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Eminent chemist denies self-plagiarism in ‘space dinosaurs’ paper

A former president of the American Chemical Society has defended himself against allegations of self-plagiarism today.

Ronald Breslow, an eminent chemist who leads a research group at Columbia University in New York, has denied any wrongdoing after it emerged that several passages in papers he authored were almost identical to each other. A number of chemists have called for retraction of the most recent paper, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The paper was promoted to the media in an 11 April press release that suggested that advanced dinosaurs could exist on other planets.

But in an e-mail to Nature, Breslow said that he had done nothing wrong, pointing out that the article was a ‘Perspective’ piece intended to review the field, not an original research publication.

“When I submitted it I made it clear what I had done to avoid personal plagiarism while still meeting the purpose of the Perspective; it would have made no sense not to describe the previous work, which was requested, as long as I gave the appropriate references,” he wrote.

“Please distinguish a personal review from a paper,” he says. “It was this distinction that led me to write it, while making enough changes to avoid copyright infringement while still telling the real story.”

The JACS paper that prompted this debate was a sober discussion of a rather technical aspect of amino-acid chemistry. However, a press release from the American Chemical Society (ACS) picked up on the throwaway last line that there could be other amino-acid-based life forms elsewhere in the Universe, and that “such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs”.

Sections of the text of this paper seem to match a previous paper, published in 2011 in the Israel Journal of Chemistry (see example below). Some of the wording is also similar to a paper in the Elsevier journal Tetrahedron Letters. All three papers were authored solely by Breslow.

The similarities between the papers were noted on social-media sites. Nature Chemistry’s chief editor Stuart Cantrill highlighted (literally) the similarities between the JACS and Israel Journal of Chemistry papers in a series of pictures.

Cantrill says that if his journal had published the original paper, “I would be contacting the editor of the journal that had published the plagiarizing piece and the author of that for an explanation of what’s going on”.

“I see very little alternative but for JACS to retract the paper,” he adds.

The widely read Chembark blog also suggests that the JACS paper should be retracted. “Ronald Breslow is a powerful member of the chemical elite, and he has led a distinguished career associated with a strong body of research. He has achieved the rank of University Professor, won the highest honour from the American Chemical Society, and even served as the President of our Society. But no scientist should be above the rules,” notes the blog.

The ACS’s own “Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research” state that self-plagiarism is unacceptable and verbatim quotes from previous work should be placed in quotation marks. The guidelines state that although “one or two” identical sentences are unlikely to be regarded as duplicate publication, “it is unacceptable for an author to include significant verbatim or near-verbatim portions of his/her own work, or to depict his/her previously published results or methodology as new, without acknowledging the source”.

Nature is awaiting comment from the ACS and Columbia University.
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UPDATE 26/04 – In a statement, the ACS says, “We are following established procedure to investigate the claim of self-plagiarism. If it is determined that this is case of self-plagiarism, appropriate action will be taken as provided for in our ethical guidelines.”
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UPDATE 17/04 – The JACS paper has been removed. The page now states “This article was removed by the publisher due to possible copyright concerns. The Journal’s Editor is following established procedure to determine whether a violation of ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research has occurred.”
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Extract from ‘Evidence for the Likely Origin of Homochirality in Amino Acids, Sugars, and Nucleosides on Prebiotic Earth‘ (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 134, 6887–6892; 2012).

Extract from ‘Formation of L Amino Acids and D Sugars, and Amplification of their Enantioexcesses in Aqueous Solutions, Under Simulated Prebiotic Conditions‘ (Israel J. Chem. 51, 990–996; 2011).

Extract from ‘The origin of homochirality in amino acids and sugars on prebiotic earth‘ (Tetrahedron Lett. 52, 4228–4232; 2011).
[Note – this is a corrected and republished version of Tetrahedron Lett. 52, 2028–2032 (2011). See erratum in Tetrahedron Lett. 52, 4227 (2011).]

Comments

  1. Michael Eisen said:

    I would like to stand up in defense of Dr. Breslow.

    Could some of the people who are so outraged by his reuse of some explanatory turns of phrase explain exactly what is wrong with this? I, and virtually all other scientists, express the same ideas in multiple contexts in multiple papers. Nobody has a problem with this. So what’s wrong with using the same language? Maybe it’s a little bit lazy. But warranting a retraction? COME ON! The reuse of text in this manner does nothing to compromise the content or integrity of the piece.

    The only possible argument against self-plagiarism is that it might be illegal, in as much as Dr. Breslow had assigned his copyright to his previous works to some other publisher, and may not have the right to reuse it. But if this is peoples’ objection, they should leave Dr. Breslow alone and direct their moral outrage at the publishers who have no legitimate claim to own the scientific literature.

    1. Robert Taylor said:

      Many scientists will re-use sentences & phrases from time to time. Apparently this is now scientific misconduct. I don’t think many scientists see it this way at all. This idea of such activity being misconduct is being driven by publishers. If you sign a copyright assignment form when you submit a paper, I can see there may be copyright issues if you want to reuse some material, but many organisations do not sign copyright assignment forms precisely because they do want to reuse material. For example, many industrial based researchers are not allowed to sign such copyright assignment forms by their employers, and often material in papers is republished in company brochures for use with customers. Clearly this is not misconduct and is good for communication.

    2. John Spevacek said:

      Check out the images linked to in the article. The self-plagiarism is far more extensive than what is shown here. (I’m actually disappointed by how little is presented here.)

    3. Bino John said:

      Absolutely agree with Mike Eisen too and voice support for Breslow. but if we as a community start saying we can’t reuse our own words now, we will be soon be saying we can’t use a previous idea of ours or even just information (how about reusing central dogma as a plagiarized 2 word?). this case is ridiculous from a scientific point of view. it may have merit from a copyright point of view but calling it plagiarism and misconduct does not sound fair.

