Conference abstract self-plagiarism

I had a troubling experience the other day while submitting a paper.  I was flagged for self-plagiarism.  Turns out that according to this journal’s policies, the reuse of figures from a conference abstract in the full publication is not allowed.  Just so we’re clear, I’ve put the outlines of both the conference abstract (4 page expanded abstract–think of it as a short paper, which is NOT peer reviewed) and the full publication below:

Conference abstract Paper
AbstractIntro

Linear methodology

Synthetic Linear Example

Conclusions

AbstractIntro

Linear methodology

Synthetic Linear Example

Nonlinear methodology

Synthetic Nonlinear Example

Field Nonlinear Example

Conclusions

The linear synthetic example is identical between the two, and lots of the intro text and some of the linear methodology is the same.  It is the nonlinear methodology that is the focus of the paper; the linear development is just required for a logical derivation of the nonlinear case.  Though seemingly obtuse to me, I can understand the desire to not have identical blocks of text, and am more than happy to rewrite those–that’s 20 minutes of work.  However, not being able to reuse the example is concerning to me.  I want to make it clear I’m not particularly worried about this publication, but I’m worried about what this particular case represents.

Basically I have three options: (1) remove the offending example entirely, (2) reference the conference proceeding instead of showing the example, and (3) develop a different synthetic example.

(1) is obviously not an option; the example is there for a reason (the development of the nonlinear case requires the proof of the concept in the linear case). (3) can be done, but seems like a waste of time.  (2) is a horrifying prospect.

These conference abstracts aren’t peer reviewed.  The session chair looks them over, and basically gives them a go/no-go.  Some conferences are a little more rigorous, but in all cases it is essentially a binary accept/don’t accept.  I can tell you both as a past session chair and as a reviewer that the abstracts are not scrutinized like a journal article would be.  Frankly a lot of garbage gets through–anyone who’s been to any conference will have encountered that.  By not allowing the reproduction of any material from abstract to journal article, the organization is placing the abstracts on par with journal articles.  In my particular case, the AE actually said the material is already published, you can’t publish it again.

Now here’s the issue.  Authors are being encouraged to simply cite their abstracts, which means that a block of their manuscript, maybe a critical point, will never undergo peer review.  What this demonstrates is that reviewers are and will increasingly be under an additional burden to review any abstracts that the paper cites.  And reviewers are busy people–they’re chosen by the associate editor because they’re experts; they’re not going to take that kind of time.  The potential for abuse of the system by less than scrupulous authors is extreme.  Even if an author is well-intentioned, a subtle error may be propagated through multiple journal articles.

Let us assume that no abuse (intentional or otherwise) of the system occurs.  This policy still completely disincentivizes presentation at the conference.  Because abstracts are not peer reviewed, they are invisible to academic and research institutions when considering advancement or tenure.  They simply don’t count.  They mean nothing.  So while the presented work might be extremely valuable and cited hundreds of times, that gives no personal boost to your career.  Moreover, these extended abstracts are not a trivial effort, especially given the premium this organization seems to place on them.  Why would I go to the time and expense of preparing a short paper that will not benefit my career whatsoever when I can just take the time to prepare the full journal article?  Sure, there are lots of benefits to presenting your work at a conference, but under this policy I don’t think it’s worth it.  Taking that a step further, why would I continue to be a member of the organization if I’m not going to attend the conferences (since as a government employee it’s nearly impossible to travel if not presenting)?  I’ve been a member of this organization for over 10 years, and I’m thinking of not renewing this year.

Self-plagiarizing is an issue within our community (a certain colleague refers to it as auto-erotic referencing).  We all know that scientist who references his own papers dozens of times in each subsequent paper.  However, I believe this to be a completely separate situation.  I am happy that they take plagiarism as seriously as they do, and I’m delighted that their automated software nailed the submission.  However, I think this is going too far and frankly see this policy as damaging to the organization as a whole.  I hope they reconsider their policy.

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About faradaysheadache

Research Geophysicist with the US Geological Survey.
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