Oh, the irony: Paper on “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process” retracted for duplication

manage org reviewIn a case whose irony is not lost on those involved, an article about publishing ethics has been retracted because one of the authors re-used material he’d written for an earlier piece.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.

Here’s the notice for “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process: Myths, Facts, and a Roadmap,” published in 2011 by Marshall Schminke and Maureen L. Ambrose:

The above article from Management and Organization Review, published online 7 SEP 2011, has been retracted by agreement between the authors, the journal’s outgoing Editor-in-Chief Anne Tsui, the journal’s incoming Editor-in-Chief Arie Y. Lewin, and John Wiley & Sons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.

Schminke says he “can’t begin to convey how embarrassing this has been, both personally and professionally.” The irony “of this happening in a special issue on publishing ethics, involving pieces written in service to the profession, is not lost on us.” He closes:

Failure to cite prior work properly, even when it’s yours, does not meet those expectations. Don’t let it happen to you.

And the editors — who have made both papers available here and here — end with:

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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10 thoughts on “Oh, the irony: Paper on “Ethics and Integrity of the Publishing Process” retracted for duplication”

  1. There is a deeper truth behind this: Having a professional focus on ethics does not make you behave more ethically. This is based on the work of philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel, who showed that ethics professors, although they espouse higher moral standards than other people, do not behave any better in everyday life. He tested their behavior on several moral issues, among others staying in touch with one’s mother, vegetarianism, organ and blood donation, charitable giving, and honesty in responding to survey questionnaires. Ethicists expressed higher standards; however, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the comparison groups. He also found that relatively obscure, contemporary ethics books of the sort likely to be borrowed mainly by professors and advanced students of philosophy were actually about 50% more likely to be missing (meaning, stolen) in academic libraries than non-ethics books. Schwitzgebel is still struggling for an explanation of this counterintuitive outcome, which smacks of hypocrisy.


    1. Very interesting. I have thought of ethics as a “not walking the talk” profession. Perhaps what it indicates is the inner struggle of primordial desires VS self image. In a sense we are all apes in suits with credentials, but
      this is just a new invention. Primordial desires have been developed over millions of years and are not that easily repressed.

      1. Allow me to translate from the peanut gallery: a carefully crafted, perfectly worded (to minimize damage to all parties involved) weak excuse.

        In many ways, this calls into question the value systems and criteria required to become an ethicist. These “ethics” departments, why do they even exist? Surely, ethics should form part of a compulsory course in 101 of every discipline in university? What training, criteria and experience make the profiles of “official” ethicists acceptable? How are ethicists vetted to the editor boards of “ethics” journals? Why can those who are not “expert” ethicists serve on the board of “ethics” journals? Why should “ethics” be commercialized, as COPE does through “membership”, giving “members” (aka the paying clients, the journals and publishers) have a higher moral authority to the author base? Ethics… mmm… this story really does make you think what it is, who has the power to be “ethically” superior, and how “ethics” is being weaponized in science publishing. It is no longer a concept. It is beyond a tool. It is a weapon now. Schminke and Ambrose are “expert” ethicists. But they committed an unethical act, validated or not. Surely, “experts” with such positions are supposed to quit their jobs when their practice does not match their theory because basically they have been preaching what was not practiced.

        What does the University of Central Florida have to say?
        How does this ethical faux-pas affect his editorial position on editor boards?:

        Should editors who have misconduct on their CVs, as Schminke and Ambrose now have, be allowed to continue to serve on editor boards? How would this affect trust in the system? Perhaps the answer could originate from one of Ambrose and Schminke’s co-authored literary works:
        http://webuser.bus.umich.edu/dmmayer/Published%20Articles/Ambrose,%20Schminke,%20%26%20Mayer%20in%20press.pdf, particularly the paragraph “The premise of trickle-down models is that the experience of one individual in an organization affects his or her perceptions of the organization as well as his or her behavior toward other individuals. For example, individuals who feel fairly treated by their organization are more likely to engage in positive behavior, including fair behavior directed at others. Those other individuals will then perceive they are more fairly treated, which ultimately translates into additional positive behavior. Thus, the experiences one individual has with the organization and its representatives “trickles down” to affect other individuals.” (p 4 of the PDF).

        Surely, the content of all publications by Schminke and Ambrose should be closely scrutinized now? For example: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/books.htm?chapterid=1757216 (such content is not easy to access freely, but should be made available freely for the publishing community to analyze). Would the authors consent to making their full publishing CV available for post-publication peer review by independent analyses?

