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The Hazards of Synthesis

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Richard Eckersley’s review paper was rejected by The Lancet for “self-plagiarism”.

By Richard Eckersley

Synthesis of knowledge from different disciplines is underused in research and has hazards for practitioners.

Last year I sent The Lancet a wide-ranging paper urging the need to rethink the science and politics of population health. The journal rejected the paper on the grounds of “self-plagiarism” and reported me to my university, the Australian National University. The ANU investigated and rejected the charge, saying I had not breached the Australian or ANU codes on responsible research.

The prohibition of self-plagiarism – or redundant publication – is intended to stop researchers reporting the same research findings in different journals. The Australian and ANU codes allow exceptions in certain circumstances such as review articles and where the author discloses the replication when submitting a paper. I had said in my cover letter that I had published before on several of the individual themes, as was clear from the references (some obscure and in other fields, and with web links included). However, the paper was a synthesis of this and new material to present an original and provocative argument.

There was no attempt to deceive; my conscience was clear. Plagiarism is the unattributed use of another’s work, but this was my work and I had attributed it. The Lancet’s interpretation suggests that an author can use another’s words (attributed) but not his own. (“Self-plagiarism” is accepted practice in journalism and consultancy, areas in which I also work.)

Charges of self-plagiarism are not the only risk for the synthesiser. Few peer reviewers for journals or funding agencies understand the approach. Most do not have the breadth of knowledge to assess it; they focus on their area of expertise and downplay or ignore the rest. One Australian Research Council reviewer dismissed my work as mere journalism that didn’t warrant support.

Disciplines often see things differently. I research the effects of culture on health and well-being, drawing on anthropology, epidemiology, sociology and psychology (among other disciplines). Yet they each have different ideas about what culture is and does – one study counted 164 different definitions. Critical, even hostile, reviews are inevitable in synthesis, and just one can be enough to scuttle a paper or funding application. As a colleague remarked: “You need very tough skin to engage in cross-disciplinary publishing!”

It is not surprising, then, that transdisciplinary synthesis remains underused in science (the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is one notable exception). Yet synthesis is a legitimate methodology with enormous potential. While empirical research seeks to improve understanding of the world by creating new knowledge, synthesis creates new understanding by integrating existing knowledge from across a range of fields, disciplines and sciences.

The value of transdisciplinary synthesis goes beyond reviewing, summarising and carrying out multidisciplinary research as such. It aims to develop new, common frameworks of understanding, striving for coherence in the overall conceptual picture rather than precision in the empirical detail. It also dispenses with expectations of scientific certainty; everything is provisional.

Synthesis yields several intellectual and policy benefits: it adds value to existing specialised knowledge; reduces disciplinary biases; transcends interdisciplinary tensions; improves researchers’ knowledge outside their specialisation; generates new research questions; is especially useful in examining complex systems; and enhances the application of knowledge.

In crossing disciplinary boundaries, synthesis exposes the “false consensus” that can develop within disciplines, which then defines, and limits, the research questions asked.

But gains are not easily won. In a transdisciplinary project on young people’s well-being, my co-authors and I could not agree on key issues, and even had trouble agreeing on how to disagree. Rather than hiding these differences, we highlighted them as a significant outcome of the project.

Synthesis helps the application of research because it improves the fit between research and policy; strengthens the links between research and advocacy; is particularly appropriate for addressing the increasing scale, magnitude, complexity and interconnectedness of human problems; and suits the complex, diffuse processes of social change.

It deserves a better deal.

Richard Eckersley is a founding director of Australia 21 (www.australia21.org.au), an independent, non-profit company that carries out transdisciplinary research, and a visiting fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU.