Should this engineering paper have been retracted?

safetyscienceThe journal Safety Science has retracted a 2013 paper by a group of engineers from Brazil who had published the article previously, albeit in a much abbreviated form, a year earlier.

What makes this case more than a straightforward matter of duplication/self-plagiarism is that the authors greatly expanded upon the earlier article. The initial paper also appeared in a conference proceedings — the  18th World Congress on Ergonomics – Designing a Sustainable Future — priority that, at least in the minds of some, doesn’t really constitute a true publication.

Here’s what the retraction notice has to say about the matter:

This article has been retracted at the request of the Editor-in-Chief.

A shorter version of this paper (about 50% different, it had 5106 words, while this paper has 10,788 words plus 5 original Figures) was submitted to a conference, whose proceedings were published as a special issue of the WORK journal [Work 41 (2012) 3069–3076.]. When submitting the paper to the conference, authors did not noticed that copyright had been automatically granted to this journal. Thus, they did not know the short paper will be published when they submitted an extended version to Safety Science. The third author of the Safety Science paper (Dr. Éder Henriqson) was not co-author of the conference paper, and not aware of its publication in WORK.

We have seen cases in which journals have retracted abstracts from supplement issues. Toxicology, for example, yanked several last year.

We’re tempted to ask whether this is a spat between publishers over copyright rather than a slam-dunk case for retraction. What do you think? Take our poll.

26 thoughts on “Should this engineering paper have been retracted?”

  1. First and foremost they should cite their previous paper/proceedings and clearly describe where the results of the last paper end, and where the new results start. If that is done properly, then it is up to the editor and reviewers to determine whether the new paper is novel enough to warrant publication based on the journal’s standards.

    When previous work is properly cited I think there’s nothing wrong with this mode of publication, given that there is additional value/insight/data in the new paper.

    I find it surprising that the authors weren’t aware that their paper was published (5K words isn’t an extended abstract or something short and meaningless), assuming that there had to be some proofing-approval process.

    1. I agree. An abstract generally is a couple of hundred words; this was a short paper. While the longer one may haave been substantially different, it still should have cited the earlier version.

    2. This is a no-brainer. Retraction was perfectly appropriate. When one submits a longer paper, authors do not “accidentally” forget to report a previous paper. In this case, fogetfulness was intentional, of the authors were careless, or reckless. Authors who fail to declare such previous papers, even if only ONE figure or table was previously published, are, in plain talk, unethical (or, to be gentle, careless). This is not the 1920’s. We live in an age where most higher institutes of learning have courses even dedicated to scientific publishing, ethics and protocol. If authors don’t even know such basic aspects of honesty and publishing protocol then they deserve the retraction. Moreover, if they feign ignorance and add the “I didn’t know what I was doing” mask, then they deserve the retraction even more. What does their research institute say? And what does this say about their research institute?

      Plain copying = unacceptable. Repeating data, tables or figures is acceptable only when full and open declarations of previous data has been openly declared upon submission AND within the submitted paper (perhaps in the Acknowledgements section?).

      Safety Science has done the right ethical thing (as has Elsevier – let’s give Elsevier credit when credit is due), independent of copyrights. However, this story should start to wake scientists up as to how we are simply pawns in the tug-of-war for intellectual property rights (or copyrights). We are nothing any longer, just the industrial machine that pumps out intellectual property for the BIG GRAB.

    3. Dear Lo Mein.
      Please could you explain me why the conference paper appears with a copyright line that reads:
      © 2012 – IOS Press and the authors.
      The “Author Copyright Agreement” released by IOS Press, the Publisher of the conference proceedings, also reads:
      “You may use the article, in whole or in part, as the basis for your own further publications or spoken presentations”.
      For the full agreement, see:
      It’s puzzling, at least for me, because that seems to mean that authors are allowed to use the conference material for future publications, although they are not authorized to do so by Elsevier.

      1. … The thread evolves very quickly, and my comment is now also directed to JATdS, who endorses the retraction (note regarding the poll: I voted no).

        1. My logic Sylvain, is that copyright is secondary. Copyright is used by publishers as a smoke screen. The real, primary issue is duplication. Plain and simple. And lack of declarations to the editor upon submission. And the lack of declarations within the paper itself. Hope this answers your query.

          1. Dear JAT ds
            What’s wrong with addressing different audiences? The whole copyright issue puzzles me. All the expenses incurred during the preparation of any article are paid for by the author’s institution or the funding agency. In addition, different audiences have access to different journals. (No?)

          2. If objective was to address different audiences, or if copyrights belonged to authors, whatever was the case, this repetition should have been made clear in the acks section or as a footnote to the papers front page. Presenting unoriginal material without disclosure is unfair with readers and editors, who may lose time and money on it.

          3. Dear CR

            This seems obvious in hindisght. I did not understand what you meant by losing time and money, if the other paper had more than 5000 original words. Perhaps readers will be more annoyed by finding that they cannot read and cite the full version of the paper.

