Sternberg-er And Fries

By Neuroskeptic | May 7, 2018 5:03 am

A new scandal hit the world of psychology last week when it emerged that Robert J. Sternberg, an eminent experimental psychologist and former President of the American Psychological Association (APA), has been engaging in text recycling aka self-plagiarism.


It has emerged that Sternberg re-used large chunks of previously published text in several publications without any acknowledgement that this done. This discovery came after Sternberg was already under scrutiny for a very high rate of self-citation.

In my view, this is a sad case. Sad because I can see no logical reason for Sternberg to do these things. It is not like he was a young researcher desperate to build a career – on the contrary, he was already very succesful.

Sternberg’s early research focussed on intelligence, IQ and rational thought. As early as 1988 – thirty years ago – he had published major, highly cited research on these topics. In the 1990s, his interests branched out into love, creativity, wisdom, education, and his work in these fields was also very succesful. He was named APA President in 2003 – marking the point at which he could truly be said to have risen to the top of his profession.

And yet the earliest example of Sternberg’s self-plagiarism (so far) is from 2002, if I’ve understood this post correctly. The self-citation also seems to be a recent phenomenon. It doesn’t make sense. Sternberg is like a millionaire who steals milk from the grocery.

I’ve pointed out before that self-plagiarism and excessive self-citation are not victimless crimes. They devalue the scientific efforts of other researchers by artificially inflating the metrics of the offenders. Yet in this case, I don’t think there were too many victims. By 2002 Sternberg had few peers, and at the lofty heights he occupied, publishing a few extra papers would have hardly mattered.

Still, it does matter to psychology as a whole. Eminent people are supposed to set an example for the rest of us, and Sternberg’s practices, in recent years, have not set a good one. If I had to diagnose what happened, I’d say he just stopped caring and started ‘phoning it in’. Like a once-pioneering band, I like his early work, but Sternberg sold out, man.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, science, select, Top Posts
  • forsdyke

    While knowing nothing about the details of this particular case, I think you should have begun by distinguishing “double-publishing” that is indistinguishable from extensive “text recycling,” and reworking small sections of text from one’s past works into a long review. Having found le mot juste, the sentence juste, or even the paragraph juste – that have been carefully crafted for clarity and style – there are probably many who would be reluctant to extensively modify further in order to satisfy blood-hungry sleuths with anti-plagiarism software. Some sense of proportion is needed.

    • jrkrideau

      I agree, if one has found le mot juste, the sentence juste, or even the paragraph juste one wants/should use it but it is not difficult to say something like “As I have argued before (MadScientist 1902) blah blah,” or “this argument is taken from MadScientist, Frankenstein & Caligula (2010) …”.

      It inflates the citation rate but, I’d say legitimately.
      Without the citations or at least a mention that “this draws on previous work …” it is effectively unfair competition with junior researchers who do not have this reserve of materials to draw upon.

      • Neurosiscientist

        “Unfair competition”? Which young scientist is in competition with a guy like Sternberg?
        I find it symptomatic that most researchers nowadays are more concerned with their careers than with the veracity of their papers. It’s a great sin to re-use one’s own text, but no one cares that the stuff we publish is 90% non-replicable crap. It’s glossing over or faking data that’s harming science, not “self-plagiarism”.

        • jrkrideau

          Which young scientist is in competition with a guy like Sternberg?
          Each and ever one in Sternburg’s area? Not direct competition but unfortunately one’s publication list is a major currency in the field.

          Young researcher is asked to contribute to a book. Minimum of one month, let’s say to do some quick lit checks, write something original and perhaps edit submission. (Wonders, can I afford the time given current workload?)

          Sternburg, maybe 3-4 days to do quick lit checks, reformat some text (has secretary do this?) and submits. (That wasn’t hard)

          I agree with your other sentiments. There are any number of perverse incentives built into the current system and there are some really bad papers coming out.

          That does not justify pretending that you are a prodigious author when you are really good at Cut & Paste.

        • Neuroskeptic

          I noted in the post that Sternberg has few peers these days but that, with success, comes the need to set a good example.

    • jrkrideau

      Some sense of proportion is needed.

      From what I saw on Nick’s blog, the analysis stretches the proportion out of shape.

      There are instances where one needs even just a little common sense. I did hear of a case in a European business school were a student was accused of plagiarism in his master’s thesis.

      He, apparently following normal standares, had several appendices detailing analyses and showing computer code. It appeared that the plagiarism charge was coming mainly or exclusively from the code appendix. It is difficult to paraphrase R commands and functions.

  • Leonid Schneider

    Never have heroes!

  • Nick

    My blog post doesn’t say anything about whether the duplicate publishing started before 2002. I was only informed of the issue 48 hours before I put up my blog post. I don’t currently have an example from before 2002 that is quite as flagrant as the ones I posted, but whether that’s because there isn’t one, or because nobody has found it yet, I couldn’t say.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Ah, I see. I have edited the post to make this clear.

      • Nick

        Great. Now I have to edit my comment. And then you have to edit yours, and then I have to edit this one. :)

  • Uncle Al

    experimental psychologist

    …If Mel Brooks sasses your profession…are you a fraud or a fool?.

