Ask Retraction Watch: Can authors republish their own previous work as as review?

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

Another installment of Ask Retraction Watch:

In journal club, we have been discussing a review paper on recent previous publications by the review’s authors. Basically this was a short review summarizing the findings of a few other papers by the same authors on a given topic. The images presented and textual narrative essentially repeated published contents with slight modifications, wrapping up with expected future developments on the topic.

My question: Is a review paper “allowed” to reintroduce previously published contents, and if so, to what extent? And should it be slightly modified (e.g. to avoid copyright problems) or be presented in the same exact manner?

Take our poll, and comment below.

[polldaddy poll=7505610]

31 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: Can authors republish their own previous work as as review?”

  1. As long as it is cited and clearly described in the text as a previous work, I think it’s cool as long as you don’t copy paste half a paper. This refers to reviews and not regular papers.

    1. So a review on four previous papers could then repeat 1/4 of each. Writing up a review suddenly seems much easier than I previously assumed.

      1. Well, Harp, if you are the proud owner of 4 papers that make up the total literature on a particular topic, then that actually does make you pretty exclusive! However, I doubt that most journals (respectable ones, I mean), will allow for a 4-paper review, and I have certainly never seen one. I am in agreement with most comments here, that provided that the wording is in most cases different, or where the exact same words are listed in “quotation marks”, followed by the appropriate full source of the text, table, data set or figure, there is absolutely no ethical or legal problem. Regarding the legal aspect, one may have to seek explicit permission (previously as written proof, nowadays an e-mail will suffice) to re-use published data-, tables or figures from copyright holders, namely the publisher, except for Create Commons agreements in which the authors hold their own copyright. I wonder how this rule would apply to US Government scientists and Crown (UK, Canada, Australia) scientists who usually do not sign over copyright? Maybe a copyright specialist could provide some commentary on this here. My comments would refer to medium size or large reviews. Actually, I noticed 6 thumbs down to Harp’s comment, and then decided to re-read the original entry more carefully. Indeed, Harp may actually have a point here. It states “a review paper on recent previous publications “, which suggests that the authors have possibly and deliberately manipulated the literature so as to only show-case their own work. Clear rules on the exact number of words that authors can “plagiarize” or “self-plagiarize” should be set. This could be such an easy rule to follow. I suggest < 5% of total text size is acceptable, provided that the text is in quotation marks and with due attribution to the source. However, I have personally seen cases described above where the authors pick up on their latest developments, and write up a quick few-page review and aim for some high level (i.e., IF) journal. We should actually watch these cases, and follow the money trail, too. In countries like China, India, Iran or Japan, publications of these "snap" reviews may be a very lucrative business and could rake in good research funds. So, I suggest that in the future, when examining any case, that a NEW element be introduced into the ethical discovery of plagiarism or self-plagiarism: how much money (or other tangible benefits) are the authors making from the review?

        1. Thanks for seeing my point! I do think the label “mini-review” has been used quite often to make “salami/self-plagiarism” official in my field. But, alas, it seems scientific community does tolerate that.

  2. I don’t see anything ethically or morallly wrong with summarising earlier work, so long as it is clearly noted that it is not “new” work. It shouldn’t make a difference whether the bulk of that work is the author’s own work or work from another group (although of course it would be nice to have one’s work validated by results being affirmed by unrelated researchers).

  3. Concerned with the usage of previously published figure, one has to get permission from the publisher (not the author or the journal) where it was presented for the first time. This will avoid any potential copyright issues. I was asked to do get the permission to use previously published representations in review article, in my thesis book.

  4. Such a review can and should summarize the authors’ own work and include all citations. Using Identität pics may or may not need to ASK the original publisher for a permissiven to re-use the copyrighted material which may only need a correct citations. For writing a review and using others’ original figures this may differ a lot, from no fee at all to 1500 USD per figure. Reviewers may sometimes update their original figures, but I do not see any major problem here.

  5. I always thought of a proper review as an enlightening work focusing on rather lengthy literature, usually including several papers from different groups. Lately I have been seeing quite a few “short reviews” on 3-10 papers from the same authors, where basically they tell their story once again with small alterations. I took those in with a taste of salami. However most here seem to state this is OK, thus the category review indeed offers a good opportunity to get another one paper on a series, usually with a bit higher impact factor…

    1. I think most assume that the Editor is either OK with it, or even actively asked this to be written. Makes citations easier: only one paper to cite rather than 3-10. Not good for the journals that published those papers, of course, as they see the journal with the mini-selfpromotional-review get all the credits.

  6. Does the review serve a useful purpose? I believe an experienced researcher can do a wonderful job critiquing her/his own papers and put the work within a larger body of similar work. Such a review will be valuable. Otherwise, seems like a waste of a lot of people’s time. I believe guidance from the journal’s handling editor or even the editor-in-chief will be needed. Having said that, some authors will go shopping for the journal that shows the least resistance and publish a “regurgitation” instead of a useful review.

  7. I agree with Frank. As long as the paper is more than the sum of its parts, it can assess the previous research and put it in a larger context. If it is just a repeat of earlier work, it is not a new contribution.

    1. I agree with Frank and Charles. Who was the author of the previous work shouldn’t matter much in principle. However, the review should add something that isn’t there in the literature yet. If it is a messy field, an organised descriptive overview alone already adds a lot. Otherwise, a paper should for instance point out areas where previous publications agree and where they differ, offer possible interpretations of the results that agree and reasons why other results may differ between studies, and provide an outlook and suggestions where future research should focus. Of course, the problem is that if authors have published all the literature that they review themselves, that they won’t be adding much, but just repeat what they said before.
      I was guest-editing a special issue recently when this happened to me. Authors essentially rewrote a previous paper from scratch (no copy/paste, I admit), applied their idea to a slightly different dataset (the paper was about the idea, not the data, though), and submitted. It was all the more complicated because this was an invited submission and we had had preceding correspondence in which I had pointed out that either an original paper or a review would be okay. The authors argued that their previous paper was original, but the present paper was a review. Fortunately, the reviewers pointed out that this paper was mostly a summary of the previous one. I felt I had to reject, although I offered to resubmit a review with bigger scope (which the authors couldn’t, given the deadline of the issue). But that was not the nicest way to being introduced into editing.

  8. Paraphrasing and summarising previous work is fine. It used to be common before the internet, because the only way for many to get access to papers was through a reprint request via snail mail. In those days university libraries were often decentralised, located in departments. So really, really closed access! Such summaries of the authors work and related papers was a useful way to see what was going on in other fields to which one probably didn’t have access. For figures, you need to either supply entirely new data or simply use the original figures, with permission form the publisher or authors (if OA) and these permissions need to be lodged with the publisher of the review.
    As to the utility of summarising a few papers, it isn’t worth the trouble and it will not do your CV any good. Any decent hiring panel will look at the papers and such a review will score no points and may even pull you down. Summarising your own work and that of others and providing some degree of interpretation across the dataset is however a useful activity.

  9. Even if there is full transparency and no issues related to copyright, some might still question whether reusing substantial portions of text from our own previous publications in a new publication constitutes acceptable scholarship. In my view, it does not. I think that a very limited amount of reused text may be deemed acceptable, but only when such text is highly technical in scope as, for example, when it comes from a complex methodological description.

  10. A review is not a repeat and summary of previous work. It is also a synthesis, whereby putting the knowledge together one achieves further insight. At least it should be digestible such that a user can find all needed in one place in a concise manner. Given this main purpose of such review some repetition is purposeful, acceptable and allowed, on the condition that it serves the main purpose of synthesis.

  11. 15% of respondents to the poll say it is not ok even with the caveats. I wonder what the justification for this is? Also, it would be interesting to see this in context – would it be possible to get a link to the original paper?

    1. I think PJTV puts it best in terms of the main purpose of a review (e.g., synthesis of existing data, yielding new insights). My objection with the reuse of significant amounts of previously disseminated material is that such behavior conveys scholarly laziness and possibly an attempt to game the system (vita padding). Sure, reuse of tables, figures, and even some highly technical descriptions is unavoidable in such instances. But, assuming that there are no issues with the authors’ ability to express themselves in writing, when I see wholesale copy-pasting with the pretext that ‘there are so many ways to same the same thing’ or because ‘that is the best way to convey the information’, then I begin to get suspicious about the true motives for publishing the piece and if I were an editor I would be very mindful of this type of behavior.

