Self-plagiarism – Beware!
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.
This weekend, I attended the annual meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE). At the meeting, in hopes of clarifying my views and opinions on the controversial issue of self-plagiarism, I attended an hour-long seminar/discussion on the topic presented by Samuel Bruton, the research integrity officer at the University of Southern Mississippi. It was a dynamic session with regard to audience participation because self-plagiarism is a controversial area of research integrity. The general consensus of the audience was that assigning the label of plagiarism is inappropriate when a writer recycles their own words and as such, labeling the practice as unethical may be similarly inappropriate. Furthermore, much of the discussion asserted that the context of the practice needs to be critically assessed before asserting a judgment of unethical. In contrast, there was a significant proportion of the audience that strongly felt that self-plagiarism was scholarly misconduct. The dynamic session left my opinions unchanged, and I am undecided regarding the practice of text recycling. However, one thing is clear–the ethics of text recycling or self-plagiarism is being hotly debated. As such, academics and researchers need to be wary of falling on the wrong side of wherever the line falls on the ethics of text recycling.
Recycling the text of the methods section in original research papers is probably the most critical issue in the controversy of self-plagiarism. Even a couple years ago, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) did not take a stand on the issue of recycling methods sections. However, more recently, method recycling has been identified as “borderline/unacceptable cases of text recycling” on the ORI website. The practice is described under Guideline 13: “While there are some situations where text recycling is an acceptable practice, it may not be so in other situations. Authors are urged to adhere to the spirit of ethical writing and avoid reusing their own previously published text, unless it is done in a manner consistent with standard scholarly conventions (e.g., by using of quotations and proper paraphrasing).”
I remember when I took my science writing course as an undergraduate. The instructor spent a lecture or two describing appropriate citation and then told us that even if appropriately cited, copying verbatim text was plagiarizing unless you put it in proper quotations. I agree with this description of plagiarism. However, then he told us that scientific papers NEVER used direct quotations. It was commonly accepted that if you could not paraphrase an original quotation, then you probably did not fully understand what the original author was stating. Anyone that has read enough original scientific papers is fully aware that you do not see direct quotations in research papers. Or, at least you don’t see quotation marks. Therefore, with regard to text recycling, the practice of never using quotations falls in direct conflict with the ORI guideline that asserts the use of quotation marks on previously published text such as methods sections.
During the self-plagiarism seminar at APPE, attendees that took a strong stand against self-plagiarism viewed the practice as intellectually lazy, and argued that researchers should always be rethinking their methods as well as their interpretation of their own and others' work. They were concerned that the practice of text recycling would create a history of misinformation in the literature because researchers would fail to report minor changes in the natural evolution of their research protocol because they failed to rethink their methods. They also saw the practice as a form of fraud. That in the absence of quotation marks there was an assumption by the reader that all text and ideas were original to the author of the manuscript. In addition, they raised a concern of copyright violation since authors sign off on copyright when they publish original manuscripts. And with plagiarism detection software such as iThenticate, recycled text would be easily detected by journal editors or grant reviewers.
In addition, issues regarding collaborative research were addressed because most research publications now list multiple authors without defining the actual contribution of each author. This raises concerns regarding who actually wrote the original text. In larger collaborative projects, it is not uncommon that some listed authors played no role in writing the text of a published document. Hence, text recycling in subsequent publications may very well be plagiarism by stealing the words of coauthors from previous work. Accepting the practice of methods recycling as permissible may well give researchers permission to steal ideas and text from colleagues. Furthermore, teaching students that it is permissible to steal text from collaborators may promote plagiarism in all academic pursuits.
In contrast, also in the room were scientists who asserted that because science is conducted in incremental steps, keeping the methods text consistent is a service to the reader. There is an understanding among scientists that between experiments, procedures remain much the same other than the one (or few) factor/s that are examined in the latest manuscript. Argument and creativity are addressed in the introduction and summary. However, the methods and results are often descriptive and on behalf of the reader, keeping them consistent aids in concise and rapid communication of the facts. The consistency of structure and text enables the reader to rapidly review many experiments in mass so that they can develop their own interpretation of the data. These attendees asserted that at worst, recycling methods sections would be incidents of textual redundancy but not plagiarism. And within the context of methods sections, since the goal was rapid communication of facts, the author best serves the reader by keeping text and structure consistent. Furthermore, rewriting or paraphrasing the section would more likely lead to verbose or unclear language.
I should note that even in this divided audience there were habits of self-plagiarism that met with audience consensus that the practice was unethical. Incidents of redundant or duplicate publications were clearly deemed unethical. Duplicate publication was seen as a practice to promote personal gain through career advancement by artificially inflating one’s CV. While at the same time it floods the literature with unnecessary publication that wastes the time of readers and colleagues. As such, duplicate publication was considered unethical and fraudulent behavior. Similarly, scientific salami slicing was met with similar disdain. This is the practice of breaking up a comprehensive experiment into smaller bits for publication so that the researcher can list multiple publications on a CV. Attendees who were opposed to methods recycling asserted that researchers who recycled methods sections frequently engaged in the practice of salami slicing and as such represented a single comprehensive experiment as a series of smaller unique projects. However, it was noted that larger comprehensive projects were often forced into smaller publications due to practical issues such as page limitations.
Self-plagiarism is a difficult issue for me and many others to reconcile with our training. I remember a discussion with my doctoral committee, when I was struggling to make my methodology clear. My dissertation project was unique for our research group, and I was learning and creating a language to clearly express my methods. I remember a committee member stating that once successful, “your methods section will be written for a while.” Because there were a number of manipulations that could be built off of my thesis project. I did not perceive the assertion as ethically questionable, and I still don’t. Even after the seminar discussion, I still believe that the best way to serve the reader is to keep the text and structure of methods consistent across a series of incremental research studies. However, do to the simple reality that the practice is now being questioned I think that there are a few things that need to be considered when recycling methods to protect the author and collaborators.
The assertion that original research papers never use direct quotations may need to be reassessed. Making a clear statement that the methods are identical to those previously defined and placing quotation marks at the start and end of the recycled text along with a clear citation is an easy way to avoid allegations of misconduct in future publications. It will also credit the original author for creating the text, if the author was a collaborator on the original project. Furthermore, if you are recycling a significant amount of text from a prior document that you know has been written by a collaborator, perhaps the collaborator should be considered for authorship.
Finally, just because the practice of recycling methods was widely accepted in the past, it does not mean that this will not be reevaluated. The federal Office of Research Integrity is already modifying their views to discourage the practice. Journals are starting to screen submitted documents for redundant text or plagiarism, as are grant committees. The creative endeavors of our researchers are labor intensive and costly, and no one wants that effort wasted. Researchers need to be aware that self-plagiarism is an evolving area of research ethics and as such, researchers need to avoid potential problems before they have a manuscript or a grant rejected because of self-plagiarism.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.