  • Neurosiscientist

    “Self-plagiarism” sounds to me like the churches’ sin of “self-abuse”.
    We have had to rewrite the methods section of a paper because we have used the same methods somewhere else before. There are some crazy bureaucrats around that have nothing better do than to suffocate other people with their useless rules.
    No one gets hurt by “self-plagiarism”. If you really hire someone because he has several papers in his CV that were actually copies of other of his own papers, then you should think about the criteria you use to hire your staff. Maybe you should actually have a look at the papers instead of mindlessly counting impact points.
    In the present case, the editors will have asked Sternberg to honor them with a review of his work, he had nothing new to say, so he said the same again. Everybody was happy, no one was harmed.

    • Neuroskeptic

      “In the present case, the editors will have asked Sternberg to honor them with a review of his work, he had nothing new to say, so he said the same again. Everybody was happy, no one was harmed.”

      Maybe we should ask the other authors who contributed to those volumes why they bothered to write original articles then? Are we saying they were wasting their time, given that they could have done what Sternberg did?

      • sam

        Maybe we should.

  • polistra24

    So what? All creators, from authors to musicians to programmers to engineers, constantly reuse and recycle previously built material. You can’t function without it. Why is this particular recycling a problem? If the material is true and useful, it NEEDS to be reused instead of making up new stuff that might be false or invalid.

    • Nick

      But to do it without any acknowledgement, and indeed while *not* citing one’s article from which a lot of text is copied while citing many others, seems a little… lacking in transparency. And then there’s the copyright issue; like it or not, most of the time you sign your legal rights to the text over to the publisher, at which point you have no more right to recycle it than anyone else.

      • Stephen

        Self- plagiarism is a thing now? I thought this was some kind of joke article.
        As to the copyright issue, you never completely give up your rights to your own work. Musicians can still sing their own songs or release new versions even if the record label owns the copyright.

        • Derek Long

          But they aren’t able to sample the old recordings if someone else has rights to the master.

    • Erik Bosma

      Hasn’t this become the new normal in Television and Movie programming for the past 30 years? So blatantly obvious in the past year…

      • Kamran Rowshandel

        Not EVERYONE does it inappropriately, in disregard for your time and mental energy

  • sam


    The whole notion of self plagiarism is absurd and generated by the perverse publishing system. How can one not own one’s own work. It seems that the soft sciences will argue about anything but the validity of their work.

  • alan reyes

    Many in here are failing to see the point. If you agree to submit new science work and you turn in a copy of old science work, you have cheated those involved. If you have nothing actually new to add and consider your prior work perfected, then you need to either not submit or clearly indicate that your contribution is not new. That is not just about science but is a common sense standard in all cognitive work. Something is either new work or It is old. In cognitive work, claiming old work as new is fraud.

    • Stephen

      In that case, call it what it is. Fraud. The whole self-plagiarism headline is a red herring.
      If the issue is that you were (paid?) to do new work but just slapped a new label on some previous work, I can see that as fraud.

      • Neuroskeptic

        Hmm, Sternberg was not (as far as I know) paid for any of these articles. Academics benefit indirectly by publishing lots of articles, but it would be very rare for them to get a direct benefit from any given article. And they get paid to do academic stuff in general, their salary doesn’t depend on any given thing.

        However Sternberg maybe was in breach of some kind of contract because when you publish an article (usually) you sign a form saying that the text is original. I don’t know if these are legally binding though.

    • Erik Bosma

      I agree. He could at least have either admitted to it or, better yet, admitted it and then at least try paraphrasing himself with perhaps different examples, analogies, etc.

  • Pingback: “A new scandal hit the world of psychology last week when it emerged that Robert J. Sternberg, an eminent experimental psychologist and former President of the American Psychological Association (APA), has been engaging in text recycling aka self-plagiarism.” – Medicine by Alexandros G. Sfakianakis,Anapafseos 5 Agios Nikolaos 72100 Crete Greece,00306932607174,00302841026182,

  • Mavis

    The entire field of Psychology has become more of a Multi Level Marketing program. We can see the results every day in America. These so called Psychological researchers are forced to publish, their incomes depend on it. There are no ethical considerations or facts anymore. Every single one of them “Sold Out” and the real research is proprietary. The ACA is no longer relying on facts or science, merely whatever is profitable, gets attention by media, and continues to deceive the public.
    The APA embraced Torture, and used their positions to market Pharmaceuticals, and pseudo Science. Plagiarizing their old work in order to give credibly to anything is hardly earth shaking, it is normal. That is how some of the more profitable psychology marketers operate. This field applied research into nonsense in order to enrich themselves, sell books, market their speaking engagements and justify anything the Corporate Monopolies want to impose on us. We are truly Post Fact here in the US.

  • Kamran Rowshandel

    Let’s Sternly Mourn His Kingpin

    I departed from this proprietor of a new nationality

    Who hid from me—”two tall spindles of silk

    Descend in the jungle…Halfway around the world on the soil,

    A face is upright. An unprotruding septum,

    And aura of understanding, a persevering grin,

    Cover up how its bane in part the appeal did not comprehend

    Which now is dead, eroded from these lively things,

    The heart that respected it, and the hand that fed;

    And on the land lichens grow a sequence of letters:

    My name is Op☍Xhybe, aught may stir neath my bow;

    Avert mirror from gaze, ye Myope, so here coincidentally be!

    This fountain of youth is surrounded by evergreen life. And far away

    From va▴riegated mandala,

    The branches crowd the vines.”



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


See More

@Neuro_Skeptic on Twitter


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar