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 collated by major publishing companies reveal some of the main reasons academic research papers get rejected by handling editors without peer review: in addition to incorrect formatting, inappropriate journal selection, and hard-to-understand English, 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’.
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. Although easy to understand in most cases – the use of data, text, or figures in your own work from another paper without appropriate citation (actually not so common in academic publishing) – self-plagiarism 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, and academic publishing’s ethical policies in fact 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: ‘as noted by Dyke (2018), the issue of research ethics looms large over the publishing industry’.
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 word-for-word (whole paragraphs in some cases) as well as 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). 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, worse, people heard about it, leading to reputational damage. Nobody wants to be known as someone who cuts corners in their publications.
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 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)’.
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.