Self-Plagiarism of Textbook Chapters

October 2004 
The Ethics committee recently reviewed the following case, which is shared in anonymised form with the consent of the consultees. A new question for discussion on this list arose from this discussion, and is summarized at the end of this (long) message.
The Case
Once upon a time there were 4 textbooks that addressed a relatively small subspecialty area of medicine. An author wrote a specific chapter in Textbook A. During a recent update of another textbook (Textbook B), an author was recruited and agreed to write a chapter on the identical topic. After the new edition of the book was published, it became apparent that the author's chapter in Textbook B was very similar to the chapter this author wrote in Textbook A. One table is essentially identical, although other tables in the two chapters are different. In addition, there are some passages that contain identical phrases. Most of these appear to have been reworded, but many identifiable words and phrases are identical between the two chapters. There are also areas where the text is completely different. When questioned, the author admitted that because of lack of time he had rewritten his original chapter and then submitted to Textbook B. The editor of Textbook B had reorganized this submission substantially and reworded it slightly, but was unaware of the apparent similarity of the two chapters until this was pointed out much later. The editors of the two books have discussed the situation and several questions have emerged.
  1. Is reuse of a person's writings in another textbook, but authored by the same person, meet the definition of plagiarism? If so, what degree of identical components needs to be present for this definition to be met?
  2. Is it appropriate for authors to write for different textbooks in the same field? If so, can they write on the same topic? If not, what are the potential infringements on the author's rights to pursue their career/income?
  3. Should the editors of these textbooks agree to exclude authors that write for one another's textbooks? Or is that unfair restraint of trade? For example, if all four textbooks were to agree to limit or completely avoid any overlap among authors, it could effectively deny entry of another textbook into that market.
  4. For book A, the author had a coauthor. Since this shared work was used for book B, what is the author's responsibility to the original coauthor?
After initial commentary by committee members, the editors had further concerns which are listed at the end of this document.
Comments by members of the Ethics Committee (see detailed member listing at the end of this message)

