A Study of Self-Plagiarism

Doing a review of the literature for an article in my area of specialization in education. I came across two recent journal articles that were surprisingly similar at their core. One was co-written by Professors Alpha and Beta; the other by Professors Gamma and Beta.

The core section, which amounted to approximately a quarter of the text in Gamma and Beta’s article and almost half the text of the Alpha and Beta article, was identical, word for word. Yet neither article cited the other. The articles, both appearing during the current year, were in different refereed journals.

Adding to my uneasy feeling in this situation, I had communicated with Professor Gamma early in his career about a similar issue. In a private note about 15 years ago, I had warned him about publishing multiple articles that rehashed the same material, without significant new information, ideas, or insight. My graduate students had called the original problem to my attention when they were doing research for an assignment that happened to fall within the particular publishing focus that Gamma, then an assistant professor and now holder of an endowed chair, had chosen.

Examining this situation crystallized two issues in my mind — one immediate and the other more general. For the immediate issue, I explored some sources in the social science literature that identified the problem as possible “self-plagiarism,” which on first impression sounds like an oxymoron. As a matter of intellectual ownership, how could one plagiarize one’s own ideas?

Further exploration led me to ethical codes. Specifically, the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which would seem to encompass or at least overlap with Professor Gamma’s specialized field, includes in its ethical code guiding standards for intellectual ownership. The AERA standard specific to disclosing the publication history of articles provides that “if the present article is substantially similar in content and form to the one previously published, that fact should be noted and the place of publication cited.” More specifically, the Style Manual of the American Psychological Association, the required guide for the two refereed journals that contained the articles in question, not only refers authors in the social and behavioral sciences to the APA Ethics Code but also warns, “authors should not submit manuscripts that have been published elsewhere in substantially similar form or with substantially similar content.”

Further, the APA’s Manual states: “Just as researchers do not present the work of others as their own (plagiarism), they do not present their own previously published work as new scholarship (self-plagiarism).” Explaining that limited duplication without attribution, such as “describing the details of an instrument” in the methods section, is permissible to avoid extensive self-referencing, the Manual identifies the central criterion: “the core of the new document must constitute an original contribution to knowledge.” In the APA’s Code of Conduct, which the Manual cross-references, the relevant standard prohibits “publish[ing], as original data, data that have been previously published …. [without] proper acknowledgment.”

Exploring relevant writings more broadly, I found that the issue of self-plagiarism is better understood in terms of specific parsing within the more general concept of plagiarism. First, as Scanlon has explained, as a subset of plagiarism, self-plagiarism poses the problem of imposture, not theft. Here, imposture refers to padding, churning, over-crediting, or, in Bird’s words, “implying that the author is more productive than is actually the case.” Next, as a subset of self-plagiarism, the issue in the two articles was not — within in Roig’s four-part differentiation — “duplicate publication,” but rather “text recycling.” The primary causes would seem to be the same for all of these variations: 1) the preeminence of publication for academic advancement, and 2) what Scanlon characterized as “slipshod peer review.”

However, text recycling is a grayer area than is duplicate publication, in terms of both ethical propriety and legal copyright. The blurry boundary for text recycling as an ethical matter appears to be not only the amount but also the nature of the material duplicated without attribution.

For example, repeating significant parts of the literature review or the methodology is far less shady than is doing the same for the core, i.e., the results, of the study. The common instances where the authors have ceded intellectual ownership to the journal trigger the overlapping legal issue of copyright. In such cases, the doctrine of fair use is directly applicable. For the margins not the extremes, erring on the side of self-citation would appear to be advisable. The Journal of International Business code of ethics for authors provides a balanced and specific solution: “If exact sentences or paragraphs that appear in another work by the Author are included in the manuscript, the material should be put in quotation marks and appropriately cited in a way that does not compromise the double blind [i.e., reviewers not knowing the identity of the author and vice versa] review process.”

The larger issue concerns the fields within schools and colleges of education, or even the larger areas of the humanities and behavioral/social sciences within academia, that qualify as a profession. Based on the classical models of divinity, medicine, and law, it is generally agreed that one of the essential ingredients of a profession is the issuance and enforcement of standards of expertise and conduct. Respected senior members of the profession take the lead in these defining self-regulation and -policing functions.

