Self-plagiarising myself on self-plagiarism

After reading this piece on self-plagiarism in the Times Higher Ed Supplement, I couldn’t think of any better response than to reprint verbatim this piece from 2005 (now with a new improved 2008 publication date), including a self-link to a piece which is simultaneously self-referential and self-plagiarising.

It’s over the fold

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.

* Actually not a fact, as I could easily have checked. Here’s Pamela Samuelson in 1994 (behind ACM paywall unfortunately).

6 thoughts on “Self-plagiarising myself on self-plagiarism

  1. JQ: the link to Pam’s piece seems broken.
    The original source is Comm. ACM, but that’s behind an ACM paywall. It’s certainly a good article, unsurprisingly. [Pam is a *very* smart, articulate person who has done a lot of work in the intersection of law and technology, and what happens as (slow-moving) law chases (fast-moving) technology.

  2. Indeed, I’ve read Pamela Samuelson before and been favorably impressed, so I was happy to cite her here. I’ll try and get a better link.

  3. I’m sure most people in universities are aware of this problem – I have friends in some of the private universities in the US and their hiring committees won’t take people that constantly permute the same thing (and outright plagiarism is considered corruption as many journals have specific statements against it).

    I think the problem is that thanks to government regulations in many countries (including Australia), people are rewarded for it. It’s also a problem because there are now so many journals that have been set up to essentially collect government points and will publish almost anything (that being their function) so I imagine it is very easy to do.

  4. Bravo for a literally Escher piece.

    Unfortunately with the Splat piece, they have omitted the source of the term “least publishable unit” (perhaps running SPlaT on SPlaT might detect this). I’ll swear on a stack of reprints that the acronym “LPU” (ie “Least Publishable Unit”) originated in the Adelaide Uni Maths Dept tearoom, 1980’s. Of course, I have no references to cite.

    Regards, Don.
    Murray (walk on once water) Bridge.

  5. The quite new Australian Code of Research Practice (have I got the name right?) only says that it’s Bad Form to submit or publish the same findings twice. This point would seem to support what you said in your earlier post.

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