The Committee's Response

4 and 5 seem easy. 1 is the problem.
Self-plagiarism—what are the legal parameters of this notion, since it has been tested? We need to start (says the ethicist) with some kind of idea about what the law defines as "plagiarism by one's self", rather than our own institutional policies on student or faculty plagiarism or plagiarism within our own journals. It would seem to be a difficult problem particularly in medicine where LPU (least publishable unit) and duplicative publication by parsing more generally have become endemic.
I do not see a problem with the author reusing his own material to write a chapter in another textbook (readers of textbooks as opposed to research articles are not expecting originality). The problem is that he should have done this with the concurrence of the two editors and if he signed over his copyright the permission of publisher of textbook A. He should of course also have consulted with his co-author. I think the editors should inform the publishers and his employer of the facts and let them decide what course of action to take.
I would not see any problem with no. 1 if it were transparent, ie everybody concerned knew about it. I agree with X that use of previous book material is not really a strict definition of plagiarism (I write textbooks in anatomy and whatever you do with the style of the text, the anatomical terminology stays the same and fills up most of the text!). No. 4 complicates the case because the author of the chapter in the second book should have asked him or her for permission. Also, if they wrote different parts of the chapter in the first books, the agreement could have been that each takes his or her own part for "future use". However, the lack of transparency towards the coauthor and both editors is unethical and perhaps the publishers should inform the institution of the case.
I agree transparency is the key to answering #1. The editor of Book B would need to agree he or she was still interested in the work and the original copyright holder would need to provide permission to reproduce it. Such procedures would also have given appropriate credit to the other author. Clearly the authors of Book A share the intellectual property rights to the work and each author has a duty to act accordingly.
As it stands, it poses an interesting legal and ethical dilemma. Presumably the publishers of the textbooks each own the copyright having had these rights transferred to them by the author(s). Copyright infringements include plagiarism and other related matters. I doubt author "self-plagiarism" would be relevant in an action for copyright infringement. The law usually places legal limitations on exclusive copyrights by allowing "fair use" as a defence in actions of copyright infringement. The description used in the case scenario suggests such a defence would not apply. Should one (or both) of the publishers seek legal remedies against the author, one could imagine the courts being asked to determine if the author breached a contract assuming he or she signed the copyright transfer.
From an ethical perspective, if an editor has reasonable grounds to believe there has been a copyright infringement, I believe he or she has an ethical obligation to notify the publisher (there may also be a legal responsibility established in a contract or the like). Clearly it would be easier to be the editor who notifies the publisher of Book A rather than Book B, however I believe each editor has an obligation to bring the matter forward. Simultaneously, the editor has an obligation to notify the author's institution and to cooperate with efforts to investigate the matter.
From an academic/scholarly perspective, I do not believe "self plagiarism" has been defined sufficiently however, duplicate publications and/or failing to reference one's previous work if there is overlap, often constitutes one component of research misconduct. Using the work of others without credit is also another component of research misconduct and since the author did not own the exclusive intellectual property rights, one could imagine the other author making an allegation of research misconduct.
1. The problem here seems to me to be less with the similarity of the text (there are just so many ways that some things can be said and readers of textbooks are not expecting original material) and more that the authors did this "without citation or permission." Unless the author personally holds copyright on the chapter, permission is a minimum requirement. With respect to the issue of how much overlap is too much...a rule of thumb that some editors have applied when considering the amount of overlap between two review articles (not book chapters) has been overlap of more than one-third of the material. Not sure of the origin or veracity of this "rule."
4. The author should have given the co-author of chapter A an opportunity to participate in the writing of chapter B. If the co-author declined and the author used his or her ideas, chapter B should have included an acknowledgement of the co-author's contributions.
5. I think that the editors should notify both the university of the author and the publishers. While serious disciplinary action may not be warranted, everyone could use this example to better inform faculty at the author's university that this practice is not acceptable and the publishers can implement routine inquiry of text book authors about previous chapters on similar subjects to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
I'm not sure that transparency is the issue. I think there are real issues about what happens when someone engages in a contract to produce an intellectual product for one publisher, then produces the same or virtually the same product for another publisher in substantial violation of the contract with the first. I'm assuming that is the case here, having written dozens of these things myself under such restrictions. Even if everyone knows, the issues still remain—such agreements grow up around the idea that you can't write the same thing over and over for different publishers any more than you can paint copies of a painting that has been commissioned by one benefactor for that benefactor's exclusive use. It does go to plagiarism. We can't ignore that, opting for the second-level ethical issue of "did people tell each other about it" as though the editors could resolve this question at its fundamental levels. Or rather, we ignore the question of self-plagiarism and what it is at our peril. imho.
I have seen the responses of everyone else and would generally agree with them. I have written my own observations on 1, 4 and 5.
1. I think this is a very common occurrence. When I was training I came across a number of chapters written by some very "big" names in surgery who had written almost "identical" chapters in different textbooks. A few years back at a writing workshop one of the participants gave me photocopies of 3 chapters written by the same person in different books which were identical. He also gave me photocopies of 2 review articles which had exactly the same illustrations of a surgical procedure described in the 3 chapters and the 2 articles. None of these disclosed or mentioned that these illustrations had been previously published—as Y and some of the others have mentioned, it is difficult and at times impossible (especially while describing a surgical procedure) to not use the same material over and over again. The only problem remains of disclosure and transparency.
4. The coauthor should have been informed and his consent taken to use the material. I suspect that the coauthor was a junior working with the author when the first chapter was written. The coauthor would have done the task of collecting the material, getting the references and maybe doing a first draft. The author would have then re-written the whole thing. When the chapter for the second book was written (modified) the coauthor, I suspect, would no longer be in the author's department and hence "out of sight, out of mind". It does not absolve the author of his responsibility to the co-author. Again, I have seen this happen very often.
5. I think the publishers should be informed. While journal editors provide guidelines to their contributors on what is expected of them (including authorship issues), I think editors and publishers of books do not provide guidelines on disclosure, conflict etc. only on the length of the material, the kind of illustrations, etc. This may be because the material in books is rarely original. Informing the university might help the concerned universities to become aware of these issues and help them frame guidelines for their faculty.
I think transparency is the issue, and it also depends on the copyright agreements and contracts signed with the publishers. While it is discourteous, and perhaps intellectually sloppy, to produce two very similar chapters, I certainly don't think this falls into the area of research misconduct. Therefore, before contacting the author's institution, I'd advise the Editors to get the fullest details from the author (and perhaps the co-author) about what s/he thought s/he had been asked to do, and also to discover how the co-author was involved.
The purpose of copyright as formulated in the United States Constitution is not to protect the owners of artistic and intellectual property but as clearly stated in Article 1 "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts ..." any protection given to owners/authors is as a consequence of achieving this fundamental purpose. This important distinction is often overlooked in current discussions on copyright.
Resources: a draft educational guide on this topic is posted at It may be interesting reading or as a resource, and the author is also seeking comments.

