Authors who engage in programmatic research often end up writing a series of related papers each of which describes individual empirical investigations that use similar or nearly identical methodologies. The background literature pertinent to one paper may be largely applicable to the other papers on the same subject. Thus, it is possible for some authors to have to generate two or more papers describing truly independent studies that contain identical or very similar methodologies, background literature, and discussion elements. The pressure to publish felt by most researchers, together with the ease with which entire blocks of text can be transferred from one document to another one, present unique challenges to those authors who recognize that substantial text reuse is highly problematic. The allure to reuse previously disseminated, well-written text can be particularly difficult to resist for authors who are not dominant in English, especially for those who have traditionally relied on the practice of reusing smaller snippets of text out of pure necessity (see Flowerdew and Li, 2007). Regrettably, instances do occur in the scientific literature of published empirical investigations that are subsequently retracted for self-plagiarism of text because much of the paper is taken verbatim from a previously published one by the same author (see Marcus, 2010, for an example).
Just as there is no consensus or official guidance on the extent to which text must be modified to qualify as an appropriate paraphrase, there is also no consensus as to how much text an author may recycle from his/her previous writings. It should be evident, however, that from the perspective of the reader-writer contract, the recycling of one’s own previously disseminated content is not consistent with the principles of ethical writing. Thus, an overview of the more common situations in which recycling is likely to occur is worth examining.
Situations in which recycling previously disseminated textual content may be acceptable.
As with redundant publication, certain situations exist under which text recycling may be deemed acceptable even if, on the surface, it would seemingly violate the spirit of the reader-writer contract. For example, before engaging in the actual research project, authors will need to prepare protocols (e.g., IRB protocol, trial registration applications), that describe in detail the background of the research, purpose, scope, expected results, etc. The convenience of recycling from these documents (e.g., Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications, Animal Care and Use Committee applications, internal grant applications) or other forms of unpublished ‘internal’ documents is obvious. Given the limited dissemination of these documents, the fact that they are not copyrighted or published, it should be acceptable to reuse their content in subsequent presentations/publications targeted for wider dissemination (e.g., conference presentations, published papers). Of course, there may be exceptions, such as when the original documents are written for a private entity which may have claims of ownership of any material generated by the author. In these cases permission to subsequently publish portions of such material must be obtained. Another problematic situation occurs when the text in question was the result of a collaborative effort between multiple individuals. Although reuse of certain methodological material (see section below on boilerplate language) and related content may be acceptable across various subsequent published papers, reuse of other content from these documents in more than one paper is less clear and possibly not consistent with the reader-writer contract. Be that as it may, any reuse of limited-circulation internal-type documents (e.g., IRB protocols) should, when applicable, have the approval of the institution under which they were generated and also of any co-authors of the original documents.
Recycling boilerplate language. Boilerplate language is most often associated with the legal profession and it refers to portions of text that are routinely reused in legal documents that convey a specific, standard meaning. In the sciences, the term “boilerplate language” has been used in recent decades to describe analogous standard language usually, but not always, of a technical nature. For example, language from the operating instructions of scientific equipment may be adopted by authors in their description of the technical aspects of an instrument and/or procedures associated with the proper use of that instrument. Similarly, laboratories working in a difficult research problem may develop a set of precise descriptions of highly complex processes and/or procedures that may be equally applicable, perhaps with minor modifications, across many different experiments. Thus, in certain journal articles produced by the same or even different groups of author-investigators, it is possible to find portions of identical so-called boilerplate text in sections that describe these same complex processes or procedures. However, and especially in the absence of any other duplication, such reused text should be deemed acceptable and be interpreted as standard, boilerplate, language. Other instances of boilerplate language that describe the nature of an institution’s research facilities, laboratory, or computing equipment may be offered by, for example, an institutions’ grant offices about for purposes of assisting their staff in preparing their grant applications.
Recycling methods and other sections from our previously published papers. In writing methodology sections of empirical papers, one of the goals of authors is to provide all the necessary details so that an independent researcher can replicate the study. These sections are often highly technical and, consequently, can be very laborious to produce given the need for exceptional clarity and precision. Given these considerations, the question arises as to the acceptability of recycling entire methods sections or large portions of these sections with only the necessary modifications to reflect the new conditions being studied (except for an attempt at replication, it is probably rare for the exact same method to be repeated from one related experiment to the next). A similar situation occurs when we summarize others’ work in literature reviews, arguably a less complex writing task relative to writing a methods section. Of course, if an author were to adhere to formal rules of scholarship and to the implicit contract between reader and writer embodied in the concept of ethical writing, 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. But, as stated earlier, the use of quoted material is seldom practiced in IMRD papers in the sciences.
Unfortunately, as shown by a recent review of journal editorials on the subject of plagiarism and self-plagiarism, there seems to be no clear consensus on this matter (Roig, 2014). For example, some journals may allow the reuse of text from literature reviews and methods sections (e.g., Kohler, 2012). Others will allow reuse of methods sections only (Shafer, 2011), while others Swaan (2010) do not permit any text reuse. One potential danger in copy pasting earlier used methods sections lies in the possibility of including material that is not relevant. For example, in a section titled “Avoidable errors in manuscripts” Biros (2000), a former 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 self-plagiarism, the reuse of large portions of text from previously published papers may be problematic for other reasons. One reason for avoiding copy-pasting content between papers concerns the possibility of introducing material that is not relevant to the current manuscript. For example, a study by Hammond, Helbig, Benson and Brahtwaite-Sketoe (2003) revealed that copy-pasting in the context of medical records resulted in errors, some of which were deemed potentially unsafe for patients. Surely, an analogous situation can occur when authors copy-paste from their previously published papers (or from others’ papers!). Evidence suggests that this malpractice continues to be a problem (O’Reilly, 2013). The other reason why reusing text from one publication to another may be problematic is best illustrated in 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. Thus, 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).
Again, the question of reusing segments from previously published work becomes a bit more complicated when the original work was multi-authored and there is no agreement as to who might reuse such work if reuse is permitted. In these types of situations the potential for an accusation of plagiarism by a co-author who does not approve of the reuse could easily develop.
On the other hand, there is a very good argument to allow liberal reuse of previously published methodologies. As discussed earlier, methods sections often include very intricately complex descriptions of procedures and processes that are laden with unique terminology and phraseology for which there are no acceptable equivalents (e.g., Mammalian histone lysine methyltransferase, suppressor of variegation 39H1 (SUV39H1). Even when major textual modifications to these sections are possible, a change in the language can run the risk of slightly altering the intended meaning of what is being described and such an outcome is a highly undesirable in the sciences. Thus authors should be allowed some latitude in terms of the extent to which they should modify portions of text when paraphrasing material from methodology sections that is highly technical in nature, even if the material is derived from other sources. In this context, it is worth keeping in mind the following segment from ORI’s definition of plagiarism (Office of Research Integrity, 1994):
ORI generally does not pursue the limited use of identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology or previous research because ORI does not consider such use as substantially misleading to the reader or of great significance.
There are benefits to the limited reuse of textual material from methods sections. However, substantial text recycling of most other parts of a typical journal article and particularly when carried out by native writers of English, suggest a certain degree of scholarly laziness. At worst, these practices, particularly when they involve the presentation of previously published data that is presented as new data, can result in serious consequences to the scholarly and scientific literature, to public health, and even to the perpetrator if the trespass is serious enough to warrant a charge of research misconduct. 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, scientists and scholars need to be reminded that they are always held to the highest standards of ethical conduct and need to be 100% transparent with their readers.