An Odyssey of publishing from a PhD thesis: A Catch-22 of self-plagiarism, or just irresponsible journal editorship?

By Sarah Velten

This is a story about a publication process that went very wrong but eventually came to a happy end – but only after a considerable amount of time and loss of hair out of despair. I tell this story so that other authors who may find themselves in a similar situation can draw on the experiences my co-authors and I have had here, and hopefully also get their paper published against all odds. This account could be particularly interesting for PhD students because this story is about one of my PhD papers. And that was also part of the problem. What is more, there is also a fun element to this story – as one of the co-authors of this paper frequently stated, this whole process would have been quite a slapstick comedy if it had not been so serious.

It all started with the submission of the last paper of my cumulative dissertation. Until then, I had been quite lucky with the publication of all the other papers in my dissertation. Publication had been very swift with reasonable review times and limited requests for changes. Thus, I also had high hopes for this paper when I submitted it to a journal shortly before handing in my complete dissertation. While waiting for the reviewers’ response, I defended my dissertation and was now eager to publish it.

Before doing so, I informed the journal where I had submitted the paper of my intention to publish the original manuscript non-commercially as part of my dissertation. I also asked if there were any copyright issues. The first answer was that it should not be a problem to include the manuscript in my dissertation. I also pointed out that my thesis would be freely accessible online through library web catalogues. Thus, the journal stated that it would be fine to reprint the manuscript in my dissertation, but only after final acceptance of the paper. However, when I received this final statement after a few weeks, I had already submitted my dissertation. After all, the initial response from the journal was that there would not be a problem.

Not long after, the paper came back with rather favourable reviews from three reviewers. My co-authors and I revised the manuscript and sent it back … and were almost immediately told that the paper had to be rejected because of its high similarity to existing publications.

At first, we were puzzled. In searching for the cause of this problem, the journal was not very helpful, as they were reluctant to share the plagiarism check report with us. Nevertheless, we figured out that it was indeed the original manuscript in my PhD thesis that had caused the plagiarism alert. Was I stuck in a Catch-22?

Admittedly, not having waited for the journal’s final decision on the publication of the paper in my thesis was my mistake. Thus, we apologized and explained why the manuscript had already been published. The editor of the journal then informed us that they “prefer publishing original texts, which are not copy-paste products from the web. On the other hand, excerpts from reports, thesis works, etc. are acceptable provided the copy owner will not accuse the publisher for plagiarism.” He also asked us to “resubmit the version [we] would like publishing as a new manuscript”.

Relieved, we resubmitted the revised manuscript, assuming that this would be a mere technicality. But after some time, we learned that the manuscript had been sent out again for review (which, of course, we had not expected, given that it had already been reviewed and revised once before and that the reason for resubmission had nothing to do with the quality of its content). We were asked for minor revisions, revised the paper, sent it back and… were told again (!) that our paper had been rejected because of suspected plagiarism.

We explained everything to the editor of the journal again, and after some back and forth, he informed us that he „finally proposed accepting the text as it stands.” We were very happy, but after the experiences we had had up to that point, we did not truly believe what we were reading.

And rightly so: nothing happened for weeks. Upon enquiry on our part, the editor first claimed that he had understood that we wanted to revise and resubmit the manuscript (no one had ever even mentioned this). Then he claimed technical difficulties as the cause of the delay in publication and promised to look into it. Yet again, the only thing we heard back about the manuscript was extended silence.

I was beginning to despair because a meaningful conversation and conflict resolution with the editorial office seemed impossible. Thus, I tried a higher level and made a request through the publisher’s author support, which, however, could not have been less helpful: My request was redirected to the journal itself. And the journal’s response was – you guessed it – that our manuscript was rejected, without further explanation. I challenged this decision again, but I never received a reply.

By this time, about two years had passed since the manuscript was first submitted and, not for the first time, I was on the verge of giving up. In addition to the confusion and unreliability in communication with the editorial office, there were other issues. For instance, after submission the paper kept sitting on the editor’s desk for months before it was passed on to the reviewers (almost three months after the first submission, five months after the second submission). Also, both times the paper was forwarded only after additional request from our side. And often, the editor only answered requests from the co-authoring senior researcher, while requests from my side remained unanswered.

Yet, there was one last hope. Rather by chance, I had come across the publisher’s ethics reporting contact where you could raise concerns about editorial or publishing matters (and that was lucky enough, because this contact is really hard to find). So, as a last resort, I wrote up the whole story and sent it to this ethics contact, along with copies of all email correspondence, alleging unethical behaviour on the part of the journal.

On the same day (!) I was contacted by an associate publisher who promised to discuss the matter with the editor concerned. Only about ten days later, I was informed that “[t]he content of the article is good for publication and the only reason to reject the paper was the overlap with the thesis. As the thesis contains unpublished work, this should not be considered prior publication. For this reason, the rejection decision will be rescinded.” The only condition was that I would have to include the citation of my dissertation in the manuscript and I should be contacted by the journal for this.

The journal stuck to its former modus operandi and never sent me a request for this minor edit. Thus, after a few weeks of waiting, I wrote again to the associate publisher. And then, truly and finally, our paper was officially accepted for publication, with no further requirements. Now that the manuscript was no longer in the hands of the journal but in the hands of the publisher, publication of the paper was surprisingly swift.

I am very relieved now that this odyssey has come to a happy end. And at the very least, it taught me some lessons: 1) Be very careful about publishing your PhD thesis if it contains papers that have not yet been published. 2) If there are problems that cannot be solved with the editorial office of a journal, get the publisher involved – but do not use the normal author support system for that. 3) Do not give up on a publication lightly, even if it encounters problems.

By the way, the paper concerned presents a case study meta-analysis on the success of collaboratives striving for a more sustainable agriculture and you can find it here.

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