Someone pointed me to this letter to Bruno Frey from the editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. (Background here, also more here from Olaf Storbeck.) The journal editor was upset about Frey’s self-plagiarism, and Frey responded with an apology:
It was a grave mistake on our part for which we deeply apologize. It should never have happened. This is deplorable. . . . Please be assured that we take all precautions and measures that this unfortunate event does not happen again, with any journal.
What I wonder is: How “deplorable” does Frey really think this is? You don’t publish a paper in 5 different places by accident! Is Frey saying that he knew this was deplorable back then and he did it anyway, based on calculation balancing the gains from multiple publications vs. the potential losses if he got caught? Or is he saying that the conduct is deplorable, but he didn’t realize it was deplorable when he did it?
My guess is that Frey does not actually think the repeated publication was deplorable; he’s just saying this because he’s broken the rules and he has to apologize. Just like if I’m stopped by a cop for running a red light, I’d apologize till my lips turned blue even if I didn’t think I did anything wrong.
In the self-plagiarism case, I’m guessing Frey’s thoughts are a mixture of:
1. There’s nothing really wrong with publishing the same material in different places. Five journals represent five different audiences, and if it’s good work, why not try to reach more people? The only trouble is that nowadays nobody reads journal articles anyway. Journal publication is little more than a stamp of approval. And what’s the point of getting five stamps when one will do?
2. Everybody does it. It’s like doping in the Tour de France: if you don’t bend the rules, you’ll fall behind.
What do I think? It looks like Frey and his collaborators broke the rules, got caught, and are paying the price. The research in question doesn’t seem like anything special; my guess is that all these journals accepted the paper because (a) it was written in an “economics” style and seemed professional, (b) the topic of the Titanic seemed like a fun diversion, and (c) they weren’t aware of the many papers that had already been written on the topic. The Frey et al. paper is ok, worth publishing once, perhaps, but it’s not really good enough to be published in five different places. The econ journals should reserve this treatment for the very best research.