On Reusing Our Previously Disseminated Work

By Miguel Roig
Professor of psychology, St. John’s University

[This article is a commentary on the cover story of the Fall 2014 Professional Ethics Report, "A Fresh Look at Plagiarism," by Michele Garfinkel.]

In her timely essay, Michele Garfinkel makes several interesting observations about the topic of self-plagiarism. One point worth reinforcing to prospective authors concerns the wide variation in tolerance of the practice of recycling authors’ own previously published text without attribution. In a recent review of journal editorials on plagiarism and self-plagiarism (Roig, 2014), I found a wide variety of opinions on this matter. Some editors seem comfortable with authors’ reuse of relatively large portions of methods sections, entire methods sections, and/or portions of literature reviews, but other editors are not as accommodating and discourage most forms of this practice. Given that some journals lack adequate guidance on the question of recycling, authors should use caution about reusing their own textual material and, when in doubt about what may or may not be acceptable, they should contact the editor.

In addition, to the elements of misrepresentation (i.e., that portions of text are presented as new writing when, in fact, they are material previously published), and of potential copyright violation that were identified by Garfinkel, questions have been raised as to the ethicality of this practice even when small amounts of text are involved (see Bruton, 2014). Does every instance in which authors reuse without citation their previously disseminated material represent a lapse in scholarly excellence and/or in a best scientific practice? I believe that the answer depends on a number of contextual factors, the most important of which is perhaps the question of whether the reused material consists of a set of very precise, technical descriptions and procedures that cannot be easily paraphrased without running a risk of introducing even slight variations in their intended meaning. Other considerations include whether the reused material consists of, a) several full consecutive sentences or, b) a limited number of “identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology …” to use the US Office of Research Integrity’s (ORI, 1994) language (p. 6). Another important factor is whether the original material is so clearly written that it precludes additional editing/clarification. Given the need for utmost clarity and completeness in scientific writing, especially in methods sections, and the belief that a piece of writing can always be improved upon, I generally view authors’ wholesale reuse of large portions of their previously disseminated verbatim text as evidence of scholarly laziness. But other variables may play a role in these situations, such as the form in which the original material was disseminated (e.g., type of conference proceedings [see Vasconcelos & Roig, 2014]) and/or whether the authors are native speakers/writers of English (assuming the material in question is written in English) who also operate in a resource-poor environment.

Indeed, we are moving in the direction of open science data, a trend that we should all embrace for, undoubtedly, these developments result in great benefits to scientific progress. However, we must continue to be mindful that one of the long-standing cornerstones of scientific scholarship, and of scholarship in general, is the proper attribution of our own as well as of others’ prior work. As scientists and scholars, each of us has a professional and an ethical obligation to identify which ideas, processes, text, data, etc., are our own and which are the product of others’ work. It must not matter whether or not such acknowledgements are required by law, as when we rely on copyrighted works or government documents, or whether we are using material that has been assigned a Creative Commons CC-0 license, which does not require such acknowledgement. Clarifying which aspects of our products are ours and which are someone else’s should be done not only out of respect for those from whom we benefit in our scientific work or to document the true extent of our creative output, but because failing to do so can, under certain circumstances, distort the scientific record and result in public harm. Consider, for example, a scenario in which previously published data documenting the efficacy of a new clinical intervention are republished without any citation as to their prior dissemination. Failure to discern the republished data as duplicate would likely lead to a biased estimation of the true efficacy of that intervention. Such situations are unacceptable as they represent one of the reasons journal articles are retracted (Fang, Steen and Casadevall, 2012), thus further undermining the public’s trust in science.

Few of us will disagree with the benefits of making scientific data available for others to analyze and reuse in ways that further scientific knowledge. However, such reuse must always be done in a transparent manner and in a way that insures that the provenance of data is clear to all. It would be a mistake to abandon scholarly traditions that have served us so well throughout the history of science. Therefore, and in spite of new trends in the use of some creative products, we must continue to insist on traditional forms of proper attribution of our own as well as of others’ work.

References

Bruton, S. V. (2014). Self-plagiarism and textual recycling: legitimate forms of research misconduct. Accountability in Research, 21, 176-197.

Fang, F. C., Steen, R. G., and Casadevall, A, (2012). Misconduct accounts for the             majority of retracted scientific publications. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 109, 17028–17033.

Roig, M. (2014). Journal editorials on plagiarism: What is the message? European Science Editing, 40, 58-59. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Research Integrity (ORI). (1994). ORI Policy on Plagiarism. ORI Newsletter 3(1). http://ori.hhs.gov/images/ddblock/vol3_no1.pdf. Accessed December 27th, 2014
Vasconcelos, S. M. and Roig, M. (2015). Prior publication and redundancy in contemporary science: Are authors and editors at the crossroads?  Science and Engineering Ethics. (in press).


This article is part of the Fall 2014 issue of Professional Ethics Report (PER). PER, which has been in publication since 1988, reports on news and events, programs and activities, and resources related to professional ethics issues, with a particular focus on those professions whose members are engaged in scientific research and its applications.