the journal editors in question, and will let you know what we hear back.