      1. I agree with this but… given that it is a review, one would imagine that the editor would be fully aware of this issue. It’s not like this is an unsolicited original submission where an editor might not be aware that there is overlap. Presumably, the editor requested this paper as a synthesis of the current literature. I should also say that I would be envious of a researcher who has a large enough body of work in one field to warrant this kind of a publication… kudos. Again, though, it would be more informative if we knew exactly what we were talking about here. Is it a summary of 2-3 papers only with no outside references or a complete summary of the literature on a topic that the review’s editor has published heavily in?

        1. I would still stand by my objection regardless of whether the review was invited or unsolicited. But, I do agree that it would be very useful to have more details about the scenario in question.

  12. Isn’t it generally considered poor form to write a review on your own work, except to contrast it with someone else’s? Also, while not directly related… my uber pet peeve is when people sneak new experimental data into review papers… this should be disallowed 100%…

    1. “when people sneak new experimental data into review papers” — I have seem such a case before. A group of authors reviewed the body of literature they have been working with, suggested the existence of a certain experimental/results pattern and devised a test to demonstrate their point. Why should this be allowed?

      1. “A group of authors reviewed the body of literature they have been working with, suggested the existence of a certain experimental/results pattern and devised a test to demonstrate their point. ”

        This sounds to me exactly like what is done for an original research article! Several times, I’ve seen data snuck into a review, where there is rarely space for appropriate methods or full followup experiments. The interpretation of these experiments then gets backhanded into the literature and codified. In my opinion, if you have new data, you should find a journal format that suits it. Just an experiment or two? Brief communication! Does it need to be prefaced with an extensive lit review? Find a journal that allows long introductions. If you really need to review the body of literature AND suggest and perform an experiment… why not do both and publish two papers that make unique and independent contributions?

        (ps – one time I even read a review that included a statement about an experiment performed, the only “new” data in the paper, and then data not shown’ed it.)

  13. Eh, a review _by definition_ restates and discusses previous work, so this is a non-question. Perhaps a better question would be: what is the point of a review where the author only reviews their own work? Unless the review author is discussing and comparing work from other groups as well, then the editor should reject the review as being unnecessary.

  14. I am in the start of such a project. We ran a clinical trial from 2001-2004, published 35-40 papers from it, and now will publish a summary paper. This is perfectly acceptable, and will be a contribution which pulls the rest together.

  15. There is no difference whether this is review (invited, giving insights, synthetical, “sneaking new data”, etc.) or any other paper. There are no rules, and none should be, justifying ethical “concerns” or patronage and prohibiting the authors publishing the same stuff again. There is no such thing as self-plagiarism.
    You send the paper and journal decides to publish or not to publish. Journal should publish if the paper can find enough readers, period. The only concern here is that journal cannot violate the copyright of the previous publisher (and it’s not the authors’ problem). Now, the copyright is not a scientific item at all. It’s a purely commercial right: you should not make money on printing copies if others have this exclusive right. That’s all about it.

    Copyright now has turned into ugliest business. Practically, laws are introduced that make the heritage of our civilisation “owned” by a few who have nothing to do with this heritage. They now prohibit to use this heritage by all the rest of humanity. Only a couple of museums made the right move: Rijksmuseum published tens of thousands of paintings for people to copy. Science will be the last to wake up.

    1. What about the republication of the same paper? I know of one person who published (before the internet) in widely separated journals. His resume padding allowed him to get a better position at a better university. I certainly would state that this person made contributions, but the padding was not appropriate. Other groups republish the same thing in different areas.

      1. The problem is related to the unthinking methods of assessment. Everyone should write a short resume of his achievements, supported by the publications. In this case it wouldn’t matter how many times the achievements were republished.

  16. I think it is o.k. as long as
    a) it is clearly marked as review
    b) it makes use of the original work to bring it in a general context which results from the collection of the single works
    c) has some new unpublished informations which are not worth to be published separately, but give additional information and support of the outline of the review
    And it is o.k. especially when it is an invited review.

  17. I was invited to contribute a paper to a Festschrift in honour of my PhD supervisor. In the invitation the editors said, direct quote: “A survey about your work in some particular research area would be ideal.” Those are somewhat special circumstances, but in those circumstances I’d see absolutely no problem with submitting such a review. In fact I didn’t – I ended up writing a more broad review of a field I’ve worked in – but doing so entailed citing a number of my own papers and many more by my supervisor’s other students. I think the ethical issue, as with all plagiarism, comes down to *deception*. A review paper consisting entirely of your own previous work may or may not be valuable, but if you make clear what it is and you don’t present it as anything else, without deception it’s not academic misconduct.

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