Double-publish and be damned

August 17, 2007

Is the RAE behind academics' lack of respect for books or is it just a case of old-fashioned dishonesty, wonders Tim Birkhead

Books are up against it. Undergraduates are increasingly reluctant to read them - preferring to wiki their way through their courses. In the sciences, books have been further devalued by the research assessment exercise, which does not consider them primary research. If that were not bad enough, it now seems that even some academics despise the book.

A colleague at another institution told me this story. He and another researcher had decided to produce an edited volume on a developing area of science. At first, all seemed to go well. The requisitioned chapters were well-crafted and exciting. Then one contribution arrived from an author who held a prestigious position and was an acknowledged world leader. It was poor: a perfunctory effort.

The disappointed editors sent the chapter back with a long list of suggestions on how it might be improved. The author refused to make any changes. Yet a week or so later, one of the editors was asked by a scientific journal to review a paper by the same author. To their horror, they discovered that the author had written a paper on exactly the same topic, which was - in contrast to the book chapter - superb and had incorporated all the changes the editors had asked for.

Through gritted teeth, and recognising that even a perfunctory chapter was better than none at all, the editors decided to do nothing other than make one more request for improvements. Predictably, it was to no avail.

From the outset, the editors' policy with their book had been to produce a detailed outline of the overall structure and, to try to ensure cohesiveness, to sketch out the content of each chapter - encouraging the authors (all experts in their fields) to develop those themes as they saw fit. They also circulated the chapters as they were submitted so that all contributors could see how the book was taking shape.

One day, both of the editors received a request from a review journal to referee a paper written by one of their authors. With alarm bells ringing, they agreed. Their worst fears were realised. It was immediately obvious that this author had taken material from the overall book plan to craft an introduction and then plagiarised material from another contributor's chapter, which he had been sent, and made it his own.

If skilful enough, one can, like the 18th-century Irish playwright Oliver Goldsmith, make a living at this sort of thing, but the plagiarism has to be undetectable. The irony of my editor colleague's story is that the plagiarist was naive and had not reckoned on the editors being asked to review his journal paper. The irony ran deeper still, for the miscreant author of the first "perfunctory" chapter was also sent it to review, whereupon he self righteously squealed to the book editors.

At its worst, this is downright dishonest and discourteous. At best, it is vulgar opportunism. As these events were being related to me, the only consolation - and I have to admit it gave me a moment of smug satisfaction - was that I could blame the RAE. In a system in which books do not count, the obvious selfish solution is to double-publish or plagiarise in order to get material into the scoring zone - the primary literature.

And yet as I heaped the blame of his editorial misfortunes on to the RAE, my colleague quietly pointed out that both miscreants were from countries that did not (yet) have a formal assessment system. Such is human nature.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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