No small matter: ACS Nano journal growing alarmed by self-plagiarism

Is self-plagiarism — perhaps best referred to as duplication of your own work — a big problem in nanotechnology research?

The American Chemical Society (ACS) Nano journal retracted a study, “Retraction of Nanoembossing Induced Ferroelectric Lithography on PZT Films for Silver Particle Patterning,”  late last month because of such duplication:

This article was withdrawn at the request of the Editor-in-Chief, with agreement by the authors, due to unacceptable redundant text and figures with a previously published article by the same authors (Langmuir 2011, 27, 5167-5170. DOI: 10.1021/la200377b).

This wasn’t the first such retraction for the journal. In May, they retracted “Conductance Preservation of Carbene-Functionalized Metallic Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes for the same reason:”

This article was withdrawn at the request of the Editor-in-Chief, with agreement by the authors, due to unacceptable overlapwith a previously published paper by the same authors (Small 2011, 7, 1257-1263; DOI:10.1002/smll.201002307) prior to the publication of the article in ACS Nano.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the editors recently published an editorial titled “Recycling Is Not Always Good: The Dangers of Self-Plagiarism.” In it, they walk through what’s wrong with duplicating your own work and passing it off as new. They don’t say how often they’ve seen the practice, but they describe a number of anonymized cases:

The motivation for self-plagiarism is simple and relates back to the overused saying “publish or perish”.7,8 The conflict of interest inherent in a highly competitive system that “counts” papers when promotions and grant proposals are being evaluated can lead to dangerous temptation.

Some researchers — including a number of commenters on this blog — have said that it’s silly that authors can’t re-use sentences in their methodology sections, for example. But intent is important, write the editors:

It all comes down to the central issue of deception; were the authors trying to deceive the editors, the referees, and the readers into presenting recycled data, text, and figures as entirely new material? We understand that experimental sections may run into difficulties of similar textual descriptions, and while care should be taken with the experimental method descriptions, these have not been the source of problems.

The authors also mention a blog we may have to check out. Duplication is a problem, write the editors, because it

may and likely will conclude with getting caught, and, in the most serious cases, manuscripts will be retracted and featured on the Retraction Watch Web site.9 Retraction Watch is a Web site set up by two science journalists, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, who have received international attention for tracking high-profile retractions of papers, many of which were for self-plagiarism. In their invited year-end contribution to Nature entitled “Science Publishing: The Paper is Not Sacred” (December 22, 2011), Marcus and Oransky remind all authors that “peer review continues long after a paper is published”,10 as the scientific community continues to read, to reference, and to scrutinize the literature. With over 150,000 views per month, Retraction Watch has a large following of scientists, editors, and journalists who want to keep the record straight.

Sounds bad! But it’s actually quite simple to avoid ending up on Retraction Watch. Just cite yourself, for goodness’ sake, the editors urge, quoting the ACS’ guidelines, revised last month:

“Authors should not engage in self-plagiarism (also known as duplicate publication); unacceptably close replication of the author’s own previously published text or results without acknowledgement of the source. ACS applies a “reasonable person” standard when deciding whether a submission constitutes self-plagiarism/duplicate publication. If one or two identical sentences previously published by an author appear in a subsequent work by the same author, this is unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication. Material quoted verbatim from the author’s previously published work must be placed in quotation marks. In contrast, it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source. (Modeled with permission from Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics: Authorial Integrity in Scientific Publication)”11

Hat tip: desantoos

13 thoughts on “No small matter: ACS Nano journal growing alarmed by self-plagiarism”

  1. Huh. When I went my local “ACS on Campus” workshop last year, the Editor-in-Chief of one of these journals (don’t think it was ACS Nano, but the situation cannot possibly be so different) replied to my question “How often do you deal with misconduct?” with “Almost never.” Either he wasn’t being very honest, or he should talk to his colleagues. If ACS Nano has retracted 2 papers already and written an editorial, then number of allegations ACS journals receive and papers they investigated cannot be insignificant.

    1. Given the shear number of papers that go into ACS journals, I suspect that you’re right.

      Still, I hate to paint ACS with a single brush. It’s a very large society that covers all subfields of chemistry and chemical engineering. Different subfields of chemistry have very different scientific cultures, use different techniques, receive different kinds of graduate training, and ask different fundamental questions. It would be interesting to look at retraction rates for different subfields of chemistry to see if there’s a real difference.

      I’m also not sure that Nano has a particularly strong reputation. I see a lot of eye-rolling every time the term “nano technology” is used. It’s a term that’s wonderfully under-defined, yet still has overtones of being sexy science. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nano sees a lot more dubious work than the stodgier journals like J. Phys. Chem. or J. Org. Chem. Sadly, few find either organic or physical chemistry sexy these days.

        1. I’d disagree. In the traditional fields, you often have work that can be scrutinized and/or experimentally checked with a reasonable amount of effort (i.e., as it appears the crystallography papers were subject to) and against a backdrop of chemical intuition. In the nano/macro-scale-flavor-of-the-year fields, we’re often dealing with intractably large and/or complex systems for which the reader has little or no way of knowing if the results being reported are in any way reasonable.

    2. sfs makes an excellent point: “Sadly, few find either organic or physical chemistry sexy these days.” This cannot be repeated enough. Just being a solid scientist in a traditional discipline working on real and rigorous problems and applications without hype seems insufficient nowadays, and the problem has existed for at least more than a decade.

      Nano-this/nano-that. Materials science this/materials science that. One sees in many chemistry journals nowadays a plethora of effectively untestable work (almost like string theory). There is all sorts of chemo-fantasization going on in these new ‘nano’ and ‘macromolecular’ interfaces, whether the applications be in biology/medicine or in consumer products. It is particularly amusing in the computational field. We still have difficulty properly describing various chemical systems and their reaction energetics for very small molecules. Yet, one can open any number of journals, particularly those in the nano-fields, and see calculations on what – to a physical chemist – are generally seen as huge systems, and where the authors have done essentially nothing to benchmark their theoretical methods. GIGO applies.

      Overall, this nonsensical ‘need’ to sell and publicize science to other scientists, the public, various government agencies and other funding sources, etc., will be its fatal flaw. Once you need to ‘sell’, there is the unavoidable pressure to manufacture results and/or overstate your findings in order to either get into the game, or to stay in it.

  2. I think self-plagiarism may be more of an issue in review articles, rather than primary research articles. (But one hopes it would not be an issue at all, of course).

    Most good journals have automatic plagiarism checks now, it is one of the easiest forms of misconduct for a journal to pick up.

    1. Every journal worth must display that they automatic plagiarism check with them. When there is positive evidence the authors may be given an opportunity to explain. Proliferation of journals including by ACS is not good for at least readers! Authors may advised to send a list of their publication in the recent past or the editorial team should search the websites of the affliating institues.

      1. Do you think it is substantially different if someone rewrites something by changing words here and there so that it is actually different but is really the same intellectually? That says the same thing? That is something that cannot be detected. Until, of course, we have computers that can “understand” what they read and look for information content matches. I think I was born too early……..

      2. Jane’s Addiction, that’s called “patchwork plagiarism” or “plagiarism by paraphrasing” and we teach our students about them (i.e that one shouldn’t engage in those sins of attempted scholarship!). The plagiarism softwares can certainly detect patchwork plagiarism. If a plagiarist has undertaken plagiarism by paraphrasing to an extent that it’s unidentifiable by plagiarism detection software, then he’s made a pretty heroic effort at reformulating the text and changing the words, and one might wonder why he would bother. I expect such a heavily paraphrased example of plagiarism would appear very “clunky”, and this might itself be noticed by a reviewer.

  3. It is remarkable, though, how often a SciFinder search for a particular reaction or for the synthesis of a particular molecule throws up papers by the same team with the same title (or pretty close) in, e.g. Tet. Letts. and Synthesis, or a Western journal plus a Chinese one. I think this problem is actually surprisingly common.

  4. This is a very good discussion that RW brings up and I agree with what they are flagging. I have seen dozens of self-plagiarized papers here in Brazil. When caught the authors always play the victims claiming they did not know it seen as wrong by “some people”, that now thinking of it they do not think it is wrong in any way, and that there is no other possible way to write two papers on the same subject without repeating oneself. All try to diminish the kind of harm done.

    Self-plagiarism AND salami publication are serious offenses, this is stated everywhere. And it is very easy to avoid that and actually very reasonable to do so. Apparently such authors think that if they were to write a whole book telling of their experiments and line of research, all chapters would look the same. I say either they do not know how to write, or they are simply imoral.

  5. yes, i was surprised that nano articles have not featured on retraction watch earlier than this. When I was writing a review on nanomaterials – i came across so many papers, which I thought to refer, were already retracted. It is expected that there will be a surge in retractions in this field.

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