Reuse vs. self plagiarism

Yesterday's New York Times reported on another case of high profile plagiarism: a relatively young professor who had copied parts of her dissertation from another. Even though she had previously acknowledged as much in private and has now resigned -- so there's no question of ambiguous boundaries -- a few things struck me as salient:

  • A colleague, fed up with low-quality peers, started the investigation and even hired a private investigator to bust her.
  • Before the story broke she contacted her former adviser about revising copied material, but when questioned by the reported the adviser responded "He said that he barely recalled her, 'I only remember one thing, that she was in a hurry?'" That seems odd.
  • The article's evidence of plagiarism are two fragments: a short description of a reference, and a one sentence description of her project. I find both types of statements lend themselves to a remarkable degree of homogeneity, and wouldn't find them convincing on their own among hundreds of pages of text.

Interestingly, this article came along at the same time I have been following an interesting discussion of turnitin, a student plagiarism detection service, and struggling with issues of "reusing" my own work.

Unlike my previous issue of how to deal with priority in relation to self-published grey literature, my present concern arises out of published work. I am presently working on Chapter 4 of my dissertation which specifies criteria for an "open content community" as well as some interesting boundary cases on openness. A dissertation is, understandably, supposed to be an original work; I read this as "new work since matriculation" but I have heard it said this could mean only unpublished work: this would be horrible. Perhaps my strong view is partly because I'm a "mid-career" Ph.D. student that has already presented papers and it strikes me as contrary to stop a professional activity that is essential for getting feedback. I also appreciate new Ph.D.'s reuse their dissertation in subsequent articles and/or books, which I also plan to do. But to sit on all that material and labor on in solitude -- aside from one's dissertation committee members -- until the dissertation is complete seems counterproductive. Consider the genealogy of parts of the present chapter:

  • the notion of an open content community was a fragment from a sociology term paper from four years ago that I then developed into a short published paper, which I then expanded into a more extensive published paper that I planned to make use of in this chapter.
  • the boundary case of open community and closed law was a blog entry I planned to use in this chapter. I received a request for its use in a book and it is now "published."
  • the case of WikiChix was another blog entry I planned to use and was happy to extend and submit it in response to a request since I knew I'd eventually want to work on it more; it will soon be published.
  • the case of a Wikipedia blocking proposal, now implemented, is written and no one else has ever seen the text. Consequently, I expect it stinks and I thought of posting here.

In no case did I assign any copyright -- though they of course are published under various copyright licenses -- and so I am not legally precluded from using them in compilations or derivative works. Making them available has provided me with feedback and opportunities for publication which yields more feedback and builds relationships within my scholarly community. This is great! But what of "self-plagiarism"? (So, perhaps this is like my earlier post but questions of priority and public but "unpublished" work are exchanged for questions of "published" works and self plagiarism.)

I've been reading up on the topic and found Green (2005) interesting, and Hexham (1999) useful:

Self-plagiarism must be distinguished from the recycling of one's work that to a greater or lesser extent everyone does legitimately. Although self-plagiarism in academic publications is a gray area many universities implicitly recognize the practice as fraudulent. Thus most universities have rules preventing students from submitting essentially the same essay for credit in different courses. There are also rules against someone submitting the same thesis to different universities. Among established academics self-plagiarism is a problem when essentially the same article or book is submitted on more than one occasion to gain additional salary increments or for purpose of promotion.

Like all plagiarism, self-plagiarism occurs when the author attempts to deceive the reader. This happens when no indication is given that the work is being recycled or when an effort is made to disguise the original text. The issue once again is one of deception. Disguising a text occurs when an author makes cosmetic changes that make the same book or paper look different when it actually remains unchanged in its central argument. Changing such things as paragraph breaks, capitalization, or the substitution of technical terms in different languages, causes readers to believe they are reading something completely new. If these are the only changes an author has made then they may be legitimately described as self-plagiarism and fraudulent.

The extent of re-cycling is also an indication of self-plagiarism. Academics are expected to republish revised versions of their Ph.D. thesis. They also often develop different aspects of an argument in several papers that require the repetition of certain key passages. This is not self-plagiarism if the complete work develops new insights. It is self-plagiarism if the argument, examples, evidence, and conclusion remain the same in two works that only differ in their appearance.

Which brings me, finally, to my simple and mundane question for my dissertation. Is a citation to my own published works sufficient if I am reusing text -- though continuing to rework and integrate it -- or should I also give an acknowledgment often seen in scholarly books that "portions of this text are republished from or based on...")?

(BTW: a possible irony is I expect this and earlier entries could be turned into a decent paper on "scholarship in the open" should the opportunity ever present itself!)

Ported/Archived Responses

bryan on 2007-03-16

It is common practice in many disciplines for a dissertation to be little more than binding together a few papers published during the course of the doctoral programme. The dissertation unique material can be as little as an intro and a conclusion that explains how the connections are made.  Some of my own students have certainly had one or more chapters that are essentially just slightly expanded versions of stuff we have published.

Joseph Reagle on 2007-03-17

Bryan, thank you for the comment. I expect there are differences across the disciplines, but I am particularly curious how your students address the issue. Do they specify which chapters have been published elsewhere in the acknowledgments? Or perhaps in a footnote at the start of the chapter? Do they cite themselves? Or, is it just assumed that much of the work has argued and published?

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