ORI: Self-Plagiarism is NOT Misconduct

Yes, you read that correctly. This revelation (to me at least) comes from a recent interaction with the Federal Office of Research Integrity (ORI), namely this reporting of several image duplications across papers from the same lab. Importantly, in most cases*** the images were re-used within a similar context and to describe the same experiments.  Here is the response I received from ORI…

Dear Dr. Brookes:
Thank you for your thorough email regarding the re-use of images and data across nine (9) different publications, over the span of fourteen (14) years. The 2012-2018 publications and after, are within the six year period of limitations, thus are under ORI’s jurisdiction.  In addition, the Current Drug Targets 2008 and Biocatal Biotransformation 2010 publications would also be under ORI’s definition, per 42 C.F.R. Part 93.105 (b)(1) Subsequent use exception.

However, re-use of images and data does not meet the definition of research misconduct.  Per 42 C.F.R. Part 93.103: Research misconduct means fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. Falsification is manipulating research materials, equipment or processes such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

In each instance of re-use, the research is accurately represented in the research record; thus there is no falsification.  The re-use is consistent with self-plagiarism, which also does not meet ORI’s definition of plagiarism.  Thus ORI does not have jurisdiction.  This also may be consistent with a copyright violation, depending on the specific journal’s policies.

As ORI does not have jurisdiction, ORI considers this a closed matter.

Thank you,
XXXXXXXXXX, Scientist Investigator,
Division of Investigative Oversight,
Office of Research Integrity

This is news to me! It’s the polar opposite of what we teach in our mandatory research ethics course (i.e., self-plagiarism is bad). Even if the experiments are the same, simply republishing the same data and images more than once raises two important ethical issues:

(1) Double-Dipping. When you publish the same data twice you get to <i>game</i>  the metrics system by getting more publications for the same or less work (vs. others who do new experiments each time). Most would agree this is “not fair”, as important events in academia such as promotions and tenure depend on such metrics.

(2) Copyright. When you publish a figure in one journal, typically that journal owns the copyright to the image. Even if you’re a CC-BY hawk and do everything open access, publishing the same figure again elsewhere without acknowledgement is a breach of someone’s copyright.

This issue clearly raises a dilemma from the journal editorial perspective…. Say for example something is published first in Journal A and then Journal B.  If A sues B for copyright infringement and it results in retraction of the paper in B, all good.  But, if B acts alone and retracts the paper, they have to be VERY careful. If they implies any kind of misconduct occurred, and the authors are savvy about the above-mentioned ORI policy, this could open the door for a defamation lawsuit from disgruntled authors.  Caveat editor!


***In some cases the images were not reporting the same experimental conditions. In other papers there were clear examples of image manipulaton such as splicing together unrelated western blots. But, all those papers were >6yrs old and so fell outside the ORI statute of limitations. Thus, overall there was nothing that both met the definition of misconduct AND was within the S.O.L.  Oh well.