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Good practices

Dealing with self-plagiarism

DANIEL BUENOThe Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) is a forum for editors of scientific journals that deals with ethics in research. COPE released guidelines for dealing with “text recycling,” a euphemism for the concept of self-plagiarism, which is the practice authors use to copy sections of their old articles into new manuscripts. With the advent of plagiarism detection software, this dishonest practice has become easy to identify and a challenge for editors, who need to take action when they find evidence that previously published articles or manuscripts submitted for publication are being reused.

The guidelines were produced by the BioMed Central publications platform and were commissioned by COPE. The guidelines consider it acceptable to copy excerpts from the introduction, including methods and even the discussions section. The use of similar or identical phrases in these sections, according to the document, may even be unavoidable in some situations, for example, when authors use a technique that they have already described in the past, or when the article is one of several that they produced on a given topic. However, if duplication is detected in the hypothesis, results, conclusions or graphs, there is a chance that the contribution by the paper is not original, and that is unacceptable.

The document states that each case must be analyzed in its context. “In general, editors must consider the amount of text that was recycled. The reuse of a few sentences is not the same as the verbatim repetition of many paragraphs, although large percentages of recycled text in the methods are more acceptable than the same percentage of recycled text in the discussion sections,” according to the guidelines.

When self-plagiarism is detected in a manuscript submitted for publication, editors may either do nothing or ask the author to rewrite the repeated portions if the recycling is deemed insignificant or justified. If a significant amount of text is reused and if it suggests that the contribution by the article is not new, the course of action is to reject the manuscript and to inform the author of the reasons for doing so.

If the problem is found in articles already published, editors should consider the possibility of publishing a correction or retracting the article, which means canceling its publication. Correction is the appropriate course of action if there is sufficient original material in the article to justify publication. Omitted citations should be inserted and clarification should be provided for the portion that was rejected. However, in extreme cases, which COPE considers rare, it may be necessary to retract the article. When copying is extensive, the originality of the article is called into question and/or copyrights are breached. However, the guidelines warn that recycling as a practice was tolerated in past decades. In deciding whether or not to take action, editors should take into account how long ago the article was written and the fact that the practice was accepted when the article was published.