Avoiding Self-plagiarism in academic writing

Plagiarism: Stealing from others

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. 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.

Self-plagiarism: 'Stealing from yourself'

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.

Article sections and self-plagiarism

Self-plagiarism is most common in the Methods section, as it can be hard to avoid repeating yourself when describing standard techniques, especially those that are used routinely in your lab. It is also relatively common to encounter ‘recycled’ sentences and even whole paragraphs in parts of the Introduction section that describe general background information.

Self-plagiarism scenarios

To understand self-plagiarism better, let's look at some common scenarios that lead to self-plagiarism.

a. Copyright infringement

When authors publish their work in any way (for example, in a journal, or as part of a conference), they generally transfer the copyright of the material to the publisher. In these circumstances, although the author may have researched or created the material, they no longer own it. Republishing work without the consent of the publisher or proper citations therefore qualifies as using material you have no right to use under these circumstances.

Duplicate submission is treated very seriously by journals, which have strict policies in place to avoid wasting the time of peer reviewers and possible copyright infringement. 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.

b. Lack of citation

Self-plagiarism also applies when an author misrepresents or misuses their material. Reusing old text or results as part of ‘new’ work without proper citation can mislead readers into thinking that the new work is novel and original.

c. Data fragmentation/Salami slicing

Another form of self-plagiarism is data fragmentation, where authors publish their results or findings as several smaller pieces when the material would be better presented as a larger, cohesive whole. This practice, also known as salami slicing, is considered unethical because it wastes the time of reviewers and readers who could otherwise focus on other academic literature.

Tips to avoid self-plagiarism

  • Always properly cite your previously published material in new work.
  • Make sure that any of your previously published text or data is used to support novel material and arguments in new work. There must be enough original content to justify a new publication.
  • Publish your findings as a cohesive whole whenever possible to avoid data fragmentation, unless there are good reasons for doing this.
  • Always disclose to journal editors when the work you are submitting contains previously published material.

Ways to avoid self-plagiarism

To avoid unintentionally plagiarising your earlier papers, it is crucial that you not cut-and-paste text from one paper into another; instead, each paper should be written de novo. If you need to present the same or very similar information, be sure to rephrase it. For example, if Paper A states that ‘this process is an integral part of the development of this condition’, then Paper B could rephrase this as:

this process is essential to developing this condition.

In the case of the Methods section, earlier papers can be cited without repeating the description of a technique.

 

For example:

Western blotting was performed as described previously.

Summary

It’s absolutely critical to be aware of self-plagiarism so you don’t get caught out by it. 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. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so if in doubt: check and cite.

 

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