Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Self-plagiarism and Salami Publishing

These hair-splitting issues probably only apply to a system that works pretty well already and wants to push the mechanisms of academic progress even further. There are bigger, more horrendous issues lurking behind the hallowed halls of western academia though. Take for instance academic plagiarism in China and we're talking journal articles and dissertations here, not just undergraduate papers (Taipei Times).

“Salami publishing” is defined as “dividing up research into the thinnest possible slices and submitting each slice as a separate article, thus generating a number of publications” There is also a balance between making too few and too many points in a paper. (Kitchin and Fuller (2005) The Academics Guide to Publishing, London: SAGE Publications, pp. 30, 35-36).

Blog entries cut research into thin slices and are guilty of this, I suppose. In fact, many would argue: no more than one point in a blog entry.

Isn’t “Salami publishing” defined by where you place the boundary for what a final published product? A lot of natural science and mathematics papers are circulated in a prior to publication form at paper repositories like Citeseer. Interested parties read the papers and comment on them leading to improvements. Because these papers are available on the internet they are usually more accessible than the final published versions in university libraries and usually have warnings like: “Do not quote” written on the front of them. I’ve always wondered whether this meant “Do not cite or paraphrase” also. If it does the reader is presented with a catch-22 sort of dilemna” , acknowledge the source of one’s ideas or not acknowledge the source according to the author’s wishes. I guess one alternative is to contact the author and tell him what you are going to do, then he can decide to be acknowledged or not. If he does not respond, I would go ahead and acknowledge him anyway, the moral-ethical necessity of acknowledging one’s sources outweighing any obligation to hide the not-yet-perfected ideas of a scholar who has already made them available to the public.

This blog entry on “self-plagiarism” is also very pertinent:

“Self-plagiarism occurs when an author reuses portions of their previous writings in subsequent research papers. Occasionally, the derived paper is simply a re-titled and reformatted version of the original one, but more frequently it is assembled from bits and pieces of previous work. It is our belief that self-plagiarism is detrimental to scientific progress and bad for our academic community. Flooding conferences and journals with near-identical papers makes searching for information relevant to a particular topic harder than it has to be. It also rewards those authors who are able to break down their results into overlapping least-publishable-units over those who publish each result only once. Finally, whenever a self-plagiarized paper is allowed to be published, another, more deserving paper, is not.”

The question is whether the argument is developing from version to version. If it is, then this “salami publishing” is a legitimate vehicle for peer review. The more pressing problem would be preventing people from poaching ideas so that people have an incentive to share ideas. Again, citation and acknowledging of sources as seems to arise as a moral-ethical issue here.

Here is an extensive annotated web bibliography of resources and a good weblog with up-to-date news on plagiarism.