Further Concerns of the Editors

The editors who submitted this query were concerned about some of the comments, which seemed to imply that textbook chapters were regarded as less important, or less "original", than original research articles.
A question that members of the list may wish to discuss is, "Are textbooks less original science, or less scholarly, than original research articles published in peer-reviewed journals? Are they viewed as lesser contributions in the eyes of colleagues, university administration, or promotion committees?"

Members of the WAME Ethics Committeee

Rakesh Aggarwal, MD
Additional Professor, Department of Gastroenterology, Sanjay Gandhi
Postgraduate Institute of Medical Sciences, Lucknow, India
Associate Editor, Indian J Gastroenterol
Michael Callaham, MD
Editor, Annals of Emergency Medicine
Vice President, WAME
Professor of Emergency Medicine, University of California San Francisco
Lorraine E. Ferris, PhD, CPsych., LLM.
Associate Professor, Dept of Public Health Sciences
Advisor, Judicial and Policy Affairs, Dean's Office, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
Member, Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre research ethics board.
Christine Laine, MD, MPH
Senior Deputy Editor, Annals of Internal Medicine
Secretary, International Committee of Medical Journal Editors
Glenn McGee, PhD
Associate Director for Education, Penn Center for Bioethics &
Professor of Medical Ethics, Philosophy, Biostatistics & Epidemiology
University of Pennsylvania
Editor-in-Chief, the American Journal of Bioethics
Hooman Momen, PhD
Editor, Bulletin of the World Health Organization
COPE Educational Subcommittee
Peush Sahni, MD
Additional Professor, Department of Gastrointestinal Surgery, All
India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi
Associate Editor, the National Medical Journal of India
Mary D. Scheetz, PhD
Director, Extramural Research
US Office of Public Health and Science, Office of Research Integrity
Editorial Policy Board, CSE
Liz Wager, MA (Oxon)
Freelance Publications Consultant and Medical Writer
Co-author: Good Publication Practice for Pharmaceutical Companies;
BMJ Ethics Committee; COPE Educational Subcommittee
Former UK Head, International Medical Publications, GlaxoSmithKline


While the questions raised by this case have some knotty aspects, I agree that the main problem here is not whether the same, or very similar, information can or should be published in more than one place. (That sort of thing is done all the time, and can serve important functions. After all, different people read different textbooks, and if it's important for the information to get out there, why shouldn't it be made as widely available as possible? Many of the problems with duplicate publication are specific to original research data: duplicate publication there is both unscientific and unethical. But the information here doesn't seem to have been original research data. The comment that creative artists don't repeat their work is simply not true: great graphic artics (eg, Monet, Picasso, Munch and hundreds of others) have often reworked the same theme over and over again—sometimes refining it slightly, sometimes simply repainting exactly the same picture for different patrons.)
The problem here really does seem to have been lack of transparency: the author apparently didn't make the publishers of all the involved textbooks aware that the text might be very similar, and the textbook editors didn't ask. Had the various people involved done taken these rather simple, commonsensical steps, the problems would at least have been out in the open, rather than coming back to bite people on the leg when the "hidden truth" came out after the fact.
As to the concern that textbooks are being seen as having less "intellectual status" than original research publications, that seems to me to be a kind of intellectual snobbery that sees anything "applied" (however important) as less important than anything "original" (however trivial). These views unfortunately run deep in the scientific community (Warren Hagstrom has a terrific analysis of this in his book, "The Scientific Community")—and are at least partly responsible, in my view, for the fact that important research results (particularly clinical research) very frequently never gets translated into actual improvements in clinical practice.
Frank Davidoff
The discussion of the interesting and complicated case is remarkable for not mentioning the readers of textbook B, whom we ought certainly to consider.
If I were keenly interested in the contents of the chapter in textbook B, I might well wish to know how they had developed, and to look at earlier versions of the material, and to understand why the contents and emphases etc had changed in the way they had.
I'd like to suggest that in future deliberations the Ethics Committee specifically asks itself how a problem or issue may affect readers.
Andrew Herxheimer
Co-founder, DIPEx
Emeritus Fellow, UK Cochrane Centre
I would like to suggest that it is the editors as much as the authors that need to bear responsibility for this issue, if indeed it is one. The choice of an author for a review monograph or textbook chapter is based always on perusal of the existing reviews and chapters, hoping that the new publication can contain something just as good. That obligates the author to produce something as similar to his previous publication as possible, and yet different—an impossible task even if such writing were a priority endeavor, which it never is.
Rick Nelson
Department of Surgery
University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago 

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