A Question for Readers About Publishing Etiquette (Minor Update)

by Kevin Jon Heller

Dear readers, I need your advice.  I was recently asked by a good journal to peer review a short essay about international criminal law.  The essay was quite good, and I would have had no qualms about recommending its publication, but I had the strangest sense of deja vu as I read it.  It didn’t take me long to realize why: the author had published a version of the article as a blog post on a major international-law blog — one of which he/she is not a member.  That would not necessarily have been a deal-breaker for me, but the blog post reproduced verbatim nearly 80% of the article’s text — basically, it was the article, minus the footnotes.  As a result, I informed the journal that although the article was very good, I could not recommend publishing it.  I also suggested that, if they were not bothered by the duplication, they should ask another reviewer to take a look at the article.  I think that was the right decision, especially as the journal did not indicate to me that it was aware the article had previously been published on a blog.  But I still feel a bit conflicted — the author is not a professor and is not necessarily aware of publishing conventions.  I would love to hear from others about what they would have done in my situation.

UPDATE: In response to Alec’s comment below, I have updated the post to make clear that this was not a self-posted entry; the author submitted the post to the blog in question and the blog agreed to publish it.  If that affects anyone’s opinion, please let me know in the comments.


13 Responses

  1. Hi Kevin,
    Interesting dilemma. I think there are good arguments either for rejecting or recommending this article in your peer review. There is definitely a risk that there will be a chill on high caliber blog postings if this then means they cannot be formally published findings, and blogs are very useful resources in academia today. We should seek to avoid encouraging only ‘second tier’ posts on websites – though, on the other hand, there are also good arguments that blogs should be reserved for short comments on recent events (thoughts on this?)

    What are blog postings analogous to? Are they in effect the same as publishing in another journal, or like posting early (or even late) drafts of articles on open source websites like SSRN? I don’t think in the latter case that would prohibit publication.

    Here, since the work is all original, perhaps the best strategy would have been to make a separate recommendation on the caliber of the work, and then also inform the journal of the previous publication of the article on the blog (without recommending that this should prohibit it from publishing). Each journal/editorial board has its own publishing policy and i’m sure can make that decision for themselves.

  2. Ken,

    Good comments.  Another friend raised the SSRN issue, but I think a blog post is closer to a published article.  SSRN articles are either works-in-progress or post-publication copies.  A blog post can be a work in progress, but this one clearly wasn’t — nor was it indicated as, say, tentative thoughts forming part of a larger project.

  3. Maybe the author did tell the journal that the material was previously published on a blog when he or she submitted it – in which case it is up to the journal to still send it for peer review. If that is what happened and the journal decided that they might be interested in the article even though it has previously been appeared somewhere, then there seems to be no problem at all. If not, it would be a form of self-plagiarism. I would simply flag it to the journal, but still review it for academic merit and leave it for them to decide.

  4. Very interesting post and comments.   My thoughts on this stem from my understanding of what blogging is.  Blogs are designed to engage discussion – the posts are often framed as “responses” and are in real time.  They pose as excellent testing grounds for future articles.

    One thing missing in (some) blog posts is the meticulous sourcing that I think comes with publishing in journals.  At least in a work-in-progress, this can be developed and demonstrated by the author.   I’m more torn about knowing that someone would publish without recognizing the sources within the post.  
    As to the “chill” of high calibre blog posts – I do not think it deters high level thinking.   From the facts presented, it appears that the author recycled a composed piece of polished writing. 

    I think I would have done the exact same thing – Feeling conflicted, I would recuse myself from the review and explain my reason for doing so.

    And may I say, this must have been one long blog post!

  5. MP,

    Almost 4,000 words!

  6. Response…I agree with Ken — once having informed the Journal, they could decide.
    I do not consider that a “blog” posting, as here on Opinio Juris, is “publishing” in the sense that the law reviews are concerned about. But you indicate that there was almost 4,000 words, and footnotes?
    I would definitely consider (as would the law reviews) publishing in an on-line version of a law review to be “publishing” in the sense that is considered by the law reviews to be already published (e.g., publishing in Harv. Int’l L.J. on-line).

  7. I do not see the dilemma.  Most good papers are mounted on SSRN or Selected Works and widely circulated before submission to peer review, and they will have been read much more than most blog entries.  Bloggers might have delusions of grandeur, but a blog is not a journal.  I don’t see how self-posting anything on-line should preclude the latter’s publication if it meets the journal’s standards.

  8. “I don’t see how self-posting anything on-line should preclude the latter’s publication if it meets the journal’s standards.”

    Perhaps I should have been more clear — the author of the article is not a contributor to the blog in question, so the post was not “self-posted.”  He/she asked the blog to publish his post and it did.  Does that change your opinion?

  9. Those who read my content online are likely to overlap only a small amount with those who would read the same content in a print journal. In my view, the two media reach different audiences and should not pose a concern for most print journals. If it acknowledges printing previously published online content, the journal can highlight it as particularly insightful article, worthy of “cross-posting” (just as OP does a wrap-up of the best recent content).

    I will note that as I am someone who “self-” and “guest-posts” and aspires to being traditionally published, but does not quite have those connections yet. My online content is primarily for my own interests to me or which I feel needs a timely response. I also use it to self-critique my own research skills and writing ability. Online is where most of my writing samples exist and the best place to assess my knowledge of a particular topic.

  10. I don’t see the problem. Just let the journal decide. Give them all the information, including your opinion about the quality of the submission, and let them decide what standard they want to use.

    (For the journals I help edit, we would probably choose to reject something like this or, more likely, tell the author to do a rewrite just on general principle, to get rid of the self-plagiarism.)

  11. The crux here is whether the publication of a paper as a blog posting is considered a publication in the narrower academic sense. Most people would agree that if an online article has a DOI it is considered published. But this is not the case here. Therefor i would argue that it is solely a question of journal policy and thus be decided on by the editor and not the reviewer, who should however inform the journal about the “dual publication”.

  12. It seems that even if you are publishing a paper in the form of a blog it does not change its academic nature, however (as you mentioned) in this particular case lacks academic credentials, such as footnotes, abstract, etc. Therefore I don’t think it can be considered a publication, especially if the “blog” does not pose or refer to itself as an “online academic journal” or does not carry similar goals. I agree with other comments – it should be left to the editorial of the journal then to accept or deny duplicated content.

  13. My response actually did not concern posting a blog, but the full article on SSRN.  I do not see the difference.

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