“Crime is crime is crime”
About 2 decades ago, the Janssen pharmaceutical representative gave me a paper describing one of their new products. Skimming through it, I thought “this might be interesting,” “nicely organized,” “looks familiar,” and “I wrote this.” Not knowing what to do, I took the document to my program chair, who sent it to the chair of the plagiarist. Nothing happened. Months later, I called the plagiarist myself. Profoundly apologetic, he explained how he was speaking at a meeting and needed something for the syllabus. He had intended to ask my permission. He wasn’t trying to steal my work (intellectual theft),1 but simply providing syllabus materials he didn’t have time to prepare himself (intellectual sloth).1 He didn’t know that Janssen was distributing it. He was very sorry. I accepted his apology, and we became good friends, a friendship that continues to this day.
After experiencing plagiarism first hand, I became concerned with self-plagiarism. I have written many textbook chapters, usually in the area of pharmacology. I always start with my own previously published chapter, which I update for the new chapter. Sadly, I know just a few ways to describe most of the concepts. Typically, the description I use is the text from my previous chapter, and because 80% of my “new” chapter represents a chapter I wrote previously, I became very concerned that I was committing massive “self-plagiarism.”
My concerns were misplaced. From an ethical perspective, you can’t steal from yourself.1
The Oxford English Dictionary defines plagiarism as “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.”2 It does not matter who owns the copyright. Any author of a textbook chapter who represents the scholarship of a previous author as his or her own work is guilty of plagiarism. The reason this represents academic misconduct is deception. The plagiarist deceives the reader about the source of the scholarship in an attempt to garner academic credit for another person’s scholarship.
This issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia contains a remarkable article: “It’s Still Plagiarism” by Anonymous Author 1, Anonymous Author 2, and Lawrence J. Saidman.3 The article describes the experiences of the 2 anonymous plagiarized authors. Each invested enormous time preparing original book chapters reflecting rigorous scholarship for a textbook. In each case, the editor of a subsequent edition of the textbook assigned a different author(s) to their chapter. In each case, the new author(s) made modest changes to the text, added a footnote acknowledging the prior author(s), and subsequently took credit for the scholarship of the original author(s).
Anonymous Author 1 and Anonymous Author 2 independently described their experiences. Anonymous Author 1 had already spoken with Dr. Saidman, Correspondence Editor for Anesthesia & Analgesia and Editor-in-Chief for Anesthesia & Analgesia Case Reports. Dr. Saidman and I thought that an Open Mind submission would be appropriate. Both authors were reluctant to publicly share their experiences. They also did not wish to “blow the whistle” on the plagiarizers and their editors because an accusation of plagiarism can seriously derail an academic career and in the case of one of our authors there was concern regarding possible retaliation.
We found a compromise. The authors (and thus the plagiarists) would remain anonymous, the first anonymous authors in the history of Anesthesia & Analgesia. Dr. Saidman would coauthor the manuscript and serve as corresponding author.
The report is supplemented by 2 thoughtful editorials. Harvey Marcovitch, past president of the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE), and Virginia Barbour, the current president of COPE and Editor-in-Chief of PLOS One shared their perspective in “Whose Words in the Textbook?”4 Their conclusion is direct and unambiguous: “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 authorship mandate they become co-authors.”
The second editorialist, Miguel Roig, Professor of Psychology at St. John’s University in New York, is a widely respected authority on plagiarism. His editorial, “Yes, It’s Plagiarism, But It’s Complicated” also concludes that “there should be no question that the transgressions described represent a breach of publication ethics.”5 However, he notes that “inappropriate authorship practices” occur regularly with textbook chapters. Professor Roig believes the primary issue is mentorship, suggesting that “authors, journal editors, and … some in the publishing industry … are just not well acquainted with the ethical subtleties of plagiarism and other matters related to publication ethics.” He nevertheless concludes that the fact that “malpractices of authorship assignment” are common does not excuse the authors for their behavior.
If, as Roig’s editorial5 suggests, seemingly egregious plagiarism in serialized textbook chapters arises because authors just don’t know the rules, then perhaps mentorship and forgiveness are preferable to censure and punishment. Furthermore, tools like iThenticatea allow screening of textbook chapters for plagiarism and should be utilized for all future textbooks. This would greatly reduce the incidence of the problem and the text would be uploaded to reference databases for subsequent screening by authors, editors, and publishers.
The above notwithstanding, I am unable to dismiss the plagiarism shown in Figures 1 and 2 in the article by Anonymous et al.,4 and reproduced on the cover of this issue, as merely misunderstanding of the rules. Would you be comfortable taking credit for the chapter, knowing that the yellow highlighted text is the scholarship of another author? Is this level of misrepresentation acceptable to you as a doctor, investigator, scientist, writer, or colleague? Is this consistent with the publishing standards of our specialty?
I believe this is unacceptable. If you agree, then let’s clean up our act as editors and publishers of textbooks and as authors of textbook chapters.
Plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism.
Dr. Steven L. Shafer is the Editor-in-Chief for the Journal. This manuscript was handled by Dr. James G. Bovill, Guest Editor-in-Chief, and Dr. Shafer was not involved in any way with the editorial process or decision.
Name: Steven L. Shafer, MD.
Contribution: This author wrote the manuscript.