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Self-plagiarism

November 16th, 2005

In the Media and Culture journal M/C, Lelia Green has an interesting piece on self-plagiarism, linking referring to a site called Splat which asserts

Self-plagiarism occurs when an author reuses portions of their previous writings in subsequent research papers. Occasionally, the derived paper is simply a re-titled and reformatted version of the original one, but more frequently it is assembled from bits and pieces of previous work.
It is our belief that self-plagiarism is detrimental to scientific progress and bad for our academic community. Flooding conferences and journals with near-identical papers makes searching for information relevant to a particular topic harder than it has to be. It also rewards those authors who are able to break down their results into overlapping least-publishable-units over those who publish each result only once. Finally, whenever a self-plagiarized paper is allowed to be published, another, more deserving paper, is not.

Splat also refers to

textual self-plagiarism by cryptomnesia (reusing ones own previously published text while unaware of its existence)

(I know all about this) Green takes a more nuanced view and has some interesting discussion.

I’m surprised by the fact that self-plagiarism hasn’t been addressed before. I’ve seen quite a few cases where the same author has two papers that differ by one global Find and Replace, plus a corresponding adjustment in the notation.

At the same time, I don’t think this issue can be understood simply in terms of matching blocks of text. If, for example, Professor X writes ten papers on Problem Y, the summary of the literature and the description of the problem are going to be pretty much the same each time, even if there’s a substantial new contribution in each paper. Insisting that these pieces of necessary boilerplate be rewritten for each new paper seems rather pointless, and the alternative of citing or quoting the first paper for such material is silly.

In any case, there are worse sins along these lines than (partial) self-repetition. The biggest problem is the analog of “PhD variation”, papers which derive the consequences of marginal changes in a model the author has already analysed to the point where it can deliver no new insights.

The other problem with the Splat analysis is that it’s very much in the old world where everything that matters is in journal articles. Increasingly, though, important ideas are going to be aired first in newer media like blogs, before being refined into journal articles.

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  1. Ernestine Gross
    November 16th, 2005 at 22:48 | #1

    Perhaps self-plagiarism is a major problem for journals that publish “writings” rather than research findings.

  2. Kieran Bennett
    November 17th, 2005 at 00:27 | #2

    Plagiarism is offensive because it is passing the work of others off for your own. It is a problem and it is looked down upon because of the dishonesty involved, and not because it stunts the expansion of our knowledge.

    The invention of the term “self-plagiarism” seems rather inappropriate, as it ppears to carry the negative connotations of the highly negative term “plagiarism” yet it is reffering to something very different.

    “Self-plaigiarism” strikes me simply as an annoying consequence of various universities requirements that their staff engage in research.

    On the topic of research requirements for acedemic staff, sure, research expands our collective knowledge, but what is a university without quality teaching staff? There is no correlation between teaching ability and research undertaken, and some Australian universities (Latrobe for example) have lost valuable teaching ability in the pursuit of research.

  3. Terje Petersen
    November 17th, 2005 at 06:43 | #3

    It relates in part to the notion that an academic with more publications is a better academic.

  4. conrad
    November 17th, 2005 at 07:18 | #4

    The obvious reason that there are so many “find-and-replace” papers is that the evaluation system many goverments and universities use is based on some sort of function that includes number of articles, imact factor, and citiations. So a find-and-replace paper not only gets you an extra article, but since you also can cite yourself, more citiations. It would be good if some measure was used that subtracted your own and friend citations, but friend citations would be almost impossible to work out (perhaps a method could be used that measured the distribution of other people citing your work).

  5. James Farrell
    November 17th, 2005 at 07:58 | #5

    If a writer makes a point with great elegance in, say, a journal article, it makes sense to let him recycle the paragraphs in question in a later publication, say, a monograph. It can easily be acknowledged with a footnote saying ‘parts of this chapter were previously published as…’. I would could a failure to make such an acknowledgement as a pretty serious offence. If I’m a keen follower of someone’s research, eager to discover what fresh insights their investigations are turning up, I don’t want to suddenly realise in the middle of an article that I’ve read exactly the same words in a piece they published three years ago.

  6. James Farrell
    November 17th, 2005 at 08:02 | #6

    For ‘I would could a failure’ read ‘I would count a failure’. If only there was no comment preview, I could blame that.

  7. Paul Watson
    November 17th, 2005 at 08:49 | #7

    “I’m surprised by the fact that self-plagiarism hasn’t been addressed before.�

    I’m sure it has – check the file archives in the Department of the Bleeding Obvious.

    More to the point, your “surprise� here John, confirms the current degradation of academic research and publishing – the phenomenon of not being able to see the good/important stuff through all the flotsam (which appears to spontaneously clone itself, like wire coathangers). The Splat extract accurately refers to this dilution of the intellectual commons as “flooding�.

