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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 June 16; 334(7606): 1251.
PMCID: PMC1892461
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What's so precious about originality

Simon Chapman, professor of public health, School of Public Health, University of Sydney

Research aside, the efforts contributors to medical and science journals are forced to go to to avoid self plagiarism are just a waste of time, writes Simon Chapman

The ethics of banning smoking outdoors (I am opposed) is something that I have written on several times, most recently at length in a forthcoming book (Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control: Making Smoking History. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

This issue has got up some worrying momentum lately and so I find myself being asked to increasingly speak and write about it. I tell those asking me that I have little more to add than I have already written in my previous contributions, yet they insist they want yet another, “different” piece. What is the point, precisely, in me spending hours manicuring, paraphrasing, and in every other way trying to express the same basic arguments that I originally felt I expressed as well as I could? All in the name of not “self plagiarising.” I can play around with trying to top, tail, and middle things differently, but if the core of what I'm wanting to say is essentially the same, and I'm running into agendas about originality, what is more important here?

Media outlets all over the world daily buy exemplary articles, syndicated columns, features, etc, in recognition that their readerships will not have read a piece that was originally published elsewhere, the web notwithstanding. Why do we in the health and medical specialist journal media feel so precious about originality? When it comes to original research I well understand the point, but many editors on this list are editing journals whose standard fare goes beyond original data into policy analysis and contributions designed to leverage change in some of the world's most pressing problems (climate change, violence, poverty, obesity, etc). Anyone who thinks that only data, rather than interpretation and commentary, change the world should get off at the next stop.

Ought we not to differentiate between original data and analysis/commentary? Do we really believe that humanity is best served by the straitjacket of requiring debates, policy advocacy and commentary to always be wholly original? Do we really believe that significant contributors to these debates really only deserve one bite at expressing their best shots, and if the rest of the world happens to miss out on their original contribution in “Calathumpian Journal of Significant Issues,” this is just too bad . . . all in the name of preserving publishing integrity?


This is an edited version of an article that appeared on the listserv of the World Association of Medical Editors on 30 May 2007.

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