Saturday, August 20, 2011

Smacking Down Self-Plagiarism - The Bruno Frey Affair Becomes Official

The latest issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives (JEP) has just gone up online and includes the replication of a letter exchange between its editor, David Autor of MIT, and Bruno Frey, regarding accusations that a paper published by Frey and two coauthors (Benno Torgler and David Savage) self-plagiarized three other papers by them appearing earlier in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization (JEBO), which I was editing when that paper was submitted and accepted and published (and was the first version submitted to any journal), and Rationality and Society (R&S). None of these highly similar papers cited any of the other ones. In his letter, addressed to the editors of the other journals as well as to Orley Ashenfelter, President of the AEA and John Siegfried, longtime AEA Secretary-Treasurer, Autor accuses Frey of having engaged in conduct "ethically dubious and disrespectful to the American Economics Association [publisher of the JEP], the JEP and the JEP's readers." Frey, speaking on behalf of one coauthor, his former student Benno Torgler (Savage is currently Torgler's student, and they both pleaded for Savage not to be punished), stated "we deeply apologize" and "This is deplorable." (referring to their conduct). This can all be found at

While the investigation by Autor began earlier, this matter has been a matter of public discussion for almost half a year. Among the earliest to post on this was the anonymous blogger, Economic Logician at While some others have picked up on this, including at the Wall Street Journal, incompetently originally Andrew Gelman, and many threads on the notorious anonymous blog, econjobrumors, the most significant figure to weigh in has been Olaf Storbek, a top correspondent at Handelsblatt at . This was particularly important in that Handelsblatt ranks economists within the German-speaking world, and in recent years Frey had been at the top of their rankings due to his numerous publications, clearly puffed to some extent by this sort of unacceptable practices.

I have commented on the problem of plagiarism in general in an essay I have mentioned here before, "Tales from the editors' crypt: Dealing with accusations of plagiarism, true, uncertain, and false," available near the bottom of my website at , which is forthcoming in a book of essays by journal editors. I have a section in there on self-plagiarism, which Frey quoted after I sent him a copy. I note that self-plagiarism is not as bad as plagiarizing others, but nevertheless condemn it as unacceptable and note that its "red flag" is the failure to cite closely related papers.

I will note that there have more recently been accusations of outright plagiarism of others, particularly of a paper appearing in 1986 in a sociology journal by Wayne Hall. This has been denied by the authors, and I do not believe anybody can prove anything one way or the other on that accusation. I also note that the topic of all these papers has been the conduct of people on the Titanic as it sank in connection with various social norms (One was more likely to survive if one was rich, an American, a woman or child, or a member of the crew).

While I am pleased at the outcome of this matter (which is not fully complete as there are university investigations still going on), I am sad about this regarding Bruno Frey. He has written many interesting papers, even if sometimes taking too much credit for himself. I published several papers by him when I edited JEBO, and I had friendly relations with him (no, have never met the guy in person). I regret that this has happened, but I think that the message needed to be sent that this sort of practice is professionally unacceptable, and I am glad that those in the positions of greatest authority, particularly David Autor, have acted to send the message.


Ken Houghton said...

Good piece which would be much more readable if you used some basic html code and/or embedding of links.

"I think that the message needed to be sent that this sort of practice is professionally unacceptable..."

Noted for the record: professional writers often 'plagiarize' themselves by this definition, using chunks of previously-published text in a piece for a different audience. "The Author(s) warrant(s) that the above-named manuscript is his
or her [shouldn't there also be an "or their"? - klh] own original work of authorship and has not been published previously" seems consistent with that in spirit, if not in letter.

Autor's declaration translates well as: "As soon as JEBO accepted the article, you should have withdrawn it from JEP," or a violation of that other commercial writer's rule: simultaneous submissions are acceptable, but withdraw from the others on acceptance.

The error, it appears, is not in the multiple submissions; it's the failure to withdraw (or, at least, notify of acceptance and let the journal decide).

Or am I missing something?

Barkley Rosser said...


Sorry if the links are not working. In the past, when I have typed in such addresses the links have worked. Not sure why these are not working.

Anyway, in my essay on plagiarism I make the point that the "red flag" of self-plagiarism is failing to cite the other work(s) for which there is serious overlap. Autor makes this point as well in his letter to Frey; none of the other papers were cited in the one sent to his journal. Indeed, I was aware there was a problem the minute I saw the paper in JEP, although I did not initiate the proceedings that transpired.

So, sure, anyone with an organized research program is likely to repeat pieces of it in succeeding papers. The non-self plagiarizer makes clear what in the new paper has appeared before, e.g. "See Rosser (2009) for more extended discussion of this model," and what is new in the paper being considered. Indeed, for most authors this is crucial, say it upfront in the introduction clearly, "This paper extends previous work by this author by doing blah blah blah." Needless to say, none of this was done by Frey and his coauthors in their submission to the JEP.