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Self-plagiarism Within and Across Various Other Dissemination Domains

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{Note: Self-plagiarism is NOT considered research misconduct in accordance to 42 CFR 93.}

The material reviewed above raises some questions about the appropriateness of content reuse in other domains of research and scholarship. The discussion below addresses some of the more common situations where reuse should be carefully reconsidered.

From Conference to Conference. In most disciplines, presenting one’s work at conferences has been a long-standing tradition in scholarly and scientific work. Audiences are exposed to the latest ideas/data on a given topic and, in turn, authors gain valuable feedback on their work, which allows them to further refine their ideas, thereby maximizing their chances of getting their work published in a peer-reviewed journal. In some disciplines, such as political science, the presentation of the same paper in multiple conferences has become a more common practice (Dometrius, 2008) and this development has been a source of concern for some in that discipline about possible skewed perceptions of authors’ productivity for some in that discipline (e.g., Sigelman, 2008), though not for others (e.g., Cooper & Jacoby, 2008; Schneider & Jacoby, 2008). No doubt similar questions have been raised by members of other scientific disciplines. But, as with matters related to self-plagiarism where there can be wide differences of opinion, it is likely that academics are equally split with respect to the appropriateness of recycling conference papers.

A number of factors ought to be considered when deciding to recycle a conference paper and the type of presentation made (e.g., invited address, symposium, panel discussion, traditional paper) and the context in which the presentation is made may determine the acceptability of recycling a paper. For example, in any discipline renowned subject-matter experts are routinely invited by universities, professional organizations (i.e., conferences) or by other entities to present their research. In these situations there should be no particular assumption of novelty on the part of the audience about the content of the presentation. Nonetheless, and consistent with the theme of this module, it would be highly recommended for presenters to indicate to their audience at the beginning of each event whether the presentation is new or a revised version of an earlier presentation.

For traditional conference submissions, an important consideration is whether the organization sponsoring the meeting only accepts original presentations. Determining whether a presentation is original is not always easy because of the possibility that an original presentation may also contain previously disseminated data, text and/or figures. As might be done with papers submitted to journals, authors of papers that may contain some previously presented content should inquire with the conference organizers whether their presentation is sufficiently original to warrant submission. For example, when a previously presented paper is disseminated at a different conference and retains the same title and authorship, audience members who happened to have heard the first version are more likely to recognize that the same material, with perhaps some revisions, is being presented again and can decide whether to attend or not. Certainly, in situations where conference activity is taken into account as a measure of research productivity, members of promotion and/or tenure committees should be readily able to discern that individual’s true level of productivity when the same presentation is listed separately, but maintains the same identical title, authorship, and text. On the other hand, questions can arise when authors change the title and/or authorship of a presentation without making additional substantive changes to the actual paper. Although audience members who heard the first presentation in a previous conference might recognize the author, the presence of a different title may lead them to mistakenly believe that the new presentation is substantially different from the earlier one when, in fact, it is not. The same will apply to members of promotion and tenure review committees who review the author’s curriculum vitae. Because members of such committees might not have the time to carefully examine each presentation listed, a mere change in titles may mislead them into believing that the various presentations with different titles are independent products, suggesting that the author is much more productive than s/he truly is. For these reasons, it is important for authors to alert audience members and those reviewing the author’s curriculum vitae, as to whether each presentation may be a revised version of an earlier presentation, a brand new presentation or a combination of the two, especially if there are changes to the title, abstract or authorship. Again, in principle, these issues are applicable to all academic researchers, for not only must data always be clearly conveyed as either new or previously disseminated, but data collection in some disciplines can be an arduous and time-consuming task that can take many weeks or months. Thus, if members of promotion and tenure committees from countries where conference presentations are used as evidence of research productivity interpret a recycled paper as presenting new data, whether the paper is a conference presentation or a journal article, such a misinterpretation will give a mistaken impression that the author is much more productive than s/he truly is.

A related issue concerns the subsequent publication as conference proceedings of conference presentations. Given the emphasis on characteristics, such as clarity, thoroughness, completeness, etc., in scientific writing, there should never be any confusion as to the provenance of the data so that audience members or readers of proceedings can properly assimilate the results of that research. Failure to interpret new data as previously disseminated could conceivably lead to a misrepresentation of the exact scientific status of an effect/phenomenon. Therefore, as with instances of recycled data in published papers, presenting previously disseminated data in conferences as new data, may, under certain conditions, be analogous to fabricating data, a serious form of research misconduct.

