Self-Plagiarism: When Is Re-Purposing Text Ethically Justifiable?

From Qrius:

In an institutional environment where researchers may be coming under increasing pressure to publish, the temptations to take short cuts and engage in duplicate or redundant publication can be significant. Duplicate publication involves re-publishing substantially the same data, analysis, discussion and conclusion, without providing proper acknowledgement or justification for the practice. Such behaviour is often condemned as ideoplagiarism or self-plagiarism, locating this practice as a parallel activity to that which appropriates other people’s ideas and words and reproduces them without due acknowledgement.

There are good reasons for censuring self-plagiarism – it distorts the academic record where meta-analyses are not aware of the duplicate publication, and provides an unfair advantage when academics’ track records are being compared.

. . . .

Global rankings and national assessments of universities are largely based on research inputs and outputs. Mostly, the output indicators privilege publications in international higher-ranking journals; the vast majority of those only publish in English. However, there are several good reasons why research outputs should also appear outside English-language journals.

. . . .

[R]esearchers often have made a commitment to disseminate the results of their studies to participants or to policy-makers – where either of these communities are not English-speaking, republishing in a language other than English may be entirely appropriate.

So, revising a published paper and translating that into a language other than English might be a laudable way of preserving a research culture in a small language group, influencing policy-makers or returning a benefit to a low- or middle-income country (LMIC). This activity, of course, needs to be acknowledged and transparent and cannot be double-counted as a research output.

. . . .

In 2018, I co-authored an article on research ethics in Taiwan with a Taiwanese academic (Gan and Israel, in press). This will be published in Developing World Bioethics and we shall explore the possibility of modifying it for a Mandarin version aimed specifically at a readership of Taiwanese academics and policy-makers. While many senior Taiwanese academics are fluent in English, this is less likely to be the case among those who have not completed postgraduate qualifications in North America, Australasia or the United Kingdom. Publishing in Mandarin would extend access to our work (including allowing it to be found in a search using Traditional Chinese script), and may make it more readily available for undergraduate teaching. Sometimes, we can craft opportunities to help readers of other languages without translating the entire article. A recent article that I co-authored with Lisa Wynn (Wynn & Israel, 2018) took advantage of the American Anthropologist’s policy of publishing all abstracts in both English and Spanish. At our request, the editors agreed to add abstracts in Arabic and French.

I wonder if fear of being seen as self-plagiarising, also inhibits academics writing book chapters in research ecosystems where chapters do not count for much.

. . . .

[I]t is difficult to continually deliver a novel angle for such a chapter, when the brief from the commissioning editor is so similar. I have collaborated with co-authors in order to develop new directions. However, sometimes this is not practicable and yet there may still be some value in repurposing existing text and tailoring it for a new audience.

. . . .

[T]he publishers as a matter of policy quite understandably challenged any article that relied on previously published work for more than ten per cent of its material. However, the editor had approached me looking for a synthesis of work that included, updated and condensed material that had already appeared in my single-authored book. I had raised the matter of overlapping text with him, and so he was able to persuade the publisher that a far larger fraction was warranted in this case. My book publisher also agreed.

. . . .

[T]he 2018 Australian Code places responsibility on researchers to ‘Disseminate research findings responsibly, accurately and broadly…’ (Research Responsibility 23).

. . . .

None of these codes or guidelines explicitly considers repurposing existing text, nor do they focus their discussion of dissemination on academic publications. Nevertheless, they do require us to consider what dissemination strategy might be most appropriate and this may well involve adapting and translating material for academic publication in order to reach new audiences.

Link to the rest at Qrius

PG will note in passing that some of the best and some of the worst professors he encountered during his undergraduate studies were widely-published. Granted this is a limited sample, but he found no reliable correlation between quality instruction in the classroom and the number of publications a particular professor claimed.

PG supposes counting scholarly articles and rating the academic journals in which they appear is an easier task than determining whether students of a particular professor are receiving a quality educational experience, but it does reflect where students stand in the university’s calculation of the reputation of a professor.

This is a separate question from whether there is really anything new and interesting to say about Milton.

PG felt bad after writing the preceding sentence and feels the need to balance his Milton snark with a reminder of what lovely poetry the man wrote (as opposed to the many unlovely scholarly articles that have been written about Milton):

On His Blindness

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

PG must also note that Milton slowly became blind, likely from glaucoma. In addition to the above-mentioned sonnet, Milton wrote Paradise Lost (blank verse, ten books with over ten thousand lines of verse, dictated to scribes) when he was completely blind.

5 thoughts on “Self-Plagiarism: When Is Re-Purposing Text Ethically Justifiable?”

  1. I’m rewriting something I did (not all that well) over ten years ago. While I’m redoing a lot of it I see no reason not to use the parts that worked well before.

  2. I think that they need another name: I can’t see how it can be plagiarism it you are copying yourself.

    I’m also doubtful if it is morally reprehensible. The academic world’s incentives are so screwed up that anyone looking for tenure pretty much has to play the system when the evaluation metrics used at all levels are disassociated from the quality of the work being done. Publishing the same paper twice is no worse than breaking the paper down into two parts so as to count both as separate publications or churning out yet another HEP model with no connection to experiment when you know the field has made no real progress for 40 years.

    • Some contracts with academic presses now specify that only X percent of the book’s ideas and/or material can be used in other work by the same author. This does not apply to journal articles, so you can turn a journal article into a book chapter just by obtaining permission to re-use (which is commonly granted) and so noting on the copyright page. The reverse is trickier.

  3. I agree with Nate. Also, it should be noted that many freelance nonfiction article writers couldn’t afford to research and write about topics if they weren’t able to re-use the material. That means changing the angle and opening and revising to suit the target publication (as a simplistic example budgeting strategies for parents, or for college students, or for seniors–much of the same core material applies).

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