How can text recycling be harmful? Text recycling as a questionable research practice

Text recycling is a relatively new concern. In the current debate on text recycling, most researchers focus on the damage to the reader who is ‘deceived by false claims of originality’ (de Vasconcelos & Roig, 2015). However, the more severe implications of text recycling may come in the form of consequences for the scientific enterprise as a whole. This may include consequences for co-authors, fellow scientists and even society, such as unfair competition due to skewed rewards and the abuse of publication resources and reviewers’ efforts (Tramer, Reynolds, Moore, & McQuay, 1997).

Several arguments suggest that text recycling is unacceptable.

Re-publication of texts could be considered an abuse of the scientific publication system. Recycled texts can be considered non-essential publications, making it harder for scholars to find their way to more relevant texts. The abuse is especially relevant given the reliance on (peer) reviewers who offer their time to assess work that has already been reviewed. However, these arguments only hold for the recycling of large sections of texts, as the reuse of smaller text fragments does not burden the publication system.

The major argument against text recycling is that it is a form of gaming the science reward system, with text recycling scientists claiming more productivity than their work actually warrants. In a research system in which the number of publications is often considered an indicator of ‘quality’ as well as a career promotion and grant allocation instrument, text recycling is a way to boost scores at the expense of other researchers through unfair competition for grants or positions (Horbach & Halffman, 2017).

Lastly, text recycling also has potentially harmful consequences for society, especially in biomedical research. Tramer et al. (1997) point out that duplicate reporting of a drug’s effectiveness yields erroneous results in its meta-analyses. As a result, the estimates of the treatment efficacy might be biased, which could potentially harm patients.