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Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing

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‘Borderline’/unacceptable cases of text recycling

Guideline 13: While there are some situations where text recycling is an acceptable practice, it may not be so in other situations. Authors are urged to adhere to the spirit of ethical writing and avoid reusing their own previously published text, unless it is done in a manner consistent with standard scholarly conventions (e.g., by using of quotations and proper paraphrasing).

Recycling sections of a complex method section from a previously published paper.
In writing methodology sections of empirical papers, one of the goals of authors is to provide all the necessary detail so that an independent researcher can replicate the study. Because these sections are often highly technical and can be laborious to write, authors of multiple papers using the same methodology will sometimes recycle text with little or no modification from a previously published paper and use it in a new paper. Technically, if an author were to adherence to the ‘implicit contract’ between reader and writer embodied in the concept of ethical writing and to the strict rules of proper scholarly conduct, s/he would need to put any verbatim text from the method section in quotation marks and appropriately paraphrase any other recycled text that is not placed in quotations. Curiously, such practice is seldom, if ever, followed in these instances. Instead, what seems to have become a routine practice for authors is to recycle, with some minor modifications, substantial portions of these sections (see Roig, 2002). Judging by instructions to authors in at least one journal, it appears that, in the past, some authors have not bothered to make even minor changes when they repeatedly recycle the same method section from article to article. For example, in a section titled “Avoidable errors in manuscripts” Biros (2000), editor-in-chief of Academic Emergency Medicine writes:

“Methods are reported that were not actually used. [This] most frequently occurs when an author has published similar methods previously and has devised a template for the methods which is used from paper to paper. Reproducing the template exactly is self-plagiarism and can be misleading if the template is not updated to reflect the current research project.” (p. 3).

In addition to constituting self-plagiarism, there is another reason why this practice may be problematic. Consider the following scenario: An author takes a substantial amount of text from one of her papers that had been published in a journal owned by one publisher and recycles that text in a paper that will now be published by a journal owned by a different publisher. In this situation, the author may be violating copyright rules. For example, Biros (2000) also cautions that:

“Many authors do not understand the implications of signing the copyright release form. In essence, this transfers ownership of the paper and all of its contents from the author to the publisher. Subsequent papers written by the same author therefore must be careful not to reproduce in any way material that has previously been published, even if it is written by them. Such copying constitutes self-plagiarism.” (p. 4).

Yet, another situation that may be problematic occurs when a member of one team of authors who wrote the original method section is not one of the authors who recycles that method section in a later publication. Here the potential for an accusation of plagiarism could easily develop.

Substantial text recycling, as well as the other forms of self-plagiarism reviewed above, suggest at the very least a degree of intellectual laziness. At worst, these practices can result in serious consequences to the scholarly and scientific literature, to public health, and even to the perpetrator. Authors are well advised to carefully review the editorial guidelines of journals to which they submit their manuscripts, as well as their disciplines’ codes of ethics. More importantly, contributors to the literature need to be reminded that they are always held to the highest standards of ethical conduct.

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