Do professions outside academia accompany proscription with enforcement? For example, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), where intellectual property rights are a core value, not only specifically proscribes self-plagiarism, explicitly defined as “verbatim or near verbatim reuse of significant portions of one’s own copyrighted work in subsequent papers where the authors have not disclosed in the subsequent paper the previous publication.” The organization also specifies an enforcement procedure starting with posting a “Notice of Self Plagiarism based on the investigation on the ACM Digital Library’s citation page” and followed by a series of escalating penalties.

In any event, in the higher education field of education, the AERA’s code of ethics anticlimactically ends with this caveat: “it is not the intention of the Association to monitor adherence to the Standards or to investigate allegations of violations of the Code.” The APA’s ethical code not only is more explicit with regard to self-plagiarism but also includes an enforcing ethics committee. However, the code, as compared with the more specific standards of the APA’s publication manual, apply only to psychologists, and the primary sanction is termination of APA membership, although notification to other bodies, such as licensing boards, is also included.

Academia tends to profess loudly, and even on occasion strictly enforce, its credo about plagiarism and other academic moral injunctions against violations of academic norms, such as cheating, with regard to students. However, for ourselves, professionalism seems to end with professing.

For us, rationalizations abound. Within such views, self-plagiarism emerges more like an ethical imperative than an ethical negative; we are facilitating dissemination of our ideas for reinforcement within our audience or for extension to new audiences. James M. Lang's essay in a recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education defends student recycling within a course by condoning faculty recycling in conference presentations; yet, the two are not the same; neither is at the formal level of publication; and self-citation would be curative for conference papers. At the philosophical level, postmodernists’ defense of self plagiarism waxes into what Scanlon calls “a theoretical hall of mirrors” as follows: “By recycling their own texts, writers deny, paradoxically, the very notion of textual ownership.”

Applying these two levels of concern to the originating incident, it would seem that something has gone wrong here. According to Professor Gamma, whom I contacted based on my previous communication and his central role, 1) the longer, Gamma & Beta article was first, with Professor Beta writing the part at issue; 2) Professor Beta subsequently submitted the article, co-written with Professor Alpha, to the other journal, and 3) Professor Gamma, as an editor at the second journal, was admittedly “lax” in not checking it more closely. If Professor Gamma’s account is correct, Professor Beta merits the specific self-plagiarism charge of text recycling in light of the significant amount and core nature of the duplication without citation. I received no reply upon requesting Beta’s side of the story.

In the absence of a governing professional organization with an enforcing arm, the only available avenue for a determination, with due process and possible sanctions, would be notification to the administration of Professor Beta’s institution. In contrast, depending on whether this account is true and what Professors Gamma and Alpha each knew or had reason to know of the other’s co-written article, they would merit corresponding consideration in terms of possible plagiarism or self-plagiarism.

In the cases of all three faculty members, the reality is that this questionable conduct will, in all likelihood, not be subject to investigation or reprobation. The initial reasons include the intersection of two measure of success in the professoriate. The first is the emphasis on scholarship as measured by quantity of peer-reviewed journal articles. The second is the peer review process that, especially within the sub-specializations continuing to proliferate in academia, is not sufficiently effective — and is sometimes incestuously infected — in terms of screening out, much less sanctioning, self-plagiarism and even plagiarism.

The ultimate reasons are that notifying the central administration of professor Alpha, Beta, and/or Gamma’s institution would seem to be draconian and, in any event, outside the strict bounds of the true professoriate. Conversely, notification to the dean or, more clearly within the autonomy and expertise of the academic peerage, the department chair is not likely to be effective; indeed, Professor Alpha serves in one of these capacities for Professor Beta.

Similarly, would Gamma’s dean or department head — given the relative paucity of chaired professorships in this non-lucrative area of academia — be likely to investigate and sanction this recently endowed professor? In either choice for notification, what would the likely blowback be in terms of the success, including peer-review journal decisions, for the whistleblower? The bottom line is that this situation is an ethical dilemma. Perhaps the best choice, as a matter of academic freedom, is to publish my analysis for review and comment — without, of course, plagiarizing myself by recycling it elsewhere.

Perry A. Zirkel
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Perry A Zirkel is the University Professor of Education and Law at Lehigh University.

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