Duplicate submission is widely held to be a severe ethical infraction, and there are many COPE cases where authors are reprimanded or even banned from publishing in the affected journals.
But why is duplicate submission held to be such a sin? It is perhaps telling that both COPE flowcharts on this issue point to duplicate publication rather than duplicate submission as such: the bigger crime is submitting an article to two or more journals with the intent of publishing the same article (or a near carbon copy) more than once. Duplicate publication unfairly inflates those authors’ publication records and should therefore prevented whenever possible.
The act of simultaneously submitting the same article to two different journals in order to hedge against rejection from one or the other is still regarded as misconduct (as in this example), particularly when the authors conceal their actions from the other journal(s).
As a thought experiment, let’s have an author submit their article to two journals A and B on the same day. Their cover letter makes it clear that they have submitted the same article to multiple journals, and that they will withdraw the article from one or the other journal depending on the outcome of peer review. They have no intention of publishing the same article twice.
The Chief Editors of both A and B would likely be scandalized and immediately reject the article. Their decision letters might read something like this:
“Dear Dr X.
Duplicate submission is considered to be academic misconduct. We cannot in good conscience ask our reviewer community to evaluate this article when we know that journal A/B is also requesting the same effort from their reviewers.”
This response sounds plausible, until one realizes that both journal A and B will waste the efforts of their reviewers when they reject the article – which happens for 60-90% of submissions. The reviews are sent to the author and the review text is archived away within the journal’s manuscript management system. There is no mechanism to compel authors to revise their article in response to the reviews, and anecdotal evidence suggests that authors regularly submit an unchanged manuscript to the next journal. Aside from all of those hours out of the reviewers’ lives, it’s as if the review process never happened.
One could argue that it’s the authors who are wasting the reviewers’ time by not improving their article, but their cynicism is fuelled by high rejection rates: why bother to revise the manuscript when it’s only got a 30% chance of going out for review, and even less chance of being accepted for publication?
Journals fussing that duplicate peer review wastes reviewer time are therefore standing in very fragile glass houses. If peer review at journals A and B leads to acceptance only 10% of the time, what do we lose if they review the article in parallel rather than in sequence? And is that loss offset by the corresponding reduction in publication time?
This same logic is one of the principle arguments in favour of preprints: the community can evaluate the article while it goes through formal peer review at the journal. There is an exciting range of peer review initiatives for preprints, with some closer than others to duplicating journal peer review.
Consider an author who posts a preprint on a preprint server and then immediately submits the manuscript to a journal. The author can truthfully answer ‘No’ to the question “Is this manuscript under consideration at any other journal” and the manuscript can move into peer review.
BUT: the preprint is an identical public version of the manuscript, which allows all sorts of other peer review activity to go on while the ‘original’ version of the article is in review at the journal. Here’s a range of scenarios for the preprint:
- It gets discussed on Twitter by the authors and other members of the community
- It’s picked up for discussion by an online journal club and the transcript of the conversation is posted online
- The author is asked to join an online journal club to discuss the preprint and agrees
- An overlay journal contacts the author and asks whether they’d be interested in having the preprint reviewed; the author agrees
- An overlay journal reviews the article then offers the authors ‘publication’; the author agrees (which amounts to a listing of the preprint DOI in the overlay journal Table of Contents)
- A regular journal contacts the author and asks whether they’d be interested in having the preprint reviewed; the author agrees
- A regular journal reviews the preprint and accepts it ‘as-is’ for publication; it’s then typeset, assigned a DOI, and published on the journal website. The author is unaware of this process throughout
- The author submits the preprint to an overlay journal
- The author submits the preprint to a second regular journal
Scenarios 1 through 9 range between innocuous (1) and duplicate peer review (9), but where is the line in between? There’s several complexities here.
First, preprint servers rarely indicate whether a preprint is in formal review at a journal, so spontaneous review efforts by the community may well unwittingly be duplicating peer review. The only way to find out is to contact the authors.
One criterion where review of a preprint verges into unethical duplicate peer review hinges on whether the author is aware of, or even initiates, peer review of their preprint. In scenario 6 (a regular journal offers to review the preprint) the authors should decline. But should they decline the overlay journal, as overlays don’t officially ‘publish’ articles (i.e. don’t assign their own DOI)? What happens if they revise their manuscript and a different version of the preprint goes to the overlay journal?
Another complication is around volunteer versus solicited reviewers. Academics are free to volunteer to review whatever they want, but once someone starts soliciting reviews on behalf of a journal or similar organization, the process looks more like traditional peer review (and may therefore count as ‘duplicate’, even when the authors are not involved).
Scenario (7) further complicates the picture. The preprint is CC-BY, so as long as the publishing journal acknowledges the authors, they are completely within their rights to publish the preprint and assign it a DOI. This is, of course, duplicate publication, and perhaps even duplicate peer review, but the authors are blameless in this case. (One can imagine a ransomware version of predatory publishing, where the preprint is rapidly published in a predatory journal, and the authors must pay a ‘ransom’ to have it retracted and removed from the scholarly record before they can publish it in a reputable journal.)
To sum up, the existence of a public version of a manuscript (i.e., the preprint) opens up many new avenues for peer review, and these are largely positive for the integrity of the scientific record. However, many of these peer review efforts run in parallel to peer review at the journal. As I hope I’ve illustrated above, there’s no clear way to decide what counts as legitimate discussion of a preprint and what is unethical duplicate peer review. As preprints become more prevalent we may need to abandon our hopes of enforcing sequential peer review entirely, and that may not be a bad thing.