The Debate on Self-Plagiarism: Inquisitional Science or High Standards of Scholarship?

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Abstract

Reusing one's previously published work without alerting the reader of its prior publication constitutes self-plagiarism and it is a practice that is strictly forbidden by most scientific and scholarly journals. There are circumstances that may justify the publication of an entire article or of portions of an article that had been previously published in another journal. Guidance on these matters is readily available and specifies the conditions under which secondary publication can take place. However, the mission of most scholarly journals is to publish original research. With some exceptions (e.g., translation into another language), few journals seem willing to grant the right to publish their material elsewhere or exercise the option to publish an article that had been previously published in another periodical. One area of contention for which little guidance is available is the practice of reusing verbatim portions of text from authors' previously published articles. I argue that such a practice should be avoided because it is not consistent with the high standards expected of scholars and scientists.

Keywords: self-plagiarism, ethics in research

What is self-plagiarism?

The mission of the vast majority of peer-reviewed journals is the dissemination of original research. As such, when authors submit a manuscript to a journal for consideration, it is assumed that the contribution is original, that it has not been published in whole or in part elsewhere, nor that it is under consideration by another periodical (Fischer & Zigmond, 1998). If the manuscript is identical or near identical to one that the authors had already published, or if it contains significant portions of material from their earlier published version, then the authors' actions may be classified as an instance of self-plagiarism. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), an organization concerned with publication ethics in science journals, discusses self-plagiarism in its Guidelines on Good Publication Practice (COPE, 2003). Under the heading redundant publication; COPE defines this transgression as occurring "... when two or more papers, without full cross reference, share the same hypothesis, data, discussion points, or conclusions" (p. 70). Indeed, a growing number of journals' Instructions to Authors in biomedical disciplines (Scheetz, 2002), as well as in the field of psychology (Roig & Marks, 2004), now caution against various responsible conduct of research (RCR) issues, including certain types of selfplagiarism such as redundant publication.

In spite of these precautions, and to the consternation of many journal editors, evidence suggests that some authors misinterpret these instructions or are not aware of them, whereas others seem to ignore them outright. For example, a perusal of discussion themes on the World Association for Medical Editors' (WAME) electronic forum (http://www.wame.org/) will reveal editors' continuing concern over incidents of self-plagiarism. In addition, a number of editorials have appeared in recent years stressing the importance of authorship issues such as declaration of authors' conflicts of interest, compliance with various regulatory guidelines regarding the treatment of subjects, plagiarism and, of course, self-plagiarism (e.g., Baggs, 2008; Neill, 2008; Rogers, 2008). Although much of the discussion on self-plagiarism has occurred in the biomedical literature, some professional associations in the social sciences, such as the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Australian Psychological Society have also included guidance concerning this type of malpractice (Roig, 2006a). In view of these and related developments, it should not be surprising that research attempting to establish the parameters of selfplagiarism has already been undertaken by the RCR community (e.g., Bretag, & Carapiet, 2007; Errami, Hicks, Fisher, Trusty, Wren, Long, & Garner, 2007; Roig, 2005; von Elm, Poglia, Walder, & Tramèr, 2004). …