  2. Mostly Anonymous said:

    If the data was recycled, that would be a problem. But using some stock descriptive phrases in an intro or discussion? Who cares? All scientists do this.

  3. Devon Birdsall said:

    As a repeat graduate student, I could not believe the drastic change from the 1980s to present day in requirements for citing the works of others. While Martin Luther King, Jr. may have overtly plagiarized his Ph.D. dissertation yet emerged unscathed to stand upon his civil rights leader’s podium, the concept of self-plagiarism is as ridiculous as not allowing a singer to reuse song lyrics at future performances without pausing after each sentence to state that he wrote the lyrics before. I believe that this notion is the pinnacle of pompousness stemming from the subjective nature of English coursework itself. Is it any wonder that this profession seeks to elevate itself by becoming a shard of note in scientific endeavor? Indeed, the fussiness of various “authorities” is exemplified by the APA’s ridiculously minute changes between the 5th and 6th editions. The “changes” must have been conjured up to generate the sale of more books. One space after the terminal period at the end of a sentence is now two spaces after, yet not everyone is agreement on this. The cover page no longer must not have a page number, now it must have one. Please! They are so tedious that one must grit the teeth to endure the trivial mindlessness of it all. I suppose that if other scientists must bend to the naked English Emperor, they would be outraged by those who did not. This is a case of wrongfully directed outrage, however. It is not the reuse of one’s own work that should attract contempt; rather, it should be the entire concept of self-plagiarism. Allowing the naked English Emperor to dictate and re-dictate how scientists must present their own work is giving away the keys to the kingdom. Oops, did someone else write that somewhere at any time in history?

  4. Alexander Whiteside said:

    I strongly suggest that readers follow the link marked “literally”. If that’s accurate, it would be quicker to list the sections of the paper that were not duplicated, than to list the sections that were.

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  5. Marc Morgan said:

    Scientists re-use very similar language and this is sometimes unavoidable (how many different ways can you paraphrase the same thing?), but this particular example looks like a pretty severe case of “cut-and-paste” activity. Besides the issue of copyright infringement, the other problem that I see in self-plagiarism is redundancy. If something is already published, what’s the point in publishing exactly the same thing again? It’s totally unnecessary. The original article could just be referenced and this would save considerable page space. Perhaps the real problem then is publishing review/perspective articles too frequently, if there’s nothing novel to report there’s no need for an additional review article.

  6. Pete Doering said:

    If you are continually drawing new conclusions that build upon your previous work, then this is what your research looks like.

    All this administrative BS makes me look forward to retiring, & practicing science in private, ignoring all legal and business do-nothing busybody interference.

  7. Naim Matasci said:

    Le me understand this.
    Are the editors saying is that I shouldn’t put any effort in trying to come up with the best explanation for a concept?
    Or if I unfortunately come across way that I find ideal to express a thought, I should use it only once and then resort to ever unclearer versions not to commit self plagiarism?

    That’s really good for science!

  8. Naim Matasci said:

    Does self plagiarism apply to conference and seminar presentations? Should scientists throw away their slide decks and start from scratch every time they are going to present the same material?

  9. Ian Phillips said:

    This is a peversion of the concept of stealing other peoples work which is absolutely wrong to repeating some of your own work. Can you steal from yourself ? Especially in a review of work already done and published.
    We are unpaid authors of scientific papers not paid geniouses of creative literature . I could argue that the alternative – to paraphrase our own words, is to practice deception .
    To solve the problem editors whould provide authors a “ similarities report “ before accepting the paper . With knowledge of the sentences or papragraphs that are “similar “ to the authors previous publications , authors can decide what they want to edit, retract or put in quotes .Slandering of an author for self plagiarism is peverse and unnecessary .

  10. Tamir Chandra said:

    There are so many serious issues and wrong doings in science that it seems right-out ridicolous to report any scientist, eminent or not, for what Dr. Breslow did. There might be a juridical obligation that Breslow overstepped, but I can not see him having acted morally wrong. To me, the most concerning finding in the context of this report is how much time the editor in chief of nature chemistry has spend to analyse the self-plagiarism. At the end of the day many of us want to be scientists and being an author is just part of it (Although a very important one).

  11. Susanne Miller said:

    The problem that I see with “self-plagiarism” is that most scientists are judged and rewarded according to the number of papers they publish. Salaries and awards are frequently based upon a formula that takes the number of publications of an individual into account. While I agree with many of the previous posts that reusing terms or reevaluating older work in light of new developments should not be considered self-plagiarism, I think it is a valid concern that re-publishing large chunks of identical work may be an attempt to inflate credentials and status. This case goes beyond simply using a set of terms or a figure from another paper, and appears to be an example of publishing the same work three times. My concern is not regarding copyright protection for publishers, but for the question of whether the scientist concerned is knowingly trying to inflate his credentials.

  12. R Rapport said:

    “outer-space dinosaurs” and “self-plagarism” appeared to be more in keeping with an April 1st issue.
    While the novel outcomes of homochirality are quite interesting, the concept of a retraction and removal of a paper based upon a lugubrious concept of “self-plagarism” eclipses any scientific insight with the most banal and “pc” concept akin to suicide by shooting onself in the back, twice.
    Really!
    The only “quasi-legal” argument for such a contorted edict would be copyright issue — and I would HOPE that the “fair dealing” clause in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 would abrogate this issue.

  13. Alexander Stern said:

    This is quite an outstanding occurence of plagiarism. I can understand why some scientists would copy each others quotes or will explicitly quote scientific works. But to copy from himself. I wish someone did copy dr simeons hcg diet and actually republish it again – that’s an outstanding scientific work to publish

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