Text recycling, often called “self-plagiarism”, is the practice of reusing textual material from one’s prior documents in a new work. The practice presents a complex set of ethical and practical challenges to the scientific community, many of which have not been addressed in prior discourse on the subject. This essay identifies and discusses these factors in a systematic fashion, concluding with a new definition of text recycling that takes these factors into account. Topics include terminology, what is not text recycling, factors affecting judgements about the appropriateness of text recycling, and visual materials.
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Even within the art world, however, scholars have wrestled with the issue of self-plagiarism. As early as 1984—well before concerns about text recycling were widespread in the sciences—philosopher David Goldblatt published, “Self-Plagiarism,” an essay that asks whether new works by an established artist that closely follow the artists established style without adding new artistic ideas can legitimately be called works of art (Goldblatt 1984). “Self-plagiarism,” writes Goldblatt, “occurs when the artist takes from the aesthetically significant features of his/her previous work, and presents them under the false assumption that they are creatively original and that aesthetic progress has been made, while the successful self-plagiarism is received, discussed and evaluated by artworld members as if it were.” The artistic sensibilities of repurposing from others as contrasted with recycling one’s own material may best be understood by these words of Picasso: “We must pick out what is good for us where we can find it- except from our own works. I have a horror of copying myself.” (Goldblatt 1984, p. 71).
This type of artistic recontextualization is distinctly different from that described by Yongyan Li in ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’: Recontextualization in Writing from Sources (2015). Li uses the term to describe how an experienced scientist reframes citations from reference lists of other authors to fit his or her own work.
These examples also show that judgments about some factors cannot be readily decoupled from others.
Jason Borenstein and Adil Shamoo have given a useful overview of issues related to the growing number of authors per paper (Borenstein and Shamoo 2015).
From a legal/copyright perspective, all authors listed on a publication have equal rights [Deborah Parrish, personal communication]. But the ethics and expectations for text recycling are not the same as copyright law.
While the number of authors used in the cases discussed here—two or three per text—is useful in conceptualizing the various potential concerns, it does have one important limitation: some approaches to addressing multiple-author concerns may be viable for such numbers but unworkable at a larger scale. But should our thinking about these cases be the same for a three-authored paper as for one with one hundred authors? For example, expecting formal permission from Author C in Case 2 is not inherently problematic; but would we also expect such permissions if 20 out of 100 authors of the source paper were not authors of the follow-up paper?
While not as common as for graduate students, undergraduate students and programs may face the same concerns. See, for example, Moskovitz (2015).
An additional paper on text recycling (Horbach and Halffman 2017) was published as the present article was undergoing revision. This paper is limited, in this author’s view, in its approach to text recycling as inherently problematic, framing the practice as “academic misconduct” and “a new way to game the reward system of science” rather than as a neutral practice that can be used either properly or improperly. Nevertheless, it is a valuable contribution to the limited scholarship to date.
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I want to thank Susanne E. Hall for her insightful comments and useful suggestions on an earlier draft of this manuscript. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM program under grant no. CCE-1737093.
The original version of this article was revised:
Permission information has been included in the correct legends of figures 1, 2, 5, 12, 13 and 14. See Correction for full figure legends.
Fig. 1 First page of The New England Journal of Medicine article showing authorship as a research group rather than as individual authors. From RTS,S Clinical Trials Partnership (2011). Reprinted with permission from Massachusetts Medical Society.
Fig. 2 Appendix from The New England Journal of Medicine article listing authors. From RTS,S Clinical Trials Partnership (2011). Reprinted with permission from Massachusetts Medical Society.
Fig. 5 Images of top of first page for journal article and conference proceedings. Reproduced by permission of The Electrochemical Society.
Fig. 12 Example of exact duplication of visual. Photographs of test system in two publications: conference proceedings (ECS Transactions) on left; journal article (Journal of The Electrochemical Society) on right. Reproduced by permission of The Electrochemical Society.
Fig. 13 Example of recycling of a table. Composition of synthetic urine in two publications: conference proceedings (ECS Transactions) on left; journal article (Journal of The Electrochemical Society) on right. Reproduced by permission of The Electrochemical Society.
Fig. 14 Example of recycling figure with new data. Conference proceedings (ECS Transactions) on left; journal article (Journal of The Electrochemical Society) on right. Note difference in data presented: 5% vs. 2% fecal matter. Reproduced by permission of The Electrochemical Society.
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Moskovitz, C. Text Recycling in Scientific Writing. Sci Eng Ethics 25, 813–851 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-017-0008-y
- Text recycling
- Textual recycling
- Scientific writing
- Engineering writing