        On Dr. Ambrose’s CV http://www.bus.ucf.edu/faculty/mambrose/page/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx there is an impressive list of editorial functions, which makes me wonder what ethical guidance had been given to fellow editors and authors. Also, several of those editor functions are listed as date XYZ-present. Is this list factually correct and does it reflect the actual editorial functions on the editor boards it claims?
        http://academic.research.microsoft.com/Author/11115963/maureen-l-ambrose (alot of papers, with alot of citations, but still, that unnerving feeling now that how could such a seasoned and highly qualified ethicist make such a basic ethical error?).

        Of course, this indicates that potentially any paper published under the umbrella of John Wiley & Sons, or now Wiley-Blackwell could contain self-plagiarism or plagiarism, because it appears as if there were no safety and quality control nets in place to verify such aspects during peer review. This provides, yet again, the fallibility of the traditional peer review system, even by this mega-publisher.

        It is precisely because of the existence of this type of case, in which the gate-keepers are guilty of infraction that they are enforcing upon their authorship, independent of the excuse given, or its validity, that Dr. David Resnik’s project would be a massive mistake to look only at the gate-keepers for keys and solutions to the problems facing retractions and misconduct more broadly. Ironically, it seems, in this case, that the students are more alert about the literature than the ethicists.

  2. “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.”

    Similarities in ideas – now there is a retraction minefield (for most)!

  3. Is this the academic equivalent of complaining that a political candidate has given the same stump speech in two towns? These were editorial comments, not research data. I understand that the research community considers this unethical and I assume he warranted that his text was original so I understand the retraction but I don’t really understand the sense of betrayal evoked above.

    If the editors found his commentary novel enough to publish…

  4. Two thoughts:
    1) The previous commenter doesn’t understand what’s wrong with giving a similar stump speech twice. What he fails to note is what the educators described near the end of this article: there’s nothing wrong with using one’s own material, as long as the earlier usage is properly cited.

    2) The interesting anecdotes of ethicists having no better real-world practice than others brings to mind a short yet deep response given me by a leader in India when I asked why they are unable to provide clean water in cities that are chock full of highly educated, experienced, motivated scientists, engineers, etc.

    His answer: “because an educated scoundrel is still a scoundrel.”

    Education instills knowledge and even the ability to learn. But there’s something deeper beyond education. If we ignore the underlying spiritual values and ethics required of a civil society, we lose something of crucial worth.

  5. As is pointed about above, ideas often mature slowly. If its not surprising if similar ideas are repeatedly expressed in subsequent papers, each taking the development of the idea a step futher.

    The problem with rigorous self-citation is that one will be accused of pumping up the citation count for those papers. Repeated citation of yourself always draws looks of contempt in the journal club I attend.

  6. I’d like to advocate separating this incident from a “look, ethics professors are unethical!” discussion. I am familiar with the data about the behavior of ethics professors and I’m prepared to accept it. But I find some of the comments here troubling in the ease with which they’re castigating the authors and tossing terms like “scoundrel” around.

    I think the incident actually raises a different set of questions: should we really lump “auto-plagiarism” with plagiarism? And, can we really make no distinction between unattributed copying from another of swathes of text and, on the other hand, hewing to a central set of claims one has developed over years? After all, a central point of academic work is to choose specialty areas and spend time thinking about them. When I look at the work my professors, colleagues, and I myself have produced over the decades, there is remarkable similarity in many of one’s own publications – not because of cheap recycling of text, but rather because, having spent time on an issue, one has a considered opinion about it, and there are only so many ways of saying the same thing. As “Italian outcast” said above, “similarities in ideas” is a potential retraction minefield for this reason.

    1. Right, Lisa. “Auto-plagiarism” (“self-plagiarism”) is NOT PLAGIARISM, which is defined as use of SOMEONE ELSE’S ideas or words or data without appropriate attribution. There might be a copyright infringement, although I advised on a case in which both editors disagreed with such a conclusion, given the different audiences and focus for the pairs of articles, and the institution agreed that there was no misconduct.

  7. Only about 1/4 of the article was copied, which is not as bad those that copy 90% or more. I wonder if those involved considered just issuing a correction that added quotation marks and references where needed ?

    Is this ever done in cases of self-plagiarism ?

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