  2. “…authors did not noticed that copyright had been automatically granted to this journal.”

    Say what- automatically? Unless contracts in the sci publishing world are very, very different from others, the journal would have _print rights_ but not copyright (except the overall compilation right for the entire issue, which does _not_ supersede copyright on an individual article. In the literary world, a contract might confer rights to _specified_ derivative works (i.e.- film versions, sequels, rewrites, etc), but unless that was specified, a derivative — greatly expanded (nearly twice as long with admitted new material) — artuicle would be a new work property of the authors.

    I’d have to see the actual Safety Science contract to be sure, but the journal’s claim strike me as BS. Other than contracted works for hire and inheritance (author dies, estate takes over the copyright), I can’t offhand think of a deal where the journal would own the individual article copyright. I wouldn’t sign such a contract unless the upfront payment was godawful high.

      1. Wow. I took a look at the Elsevier FAQ on author’s rights and responsibilities, along with a similar doc from Wiley-Blackwell. Apparently the “Copyright Right Transfer Agreement”* is the norm in this world. That’s… insane. I can’t imagine that they’d offer me enough money to sign one. “Publish or perish” is clearly worse than I thought, and I’m beginning to understand why so many “authors” try to game the system.

        In this particular case, though, a rational person would expect that this author right:
        “Preparation of derivative works (other than for commercial purposes)”

        …would apply, since they prepared an expanded derivative paper from the short original.

        * I will note that a CTA is still something that has to be signed and is not merely “automatic”.

        1. Carl, an astute observation. If only scientists knew what they were doing when they are signing copyright transfer forms or agreements, then they most likely wouldn’t do it. Knowing all too well the psychology of this intellectual transfer crossroad, what Elsevier and Springer (not sure about Wiley) have now done is a really slimy move that basically traps scientists into forcing them to sign over copyright (whether they like it or not). How, you may ask? When one wants to access the proof of an accepted paper, one has to go through an online questionnaire that, in its many stages, requests the corresponding author to sign the copyright transfer (or pay 2000-3000 US$ to keep their own intellectual rights!!!!) and agree with 100% of all conditions. Of course, which scientist is, at this point of the game, going to say “I don’t agree with the transfer of my intellectual achievement to this company”? I would hazzard a guess. None. So, basically, after months or years of doing research, fighting in some cases a bitter or tough peer review, will any scientist not sign over the copyright just to see their intellect represented as a PDF file? That is why we all press the Elsevier and Springer “Continue” button to access our proofs, in the process signing over all of our intellect in a single mouse click. This is a classical evolution of the sublime to the ridiculous, i.e., bathos.

        2. Carl, I would argue that it isn’t so much “publish or perish” that is responsible for this, as the science community and institutions (universities, research institutes, governments and non-profit/charitable funders) abdicating their responsibilities to a third party: journals. When most journals were published by learned societies, handing over copyright was not a problem, since the community owned the learned societies and all profits were ploughed back into science. The commercial sector grew, to the extent that ISI, originally a not for profit organisation, was absorbed into the commercial sector. This marks a watershed, when people needed to wake up. As ever, they woke up (only some of them!) a few decades later.
          Meanwhile, the commercial sector has become entrenched, is extremely profitable (in the 1990s their journal subscription inflation was around 40% per year, whereas learned societies, mindful of members’ library strained budgets, was around 8%). Many governments and hiring panels, understanding little, use metrics provided by the commercial sector to determine research performance. I have yet to be on a hiring panel where people have not said “S/he published in great journals”, a guarantee that they have not read any of the candidate’s papers. Worse, in many of the “new science” economies and the developing ones, these are used to reward researchers – yes, salary bonus.
          This is a lesson in democracy: we seem to throw away our hard fought gains with ease, out of complacency. The fight back will be long and bloody, if history is anything to go by. I can only encourage people who are making decisions to actually read a few papers, it never hurts…. …and comments if there are any on PubMed and PubPeer…

  3. Conference proceeding first followed by peer-reviewed journal article seems like a good strategy to get important and potentially useful findings out into the world quickly, with the journal article serving to disseminate widely. Given that the paper was also substantially expanded upon, I don’t see an issue. I view proceedings papers as preliminary, with the subsequent journal article as being the complete story. Thought that this was pretty common, especially in human factors and ergonomics. However, I guess the authors might have checked with the editor first to avoid this problem.

  4. There seems to be little alternative to a retraction, on copyright grounds. It seems that 50% of the work is owned by a different journal.

    The lesson is to be careful what you are signing when submitting to conference proceedings. I think they should have known they were barring future publication of the work, but I think it is not too unusual for scientists to be quite innocent of ‘business’ matters.

    If they have 5 figures and 5000 words of novel material, I think they should be able to get a new paper out of it.

  5. ” priority that, at least in the minds of some, doesn’t really constitute a true publication.”

    Publication of conference proceedings is complicated, and may or may not represent ‘publication’.

