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Double Dipping in Conference Papers

May 20, 2008

If you are going to give a talk at a scholarly meeting, do you need new material?

That's the question being debated in political science -- as evidenced by a series of articles in the new edition of the journal PS: Political Science and Politics. While the journal finds a range of views on whether the trend is understandable or regrettable, the authors agree that it is real, and that attitudes appear generational.

As Nelson C. Dometrius, a professor of political science at Texas Tech University, writes in his introduction to the journal's debate, when he raised the question with senior faculty members, he received mixed reactions, with people quickly outlining special cases where they viewed such "double dipping" as justified. When he posed the same question to graduate students, Dometrius relates, "the modal reply was a blank stare -- a lack of comprehension that presenting the same paper as many times as you wished would be viewed by anyone as an unusual or questionable practice."

Many senior faculty members say they first were discouraged from the practice in grad school -- as often through subtle instruction as through any formal list of rules. In the PS articles, scholars consider the question of whether this shift in attitudes is one to fight or accept. Why, Dometrius wonders, is it now acceptable to do what was once "bad form"? (Via e-mail, he said that while he hasn't rechecked every paper he has given, he does not believe he has ever double dipped.)

While noting that the practice has become visible largely when reviewing job applications, Dometrius wanted to quantify it, so he assembled 114 vitas from political science departments at seven regional universities. The pool was made up of 87 faculty members and 27 graduate students, and departmental or institution-specific conferences were excluded, so the focus was only on conferences to which scholars regionally or nationally might apply to present or would travel to attend. He counted as "double" any paper with the same title or substantially the same title (although he notes from experiences that some who may be more ashamed of the practice try to hide it with substantially different titles for the same paper, so he may be undercounting).

In his sample, he found not a single case of double presentations prior to 1992. Then in the mid-1990s, he finds a paper or two a year, and by this decade it becomes fairly common -- even if there is still a ton of new material out there. While double presentations are pretty much a non-factor for those who earned Ph.D.'s through 1985, the attitude is quite different now.

Consider the following table showing double presentations by year doctorate was received. (The numbers for the most recent group may appear low, but that is primarily because these scholars have had less time to make presentations of any kind, let alone doubles, and the percentage suggests that their figures will rise considerably.)

Duplicate Presentations, by Year Doctorate Received

Year of Doctorate % Who Have Double Dipped Duplicates as % of All Papers Presented
1960-1985 14.8% 0.5%
1986-1995 46.7% 4.1%
1996-2005 52.6% 6.7%
2006-present 25.9% 7.4%

The traditional reason given for double presentations -- getting feedback and then revising -- remains a strong justification, according to the articles in the journal. But many question whether in fact such revisions are taking place, as opposed to other motivations (such as CV padding). A variety of ethical issues are raised: Is this fair at a time that major conferences are turning away record number of paper proposals? Do those who fill résumés in this way gain an unfair edge over those who give fewer (but perhaps more original) papers? Do those who double dip have an obligation to flag the practice?

Lee Siegelman, a professor at George Washington University and immediate past editor of American Political Science Review, raises the question of whether such double presentations make some professors hypocrites, in light of the direction they provide students.

"Suppose that in a course you are teaching on the presidency during the spring semester, a student seeks your permission to submit, for full credit, a paper on the veto power for which or she already received credit in a course on Congress during the fall semester, or perhaps a somewhat reworked version of that paper. Would you grant the requested permission? I am betting that you wouldn't. Indeed if you 'caught' a student doing what this student has sought permission to do, you may even bring him or her up on plagiarism charges."

Others, however, defend the duplicate practice. For starters, defenders note that many conference sessions have remarkably small audiences -- so if 2 of the 15 audience members at a regional meeting of the discipline heard the same paper at the national meeting, it's not like hundreds of scholars are being denied anything.

Two political scientists at Michigan State University -- Saundra K. Schneider and William G. Jacoby -- write jointly to "confess" to duplicate presentations and to defend them. They note several reasons: With more political scientists out there, "research productivity requirements" are growing, and graduate students are expected to present earlier in their academic careers. These trends create "enormous pressure" to present at scholarly meetings when possible and it is "unrealistic and undesirable" to expect completely new work for each such event, they write.

Further, they say, papers do get better with feedback, but that sometimes you need multiple presentations before you get good feedback. If the end result is a paper to be sent to a journal or the start of a book, quality should count, and presenting multiple times encourages quality, they write.

In some other disciplines, the norms are different and there is no shame about duplicate presentations, although there are some issues related to how such papers are noted on CV's. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said that it is fairly common for scholars to present a paper more than once. "The audience at MLA is going to be different from the audience at the 18th Century Studies Association," Feal said. In fact, she noted that scholars are so accepting of the practice that speakers will acknowledge what they are doing with remarks such as "when I last presented, I received a lot of questions about this point," she said.

And that shows the benefit of the practice, Feal said. Arguments are refined. Issues are clarified.

At the same time, Feal noted that ethical issues are raised if scholars try to imply that that a series of papers -- essentially versions of the same work -- are all original. The new edition of the MLA Style Manual notes in the plagiarism section the concept of "self plagiarism," in which a scholar repackages earlier work as if new.

Applying this to conference papers and CV's, Feal said that it should be clear -- if one comes across a long list of papers on a résumé -- whether they were all original. Feal said that there is nothing wrong with telling a hiring committee that asks how many papers you gave in the last year that you gave two original papers, three times each at different conferences. But it would be wrong to represent that record as having presented six original papers.

The idea, she said, is "don't misrepresent what you've done."

 

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