    Why, then, is such socially destructive behaviour grudgingly tolerated, when analogous situations – like dumping one’s garbage in a public park – are viewed as crimes? Both have purely selfish, private benefits, so that can’t be the answer. My guess is that the highly distorted academic research/publishing market serves as a convenient cloak for the info dumpers. Not being directly paid for their words (despite mostly being published by for-profit conglomerates), authors instinctively respond by fouling the communal nest. (To say that such a response is merely maximising the results of their free labour is a fallacy – infinite recycling of the same material, at zero extra marginal cost, will still never repay the initial investment.)

    Finally, I’m puzzled by the distinction you draw, John, between multiple paper-to-paper recycling (good, or at least defensible) versus multiple PhD-to-paper (that’s multiple papers, not PhDs) recycling (bad). Apart from the generational favouritism within such a dichotomy (the latter is more likely to be done by a freshly-minted PhD, and so Xer, while the former is more suitable for boomers whose ageing PhDs defy further re-use), what’s the difference?

  8. jquiggin
    November 17th, 2005 at 10:54 | #8

    Paul, in your last para, I meant the opposite of your interpretation. The standard starting point for a PhD is a variation on an existing theme, and while some PhDs contribute a lot more than that, such variations are a good way of learning the trade and sufficient, in my view, to justify the award of a PhD.

    On the other hand, when established academics do the same thing to pad out their CVs, it’s very bad – as I say in the post, it’s a worse sin than self-repetition.

    Finally, I think you promised a while back to drop generational critiques if I produced evidence that Howard had been mocked for his age when he first held office, which I duly did (the ‘Boy Treasurer’).

    BTW, I took the term “PhD variation” from Littlewood’s Mathematician’s Miscellany and it long predates both boomers and X-ers. As with most-such things, it’s a life-cycle issue not a cohort issue.

  9. Razor
    November 17th, 2005 at 12:39 | #9

    I’ve seen military doctrine publications re-written using the find and replace function. Unfortunately for the authors it stands out like dog’s balls when they miss a section. It did make it easy to explain at soldier level – same horse, different name. Counter-insurgency warfare, low-level conflict, low-intensity conflict, asymetric warfare . . .

  10. November 17th, 2005 at 14:15 | #10

    “To steal from one is plagiarism, to steal from many is research.” Also, “I only steal from the very best”.

    Of course, I cannot remember who I am citing just there.

  11. Kieran Bennett
    November 17th, 2005 at 22:33 | #11

    Of course originality is only undetected plagiarism (and I’ve heard that attributed to a wide and variety range of acedemics, thinkers and comedians).

  12. Alex
    November 18th, 2005 at 08:01 | #12

    Prof Quiggan – many thanks for the enlightening articles – they helped me in my eco honours policy exam yesterday. Your blog is gold, gold, gold!

    And I do largely agree with one of your testimonials – you may be one of, if not the only, left-wing economics professors in Australia.

    Snaps to that!

  13. Paul Watson
    November 18th, 2005 at 08:40 | #13

    Gotta disagree with Kieran’s “originality is only undetected plagiarism”, for disproving its own point. As Kieran notes, the thought itself is highly derivative – and a cheap laugh ain’t no laugh at all, IMO (just more clutter in the commons).

    I’d rephrase it then, as: “originality is utterly unmarketable; because multinational content distributors lack a necessary reference point – which content *creators* otherwise know as Just Plagiarised Enough”.

    John, you reminded me of my challenge to drop generational critiques if someone could produce evidence as belittling of age as the treatment handed out to the inexperienced-at-38 Barnaby Joyce: http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2005/08/08/converts
    Sorry, but I don’t agree that the 38 y.o. John Howard’s “Boy Treasurer� moniker is on par with the Joyce slur, as the 1978 bite seems to have been made largely affectionately/in jest – or if not, as a cheap, partisan attack. But feel free to dispute this: if you are correct, then the premise of the 1976 film “Logan’s Run� http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074812/ was completely ludicrous in the West only two years after its release. (Of course, it is completely ludicrous now, but I’d pinpoint the turning point – at which society went from being generally youth-ist to grey-ist (or at least middle-ageist) as considerably later than 1978.)

  14. jquiggin
    November 18th, 2005 at 09:23 | #14

    Paul, if I recall Logan’s Run correctly, the youth-ists were the bad guys.

    Of course, the premise was ludicrous and the movie was silly, but as “Escape from X” movies go it was FAQ.

  15. Terje Petersen
    November 18th, 2005 at 21:01 | #15

    “Logans Run” was one of the first “futuristic” movies that I ever saw as a kid. I loved it. Ironically whilst it tried to depict foreign and almost alien values and ideas these days it seems so much a product of its era. Just like “Planet of the Apes” and “Star Trek”.

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