    If the proceedings are merely abstracts, then I think most people would agree that the reported work remains unpublished and can be considered as ‘novel’ for submission to a journal.

    If, as in this case, the meeting presenters prepare an actual paper which is then published in an actual journal, then I think most people will consider that paper to be the ‘original’ and submission of the same work to another journal would be duplication (or indeed copyright infringement).

    There is unfortunately a huge grey area where conferences publish proceedings that are only distributed at the meeting, and often are in the form of ‘extended abstracts’ rather than full papers. The ethical and legal status of these works is open to interpretation.

    I get around all this myself by two methods: 1) I never attend meetings; and b) as a federal employee my work is not subject to copyright.

  6. I fully agree with Lo Mein’s position and wish to elaborate on failuretoreplicant’s response.

    The problem with conference proceedings’ papers is that these can take a variety of forms: From traditional length abstracts that are about 3/4 of a page long to full IMRD versions of the presented papers. If the latter are of sufficient detail to allow others to replicate the work, and especially if these proceedings are given wide dissemination (e.g., they are published in a journal or the proceedings are freely available), then such a proceedings paper qualifies as a primary publication. As such, any republication of that material, even if it is in expanded form constitutes a case of duplicate publication.

      1. I need an assessment about Acta Horticulturae (, the official publication of the International Society for Horticultural Science ( Would some of the logic and rationale explained above apply to this long-standing “proceedings” journal (now with > 55,000 articles) that carries both an ISSN and an ISBN? I am of the opinion (after post-publication peer review) that many (I can’t quantify better than this because I only have made random samples) papers in Acta Horticulturae contain reams of bad science, in some cases, duplicated data, text, or tables, without due attribution to the original source. Some level of ethical consciousness has been apparent in more recent volumes, but older issues frm about 2010 back are simply attrocious. Yet the ISHS was, until late 2013, fighting aggressively to obtain an impact factor. When Thomson Reuters refused to assign one, then the ISHS turned aggressively against Thomson Reuters, as represented by Prof. Yves Desjardins’ perspectives:

        My query is: if bad science, fake data, duplicated or self-lagiarized data, text, figures or tables are detected in Acta Horticulturae, then should papers be retracted?

        Allow me to give you a clearer example of what I want to say.
        Paper 1: Eeckhaut T, Van Huylenbroeck J (2011) Development of an optimal culture system for callogenesis of Chrysanthemum indicum protoplasts. Acta Physiologiae Plantarum 33(4), 1547-1551
        (copyright Springer)

        Paper 2: Eeckhaut T, Van Huylenbroeck J (2012) Chrysanthemum indicum protoplast callus induction and culture. Acta Horticulturae 961, 139-145
        (copyright ISHS)

        Paper 2 copies I estimate about 90% of the text, data, tables and figures of Paper 1. Paper 2 does, however, include a small new bit of data, but it is a duplicated paper nonetheless. I should add that Paper 1 represents one of the more impecable pieces of chrysanthemum tissue culture research, so this is not about the scientific quality of the research.

        Out of concern of what I was observing, I made a formal query to the ISHS about 4 months ago. Zero action to date. Why would something that I perceive as being a clear-cut case of duplication not be perceived equally by the ISHS? Is there something wrong with my interpretation? Personally, I see two grounds for retraction of Paper 2: a) it duplicates about 90% of a previous paper; b) it violates Springer’s copyright.

        Why should the ISHS continue to make profit (actual or hypothetical) from PDF downloads of a paper whose copyright belongs to Springer?

        Input by a copyright specialist or lawyer would advance the conversation immensely amongst scientists on this blog.

        Isn’t it time that a council with an ethical conscience be voted in at the ISHS?

        1. PS: I have recently called for urgent increased post-publication peer review in plant science ( primarily because we are not only dealing with lack of ethics by authors, we are also dealing with chronic lack of responsibility be editors, flawed peer reviews, and failure by publishers to do the right thing. That means that the scientific community now has to take the “law” of science publishing ethics into its own hands. Step aside COPE. We can do the job for free.

          1. A quick read on COPE’s website will show that membership is paid annually and there are possibly other $$ sources. This is a private organisation.

  7. I can´t see who benefits from this retraction. Authors have their reputation damaged. Editor/Publisher have their credibility affected by posting an ambiguous retraction notice – as this discussion shows, they may have been too rigorous (an erratum or corrigendum could have been suficiente, COPE gives this option for honest errors). Also, readers are deprived from citing the full version of the paper. I think we should be more critical of the super powers granted to editors and publishers.

  8. Self-plagiarism is acceptable within certain limits, and it may be even desirable in certain portions of the paper. Journals should indicate which their threshold of self-plagiarism is and how authors can check if they are OK. Publishing extended versions of conference papers in journals is also accepted practice everywhere. Journals even encourage that by asking the authors of the best conference papers to submit extended versions of their papers. It seems that sometimes editors behave like blind rule-followers. This could not be more inadequate for a safety journal. The result of the pool is clear about the dominant perception in this blog.

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