On the Multiple Publication of Academic Research

The topic came up in a recent conversation of the ethical issues surrounding what is sometimes erroneously called self-plagiarism, but is more accurately called duplicate publication (or multiple publication or even redundant publication). This refers to the situation in which an author publishing their own intellectual material (specifically research results) more than once in different journals or other media. This is distinct from plagiarism, which involves an author publishing someone else’s intellectual material without attribution. It is also distinct from copyright violation, which can occur if the author tries to re-use material already published in a journal that has retained the copyright; the solution in that case is simply not to publish in a journal that does that.

Publication practice differs widely in different academic fields so in what follows I’ll concentrate on what applies in Physics & Astronomy. Here there is one type of publication, the Conference Proceedings, in which papers are often near-duplicates of others. That is because speakers tend to give the same or very similar talks at different conferences, and also tend to recycle material when writing up their contributions. I see nothing particularly wrong in that, although one wonders whether a plethora of versions of the same talk is needed. I stopped writing conference papers over a decade ago as they take a lot of time to do and I don’t think they fulfil any useful purpose. In any case such articles should not count as research publications, especially if they are not peer-reviewed (which is generally the case in Astronomy). I know this is different in other fields. In Computer Science, for example, the conference article is one of the main modes of research publication.

The more serious issue is when a researcher publishes (or tries to publish) multiple versions of the same research in different journals in an attempt to pad out their publication list by passing off old material as original research. This is difficult to do nowadays because of plagiarism detection software, but not all journals deploy such tools and some cases do get through the editorial process and make it into the journal as a publication. Sometimes this even happens with high-profile journals.

The question is how one reacts to this kind of multiple publication. I did a totally unscientific social media poll recently and the results were quite interesting. Of my respondents, about 20% said that they thought multiple publication was fine. About 30% thought that multiple publication constituted academic misconduct, and about 50% thought that it wasn’t fine but fell short of academic misconduct.

I suppose the definition of research misconduct varies from one institution to another. For reference here is what it says in Maynooth University’s Research Integrity Policy statement:

Publication of multiplier papers based on the same set(s) or sub-set(s) of data is not acceptable, except where there is full cross-referencing within the papers. An author who submits substantially similar work to more than one publisher must disclose this to the publishers at the time of submission.

The document also specifically refers to “Artificially proliferating publications” as an example of research misconduct.

In the past I would have posted a poll on here but I now have to pay $15 per month for the privilege of hosting a poll so with regret I’ve unblocked my Twitter account to let you vote there:

One reason people might be tempted to indulge in multiple publication stems from the fact that the current system of research assessment depends so much on bibliometric indicators relating to refereed publications. While I regret the emphasis on bibliometrics, I do think that multiple publication of research papers is indeed academic misconduct because artificially boosting the number of such items on one’s CV might be a way of gaming the system. It seems to me that such a strategy is unlikely to work, but I have seen people try it.

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9 Responses to “On the Multiple Publication of Academic Research”

  1. I sometimes encounter the opposite problem – I later realise that something I published as a component of a larger paper should really have been published as a separate paper. Stuff can get overlooked this way and when you try and publish the finding separately and in more detail, your own previous work can be a problem for the referees!

  2. I’m genuinely confused about how 50% of people can think that something can be both ‘not OK’ and ‘not misconduct’.

    It’s not OK because the only *possible* reason for publishing *the same* material in multiple journals is to pad your publication list — in exactly the same way as copying other people’s work would — in order to gain some career advantage over people who don’t do that. You are taking an action that benefits you by harming others. That’s kind of the definition of misconduct in this context.

    (I have also been in Cormac’s position but I think you can be very clear that you are separating the earlier piece of work out and adding details and probably new analysis… if the new work is significant enough it should be publishable.)

    • telescoper Says:

      I interpret that 50% as people who think multiple publication is not acceptable practice but falls short of misconduct in the sense of constituting a disciplinary offence. I suppose the definition of research misconduct varies from institution to institution. I’ve just added a statement from Maynooth University.

  3. When I was doing my D.Phil 50(!) years ago I came across a whole series of papers in different journals reporting the results of a sounding rocket flight. The contents were practically indistinguishable but the authors appeared in a different order on each paper.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dear Dr ****, We are publishing a book of selected papers on topic xxxx and we would like to include your prominent paper on the subject from 199*. May we include it please?

    Dear Editor, Yes of course you may. I am honoured to have my paper included in such company.

    Dear Dr ****, Our antiplagiarism software reports that you have plagiarised yourself. At ***** University we take this very seriously. Please report to the Vice Chancellor immediately.

    • The problem in that scenario is more likely to be that the author of that paper doesn’t own the copyright so can’t legally consent to republication.

      • Republication – a publication by Trump?

        Many many years ago, I refereed a paper for a major journal, which was subsequently published. Some time later I found basically the same results by the same authors in another journal. I reported this to the editor but nothing happened. Given that when you submit a paper for publication you are asked to confirm that the results are original and not published elsewhere, then it is clearly not something people should do. If the paper contains results from another paper by the authors, but does extend the work in some way, then that is fine – but reference the other paper.

        Conference papers are different, and i think it is acceptable to have results in a conference paper and then to publish these in a journal – not everyone has access to conference proceedings. (Although you can post the paper on-line nowadays so perhaps that argument no longer applies. I think you see fewer and fewer published conference proceedings these days, and even then it is only a subset of papers that are published. Review articles in these are particularly useful, especially to new people entering the field such as PhD students).

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Clearly I did it illegally…

  5. Not straightforward. There are now journals that cover conference papers but which ‘referee’ the papers and require that they contain ‘new’ results. A preliminary result in such a conference paper may turn out to be the correct one, but that does not mean the final result should not be published.

    There are also cases where a result has been chopped into tiny bits so several authors can have a first-author paper. These papers contain a lot of duplication. That is the issue of the minimum publishable increment – it can be rather small. The five papers on the JWST exoplanet last week may be an example. Such a multiplication does wonders for the citation rates, but can become quite annoying.

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