Fundamentally, the goal of academic publication is dissemination of results and ideas. We want results and ideas disseminated as widely as possible so that they can be evaluated as thoroughly as possible, and so that as many people as possible can build on them in their own research.
Recently, the Journal of Human Evolution retracted a paper (Bruxelles et al 2018) on some aspects of the Kromdraai stratigraphy. As far as I can tell from the retraction notice, there is no problem with the actual paper, its claims, its findings, its methods, or anything else that a researcher or a citizen should care about. The paper seems to have been retracted because it duplicates “significant parts of [a] book chapter” by seemingly the same authors in a volume edited by Braga and Thackeray (2016). The retraction notice states that “One of the conditions of submission of a paper to Journal of Human Evolution is that authors declare explicitly that that their work is original and has not been published previously. Reuse of any data should be appropriately cited. As such this article represents an abuse of the scientific publishing system.” These are reasons only a journal would care about.
Incidentally, since I have been unable to find copies of either paper, I cannot judge to what extent the second is a duplication of the first. Nor do I care whatsoever.
Re-publishing is not a problem
Re-used data should certainly be appropriately cited. It should be cited to help readers find the original paper and in this case, see the other undoubtedly interesting contributions that surround it in the original volume. It should not be cited simply because a journal needs its papers to be “original”.
The only way this article can be considered “an abuse of the scientific publishing system” is from the point of view of the scientific publishing system (i.e. journals) and the academic prestige economy it fosters and preys on (an interesting example of niche construction). Journals need original (i.e. exclusive) papers to protect their position within the academic publishing system. Granting and hiring committees that rely on the short-hand of publication numbers, impact factors, and journal reputation, need original papers to avoid double (or multi) counting of contributions by researchers.
These are not good reasons to retract a paper that re-uses data. In fact, I don’t consider them good reasons to retract even a paper that is entirely duplicated, word for word, from a previous paper by the same authors. If the goal of academic publishing is dissemination, it should be enough to insert a link to the previous paper at the top of the current one, and then republish it in a bunch of other venues that will reach different audiences that may benefit from it. Retracting an otherwise sound contribution because it duplicates a previous one reduces access and dissemination and does nothing at all to help the research process. It is harmful.
Repetition and multiple dissemination are good things for the academic process, especially when, as is the case here, a first publication of results is not widely available (unless you happen to hear about it and have 350 SA Rand lying around, plus shipping and handling). I really don’t mind whatsoever if a paper, or the data on which it is based, are available in multiple places. In fact, I would hope they are available in as many outlets and in as many forms as possible.
This multiplication of the publications is not a problem for the research process, quite the contrary. It is a problem for the journal system and for the labour structure of academia. It forces journals to defend their existence. It forces hiring and granting committees to actually examine and evaluate the contributions made by applicants, rather than number or location or articles that communicate those contributions. In a post-journal academic publishing landscape, duplication of publications is simply not an issue. It is an asset. It helps increase access to results and ideas.
Republishing is not cheating
In the journal-based academic publishing landscape, “originality”, which is really exclusivity, creates value for journals, but it limits value for society. The value for journals is based on restricting access and selling the idea that authors should be evaluated through journal metrics. None of this has to do with research quality, and none of it is fundamentally related to ethics, outside the confines of the numbers game that academics have recently agreed to play. Duplicating a publication is not “cheating” if what matters is the content of the contribution and not merely the fact of putting out a unit of publication.
Of course, there can be serious consequences for an author whose paper is retracted. The protection of the journal publishing system demands that defection be punished harshly. There is a simple way to avoid that outcome: Post your findings publically for your colleagues to see, evaluate, and build on. Let the exclusivist journals spend their time and energy policing their preserves. Carry on with our work of finding and communicating.
Bruxelles L, Maire R, Beaudet A, Couzens R, Duranthon F, JB Fourvel, D Stratford, F Thackeray, J Braga 2018. The revised stratigraphy of the hominin-bearing site of Kromdraai (Gauteng, South Africa) and associated perspectives, Journal of Human Evolution 114:1-19.
L.B., R.M., R.C., F.T. and J.B. in Braga, J. and Thackeray, J.F. 2016 (Eds.), Kromdraai. A Birthplace of Paranthropus in the Cradle of Humankind” (2016, SUN MeDIA MeTRO, pp. 31-47).