Recycle to disseminate

July 10, 2008

Before we launch into a moral panic about self-plagiarism and redundant publication ("Allow me to rephrase that, and boost my tally of articles", 3 July), we ought to debate what these terms might mean when they are lifted out of discipline-specific contexts in biomedical and natural science research.

As a former editor of a major social science journal on the fringes of the biomedical world and director of an interdisciplinary research institute, I have increasingly come to recognise that there are legitimate reasons for significant recycling between papers. Modern scholarship is increasingly interdisciplinary, so the findings need to be disseminated across a number of fields through publication media that still tend to be quite discipline-oriented. This may well require similar data and findings to be offered to a number of outlets, with a distinctive spin rather than a substantive difference.

Funders increasingly demand evidence of effective communication at all levels and this is not consistent with a root-and-branch attack on self-plagiarism. While I would not defend sending near-identical papers to different journals in the same field, I would be reluctant to criticise someone who sent papers with a strong resemblance to each other to journals operating in different fields with different audiences to ensure that work was fully communicated to all appropriate readers.

Robert Dingwall, Professor and director, Institute for Science and Society, University of Nottingham.

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