GUIDELINE 12: In the domain of conferences and similar audio-visual presentations of their work, authors should practice the same principles of transparency with their audiences.

From Conference to Journal Article/Book. After delivering a conference paper and perhaps based on the audience’s feedback, authors will often prepare a formal paper to be submitted for publication to a journal or perhaps an edited book. This practice is a long-standing tradition and has generally been always acceptable. However, recent trends in the publication of conference proceedings call for caution in subsequent submissions to journals and/or books. For example, in cases where abridged versions of the paper or even the preliminary papers themselves are copyrighted and subsequently published as proceedings by the sponsoring organization, authors should inquire as to whether these organizations permit republication of their materials. Likewise, and in the case in which published proceedings exist and subsequent publication of the paper is allowed by the publisher of the proceedings, authors submitting a paper for publication must first alert the editor about the existence of the earlier published version of the paper. In addition, readers must also be informed about the prior version and such communication can be easily accomplished through an author note or analogous mechanism. Keep in mind that different journals have different criteria for publishing earlier presented work that later appears in proceedings in either electronic or print form. Some editors will consider the expanded publication of an earlier published proceedings abridged paper or long abstract as a case of redundancy. In some such cases, the expanded published version of the paper may be retracted as occurred in a recent case described by Vasconcelos and Roig (2015).

From Journal Article to Journal Article or from Journal Article to Book. Instances have occurred in which authors of, say, review papers, whether these reviews appear in a journal article or in a book, misappropriate significant portions of material without enclosing such material in quotation marks and providing a citation, or without giving any indication as to the material’s true origin. This practice, of course, represents an instance of plagiarism. However, what if the reused material is derived from the author/s’ previously published articles or books? Such practices are ethically inappropriate even if the author him/herself owns the copyright to the previously published material. Again, the important consideration here is the failure to inform the author that the material has appeared elsewhere. Of course, one should be free to reuse with proper attribution and quotation one’s earlier work. But, even here there may be proprietary issues if the author does not hold the copyright to his/her earlier work. Some publishers have strict guidelines as to how much material one may quote from with attribution. For example, consider the American Psychological Association’s position on this matter (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 173):

APA policy permits author to use, with some exceptions, a maximum of three figures or tables from a journal article or book chapter, single text extracts of fewer than 400 words, or a series of text extracts that total fewer than 800 words without requesting formal permission from APA. It is important to check with the publisher or copyright owner regarding specific requirements for permission to quote from or adapt copyrighted material.

From Dissertation to Journal Article/Book and Vice Versa. It is common for authors of theses and dissertations to subsequently publish their thesis or dissertation work in journal articles or books. This practice has been traditionally acceptable even when the thesis or dissertation has already been submitted to an electronic repository such as ProQuest’s UMI® (Ramirez, Dalton, McMillan, Read, and Seamans, 2013). Nevertheless it is important for authors to check with the publisher to whom they intend to submit their work. If acceptable, authors must nevertheless include a note in the journal article or book indicating that the work is based on the author’s thesis or dissertation work. In cases where the dissertation work leads to two or more articles, authors must ensure that each article also mentions that the work described in the paper is part of a larger work published elsewhere. Authors must also have a legitimate rationale for publishing the papers separately, lest there be a charge of salami publishing. A related question is whether authors may reuse smaller portions of their thesis or dissertation work in an article or book. Again, this is perfectly acceptable as long as the author provides a full citation and uses quotation marks. Should there be an objection to the use of quotation marks an author can always alert the reader by prefacing the material with a statement such as, “As I described in my doctoral thesis, which I reproduce here verbatim….”.

In some academic programs, the tradition has been for the doctoral student to first publish an article or two and then to reformat the published work and submit it as a dissertation. In some cases, research that has already been published outside of the immediate academic department where work for the degree is being carried out may be an acceptable fulfillment of the requirements of the dissertation. Such cases may be somewhat complicated if the outside work was carried out in collaboration with others, which may make it difficult to estimate the exact contribution of the student working for the degree. Obviously, the doctoral student must disclose in full the extent of his/her contribution to the published work.

GUIDELINE 13: In addition to standard practices of ethical scholarship, authors must be mindful of readers’ expectations, applicable issues related to intellectual content rights (i.e., copyright), and, especially, the need to always be transparent in our work when reusing material across the various dissemination domains.