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Ask the Ethicist

Publication Déjà vu

Dear Jordan,

As an APS member, I would like to have your opinion and guidance concerning an apparent misconduct in publication practice by one of our physics faculty.

APS established publication standard requires that "Proper and complete referencing is an essential part of any physics research publication. Deliberate omission of a pertinent author or reference is unethical and unacceptable."

This faculty member has patently published research papers in different journals on practically the same experimental data. In some cases, one paper has several coauthors. Thus, by rearranging the title somewhat, there would be another paper by a lesser number of coauthors or just himself as a single author. Worse yet, there was never any cross-referencing among them although some data were published three times.

Resume padding by this seasoned physicist has actually resulted in his reaching higher administrative positions and getting undeserved rewards.

Name withheld

Jordan Moiers replies:

Dear Name withheld,

You are absolutely right that it is unethical to intentionally leave out relevant citations. It seems pretty clear that the omissions are intentional. It is also unethical to incompletely list coauthors, or to add unqualified authors.

However, your colleague’s citation and authorship shenanigans are overshadowed by a greater transgression. At best, correcting citation lists and authorship would lead to a published erratum for each paper in question.

The larger issue is publication of duplicate research data. Scholarly journals are venues for new and original work. In many cases, it’s appropriate to publish a short synopsis of research and results in a journal such as Physical Review Letters or in the rapids section of some other journal, and follow it up with the subsequent publication of a complete description of the work. The second paper would, of course, include the same data published in the first paper. (It would also include a citation for the initial letter or rapid paper.) In fact, PRL authors are strongly encouraged to follow up their letters with another paper in one of the full-length Physical Review journals.

As you point out, if your colleague is not citing his own papers then it appears that he is not following this accepted practice, but is instead hiding the connection between essentially identical papers in order to pad his resume.

If journal editors learn that a submitted paper has been published somewhere previously it will be rejected out of hand. If they discover the duplication after the paper has already made it into print, it could warrant a retraction.

You should contact the editors at the journals that have published the duplicate papers and make them aware of the situation. If I were you, I would do it anonymously to avoid repercussions within your department. There’s no reason for you to get involved beyond that–the papers should speak for themselves.

I’m not sure it’s worth worrying about the authorship issue. If there is something amiss, the other authors should be the ones to bring it up. No doubt, they will be hearing from journal editors soon enough anyway. I’d be willing to bet the omitted authors will be happy they were left off, if the papers are retracted due to duplication of earlier works. The citation problem will take care of itself once the duplicates are retracted.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff