Famous Harvard economist reused parts of 2002 paper multiple times, says journal

Michael Jensen

A former Harvard economist and co-founder of a massive repository of free papers in social sciences has been accused of reusing similar material over multiple papers.

The three papers share the same title. According to an investigation by one of the journals, two papers by Michael Jensen, now an emeritus faculty member at Harvard, are “close-to-identical,” while another includes a “substantial amount of overlapping content.” None of the three papers cite the others.

The journal, Business Ethics Quarterly, has added an editorial notice to a 2002 paper by Jensen, noting its similarity to a 2001 paper and another 2001 paper. The notice states an earlier version of the paper was published by Harvard Business School Press. The editor surmises that all three journals were “more or less simultaneously vetting versions of the Jensen article.”

Jensen is the co-founder of the Social Science Research Network (SSRN), a repository of more than 800,000 papers that has been named the “Number 1 Open Access Repository in the World.” SSRN was purchased by Elsevier in 2016.

We spoke with Jensen briefly by phone; he denied submitting the same paper to three journals simultaneously:

[That] certainly doesn’t sound like something I would do…It was not part of my policy to have things published willy-nilly and in multiple places.

He noted that he was traveling and hadn’t had time to examine the notice in detail yet.

BEQ editor Bruce Barry at Vanderbilt University told us:

Redundant publication did occur here, and …knowingly doing so is presumptively grounds for retraction. But as I observe in that published explanation, this situation is complicated by a mixture of factors having to do with the circumstances under which the article came to be considered for publication, and also clouded by the vague memories and imperfect records involved in a publication decision make so long ago. In light of these circumstances, further efforts to ascertain agency and apportion specific blame are unlikely to be conclusive.

We asked about the journal’s decision to issue an Expression of Concern (EOC), often perceived as a temporary notice until the journal determines if the paper is problematic and takes more definitive action:

EOCs have a role to play as an intermediate measure short of retraction: they allow the editor to make public an issue with a published article that will become part of the permanent archived record of that article. In this case, while we did not elect to retract the paper, we did regard it as essential to have our concern about redundant publication attached permanently to the archived version of the article. An EOC is the appropriate way to do so. We will not be taking further action on this paper beyond the published EOC.

The journal was alerted to the article by Michael Dougherty of the Ohio Dominican University, who has alerted journals to other issues in the past. (Update, 6/12/18: Read an interview with Dougherty about these efforts.) He told us:

I was alerted to the Jensen case by a colleague who didn’t wish to get involved, but who was irked about having to cite the same paper in three versions that appeared in print within a matter of months.

Dougherty added that duplication matters — even after years have gone by:

In my view, duplicate publications harm researchers by creating inefficiencies. Time is wasted when researchers wade through various iterations of the same work. Duplicate publications also take valuable space in journals, displacing original work by others that might otherwise have been published. This practice can create an illusion of productivity for authors, distort future meta-analyses, and violate copyright, in addition to wasting the time of manuscript reviewers and resources of publishers. When editors of journals issue retractions or EOCs for duplicate publications, they correct the scholarly record and let readers know that undisclosed duplicate publication is professionally unacceptable.

Jensen is the namesake of the “Jensen Prizes,” awarded to the best papers of the year published by the Journal of Financial Economics. He was an early advocate of paying executives in stock options — a practice he later came to criticize.

His papers have collectively been cited more than 37,000 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. One of Jensen’s papers, “Theory of firm – managerial behavior, agency costs and ownership structure,” has been cited more than 14,000 times since it was published in 1976.

The BEQ paper, “Value Maximization, Stakeholder Theory, and the Corporate Objective Function,” has been cited 526 times since it was published in 2002.

More than 10 years ago, Jensen demanded a public apology after alleging a journal published a paper that had plagiarized his own work.

Recently, another prominent researcher in his field, psychologist Robert Sternberg of Cornell, has faced accusations of duplication, along with excessively citing his own work.

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