Let no-one else’s work evade your eyes
So don’t shade your eyes
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize –
Only be sure, always to call it please ‘research’.
The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) uses a working definition of plagiarism as “When somebody presents the work of others (data, words, or theories) as if they were his/her own and without proper acknowledgment.” Its flowcharts advise editors how to handle submitted or published papers by authors found to have plagiarized the work of others.a No mention is made of the issue raised by Saidman and his anonymous colleagues, namely plagiarism in successive editions of a textbook. Readers will also search in vain for guidance from other organizations dedicated to publishing and scientific integrity, such as the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), and the Council of Science Editors (CSE). Hence, there is only anecdotal evidence on the extent of the problem.
This is hardly surprising, because their primary concern is with journal articles. However, with more and more editors and journals from the humanities (liberal arts) joining COPE, the issue of books and book chapters has been raised as an important issue. Between 1997 and 2012, the COPE Forum, a quarterly meeting at which members discuss submitted cases, 2 of 47 classified as plagiarism do involve books.b
In one case (case #12–25), authors A and B published a book (in German) in 1993. In 2006, B authored a book (in English). A complained that this included plagiarized material written by him in the 1993 book. The publishers withdrew B’s book but, apparently, later told B this was a “mistake” on their part and transferred copyright to B. In 2010, B and C published a textbook containing material from the 2006 book and were then faced with an allegation by A that this too represented plagiarism.
In the second case (case #8–30), a distinguished author and presenter of training courses for authors and editors alleged that a textbook contained unattributed text based on course material that he had distributed (under copyright) to attendees. In this case, the publishers agreed to insert an erratum into subsequent editions, apologizing for not obtaining permission.
The discussion forum of WAME has approached this area tangentially in debating the practice of an author repeating all or some of his own textbook chapter in a subsequent textbook produced for a different publisher.c In such a case there might be a significant issue of breach of copyright but, as Saidman et al.1 concede, quoting Shafer,2 such “self-plagiarism” or “text recycling” is at the lowest end of culpability, ethically speaking. Discussions within COPE and elsewhere have concluded that self-plagiarism in this context is more an issue of copyright than of ethics.
Is there any question whether different ethical standards apply to textbook chapter revisions as opposed to journal articles? The authors are adamant that they do not. “Plagiarism is plagiarism,” they declare. Surely this is unarguable and would be supported by experience in the nonacademic world, where plagiarism of both fiction and nonfiction is heavily frowned on.
The extent of the misconduct outlined is unknown. A trawl through the standard pediatric texts on one of our shelves thankfully caught nothing amiss. But, paced Reuben, Boldt and Fujii,3 anesthesiology cannot be medicine’s only repository of sharp practice. In the examples cited by Saidman et al., the extent of the reused material calls into question whether the new editions were even necessary or, if they were, why the original authors were not simply asked to bring their material up-to-date. We can only speculate whether the offending authors were dishonest, lazy, or both, but they certainly gave their readers short measure. It is also unclear to what extent, if any, the publishers were aware of the plagiarism.
Authors and editors would do well to follow the Harvard policies cited by Saidman et al.1 or the advice another publisher offers its authors: “Be scrupulous in giving credit for material used from someone else’s work. Acknowledgement is not a substitute for permission to use material.”e
Those approached to revise a textbook chapter written by another must not assume that possession of copyright trumps proper ethical behavior. Whatever the reasons might be for a previous author(s) not being engaged, there is an absolute duty to contact him or her to seek permission to use their material. If it turns out that a significant proportion of their material is to be recycled, then the accepted requirements for authorshipf mandate they become coauthors, with the order of authorship reflecting the proportion of contribution. Where their contribution has been edited to a minimum, then acknowledgement might be appropriate, but this, too, requires negotiation and permission. Publishers also have a role in making their authors aware of checking compliance with appropriate policies.
Organizations involved with publishing ethics, such as COPE, WAME, ICJME, and CSE, should consider revising their guidance to include specifically the matter of textbook chapter revisions. What to do when there has been a serious breach is likely to be case specific: editors and publishers (and readers) should consider reporting suspected misconduct of this nature to an author’s employer for them to investigate, adjudicate, and if necessary, decide on a sanction. That is no different from what is currently advised in regard to all but the most minor forms of plagiarism. But, pragmatically and economically, it may prove difficult to persuade a publisher to “retract,” that is pulp, a newly published textbook. Perhaps, in future, as textbooks become increasingly electronic, it will be easier to correct the record. Until then, public shame, perhaps by a proper apology and the insertion of an erratum notice, may be the best an aggrieved author can currently hope for.
Name: Harvey Marcovitch, FRCP, FRCPCH.
Contribution: This author cowrote this editorial with the second author.
Attestation: Harvey Marcovitch approves the final version of this manuscript.
Name: Virginia Barbour, MRCP, DPhil.
Contribution: This author cowrote this editorial with the first author.
Attestation: Virginia Barbour approves the final version of this manuscript.
This manuscript was handled by: Steven L. Shafer, MD.
a COPE: What to do if you suspect plagiarism. Available at: http://publicationethics.org/resources/flowcharts. Accessed June 24, 2013. Cited Here...
b COPE: Cases presented to Forum. Available at: http://publicationethics.org/cases. Accessed June 24, 2013. Cited Here...
c WAME: Self-plagiarism of textbook chapters. Available at: http://wame.org/ethics-resources/self-plagiarism-of-textbook-chapters. Accessed June 24, 2013. Cited Here...
d pace, from the Latin, “with all respect to” Cited Here...
e John Wiley & Sons Inc. Authors’ guide to copyrights and permissions: http://wiley.com/legacy/authors/guidelines/stmguides/3frames.htm. Accessed June 24, 2013 Cited Here...
f ICMJE Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: ethical considerations in the conduct and reporting of research: authorship and contributorship. Available at: http://icmje.org/ethical_1author.html. Accessed June 24, 2013. Cited Here...