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Can you Steal from Yourself? Learn About ‘Self-plagiarism’ with Charlesworth Knowledge

Can you Steal from Yourself? Learn About ‘Self-plagiarism’ with Charlesworth Knowledge

As so many academics can tell you, nothing is more frustrating than working for months on a paper and then receiving an almost immediate rejection from your target journal. Data has been collated by major publishing companies that reveals some of the main reasons academic research papers get rejected by handling editors without peer review.

Although incorrect formatting, inappropriate journal selection, and hard-to-understand English are common reasons for rejection, plagiarism issues are also very, very common. In fact, it’s now often standard practice for publishers to run submitted manuscripts through plagiarism-checking software packages before they are sent out for review. One of the main forms of academic plagiarism that authors are often not even aware of? So-called ‘self-plagiarism’.

How to Avoid Self-Plagiarism

Plagiarism can be defined as ‘the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit’. To be clear, ‘appropriation’ means using or taking something that is not yours; another person’s words or ideas. Plagiarism is easy to understand in most cases as the use of data, text, or figures in your own work from another paper without appropriate citation, and is actually not especially common in academic publishing. Self-plagiarism, however, is much less well-understood by authors. How can you steal something from yourself? Surely that makes no sense.

People very often ask about this issue in our Charlesworth Knowledge training courses and workshops: ‘I wrote a paper in 2018; surely, I can use text or figures from that work in my own later work. What’s the problem? I wrote the first article, after all.’ The situation is not so simple, however. In fact, academic publishing’s ethical policies demand that anything we take from any other paper, even our own, must be correctly sourced and cited. Everything.

So, even if I wrote a paper about academic ethics in 2018, if I re-use text in a later article in 2019, I have to cite myself. For example: ‘as noted by Dyke (2018), the issue of research ethics looms large over the publishing industry’.

Why is it so Important to Avoid Self-plagiarism?

It’s absolutely critical to be aware of self-plagiarism so you don’t get caught out by it. I recall an incident in my own field from a few years ago; people started to notice that some text and figures in the papers of one of our colleagues were strikingly similar. Indeed, after a little digging by one journal’s editorial office, it turned out that this person had been recycling text in the “Introduction” and “Methods” sections of papers they had written.

Usually, the recycled text was copied word-for-word (whole paragraphs in some cases) as they were also reproducing the same figures over and over again without self-citation. In most cases, you simply need to write, for instance, ‘this figure reproduced from Dyke (2018)’ in the caption. Given how straightforward it can be to avoid self-plagiarism, it is well worth being aware of the risk and taking the correct measures to avoid it.

Self-plagiarism in this case turned out to be a serious issue for the colleague; he had to issue corrections to some of his previously published work and, much worse, their colleagues heard about the issue. This had an undeniable effect on their reputation, especially since nobody wants to be known as someone who cuts corners in their publications.

Self-plagiarism and Copyright Issues

On top of all this, there is also a potential copyright issue related to self-plagiarism. Bear in mind that, in many cases, when you write a paper and send it to a journal you are also turning over the copyright of your work to that outlet. Although not always, this is very often the case – this will be part of either the online submission system itself or will form part of a transfer form you will complete once a paper has been accepted. This means that, in some instances, if you want to re-use a figure from a previous paper of which you are the author, you might need to ask permission from the journal in question: ‘this figure reproduced, with permission, from Dyke (2018)’.

Need Additional Guidance on Self-Plagiarism?

Research ethics, especially plagiarism, can be complex. Charlesworth Knowledge training courses and online materials can help, so why not get in touch with a member of our team for more information? We are always available if you want to reach out and ask questions about particular manuscripts you are working on. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so if in doubt: check and cite. Alternatively, why not take advantage of our editing services, which can include an in-depth plagiarism check, to help you get your work ready for publication?

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