A recent article at World Net Daily (WND) discusses the case of mathematician Granville Sewell. Earlier this year the journal Applied Mathematics Letters paid Sewell $10,000 in attorneys’ fees and publicly apologized to him after wrongfully withdrawing his paper critiquing neo-Darwinism. What caught my eye wasn’t so much the WND article itself (which has some factual errors) but a comment by Wesley Elsberry to WND’s reporter, Ellis Washington:
Hey, Ellis, what do you have to say to the nitty-gritty fact that Sewell’s “paper” was about half text that had already been published by him as a book with the Discovery Institute brand on it? Is self-plagiarism in the scientific literature just peachy-keen if it repeats the same stuff you’ve liked hearing in the past?
It was Elsberry (a long time evolution-activist and former staff member with the National Center for Science Education) who first broke the story that Sewell’s paper had been withdrawn by Applied Mathematics Letters. (Elsberry actually broke the story before the journal had even informed Sewell about the withdrawal.) And it was on Elsberry’s own Internet forum that pro-evolution activists conspired to pressure the journal into withdrawing Sewell’s paper.
In breaking the story,” Elsberry had accused Sewell of “self-plagiarism” in the paper, charging the mathematician with “the deliberate gaming of the system that is second nature to the religious antievolution movement.”
(Elsberry is well known for his harsh and highly personal style of attack; he once described his debate strategy as follows: “If you want to drive a wedge between an audience of evangelical Christians and the professionals in the ID movement, you need a third approach: show that the ID advocate on stage with you has been lying to his followers.”)
In fact, Elsberry’s main complaint about the paper was Sewell’s alleged “self-plagiarism,” as seen in the following comment where Elsberry threatens to shut down a Panda’s Thumb discussion if commenters stray from the thread’s official topic of Sewell’s “self-plagiarism”:
The topic here, which apparently some people are forgetting, is 2LoT self-plagiarism on Sewell’s part. If things go substantially away from that, I’ll probably just close the thread.
If self-plagiarism is Elsberry’s primary complaint against Sewell’s paper then that is mighty hypocritical. As we’ll see below, an analysis of Elsberry’s paper recent co-published with Jeffrey Shallit in the journal Synthese shows that their paper was ~94% “self-plagiarized” from a similar article they had published on TalkReason.org years earlier.
The Case of Wesley Elsberry’s Self-Plagiarism
In 2003, Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit co-published a paper, “Information Theory, Evolutionary Computation, and Dembski’s ‘Complex Specified Information,’” on the website TalkReason.org. (I wrote a response to the substance of their 2003 article here.)
In 2011, Elsberry and Shallit co-published a paper in the journal Synthese titled “Information theory, evolutionary computation, and Dembski’s “complex specified information.’”
If you’ll notice, the titles of those two papers are identical. That’s not all that’s identical in the papers. A comparison performed by a colleague using the plagiarism-detection software SafeAssign shows that these two papers are ~94% matching.
(Note: The analysis used text files I had prepared using the original PDFs of the papers. For processing, I had to strip out some numbers and mathematical equations which did not translate well into the text files. Also, my colleague’s name has been redacted.)
Isn’t it just a bit hypocritical that Elsberry harps upon Sewell’s supposed mortal sin of “self-plagiarism” when Elsberry himself has taken previously published work and then republished it in academic journals?
The Problem is Elsberry’s Hypocritical Attack, Not Elsberry’s Publication Practices
Elsberry may try to misconstrue my argument, so if you’re reading some response from him, please consider:
While I do believe that Wesley Elsberry and Jeffrey Shallit “self-plagiarized” in their 2011 Synthese article, I am not criticizing them for doing so. It’s hard to argue that copying your own material is unethical. After all, you are the author!
Scholars routinely publish works in various venues, and sometimes they rework them to fit the venue. This is not an unusual practice.
So I personally don’t care if Wesley Elsberry plagiarizes himself, and it doesn’t matter to me one bit if he resubmits material he’s already published to any publication he likes.
My point is simply this: it is hypocritical for Elsberry to attack Sewell for “self-plagiarism,” when Elsberry does the same thing. What Sewell (and Elsberry) have done isn’t a crime. Elsberry’s complaint is both baseless, and hypocritical.