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When is ‘self-plagiarism’ OK? New guidelines offer researchers rules for recycling text

Although researchers often have valid reasons to take text they have already published and reuse it in new papers, peers often frown on such recycling as “self-plagiarism.” But when Cary Moskovitz of Duke University, who studies the teaching of writing, went looking for guidance on self-plagiarism for his students, he came up empty-handed.

“There was almost no actual research into the practice,” he says. Scholars hadn’t really examined how frequently researchers recycle their text, whether that reuse constitutes copyright infringement, or what kinds of reuse researchers believe is right or wrong. So, Moskovitz set out to fill the gap. Today, his Text Recycling Research Project (TRRP) released guidance for editors and authors, describing when the practice is both ethical and legal, and how to present reused text transparently.

The guidelines usefully recast these issues in terms other than self-plagiarism, says Lisa Rasmussen, a research ethicist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. “It’s causing a problem to focus too much on self-plagiarism,” she says. Some researchers who spend decades working on a particular topic, for example, might use very similar methods from one study to the next, making it efficient to simply cut and paste the methods sections of their papers. “We shouldn’t make them torture their words just so that they don’t get caught in a plagiarism detection software system,” as many journal editors do, she says.

Text recycling is “common, if not ubiquitous” in the sciences, Moskovitz says. Using funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation, he and a colleague analyzed 400 recently published technical papers, building an algorithm that calculated how similar sentences were across multiple papers arising from the same grant, and cross-checking the results with human coders. They found an average of three sentences per article that were either fully recycled or had significant recycled phrases. But it was unusual to see an entire block of text that was identical across multiple papers.

Moskovitz found that even the limited guidance available on text reuse didn’t answer some important ethical questions, such as how to handle text recycled across two papers with only partly overlapping authorship. Advice varied on other key points and appeared to lack a factual basis. And although the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) describes some instances in which text recycling is acceptable, that guidance is intended for editors, rather than researchers, Moskovitz says.

The legal questions are also substantial, Moskovitz says: In a survey of editors at top journals across disciplines, he and his collaborators found that editors often ask researchers to rephrase text because of concerns about copyright infringement—because publishers, rather than researchers, usually own the copyright in question. But the editors were unsure when rewording was legally necessary. Often, however, that rewording may not be necessary from a legal perspective, according to TRRP guidance, because there is good reason to think it falls under the category of “fair use” in U.S. copyright law. (Moskovitz says he is not aware of any lawsuits brought by publishers over text recycling.)

To provide more detailed guidance, Moskovitz and colleagues set out to build on advice from journal publishers and other specialists, including COPE. The resulting recommendations distinguish between different kinds of text recycling—such as reusing text from unpublished work like a grant proposal or repeating the description of a method across multiple published papers. And they suggest recycling text appropriately can help communicate ideas accurately. Rewording may actually be less ethical than recycling, according to the guidance, because it obscures the fact that material has been reused. But the guidance recommends against using text recycling to publish the same work in multiple venues—for instance by making small changes to a published article and submitting it elsewhere.

Evan Kharasch, an anesthesiologist at Duke and editor-in-chief of Anesthesiology, who was not involved in the TRRP project, recently spearheaded the journal’s first editorial policy on text recycling based on TRRP’s guidance. When authors describe standard methods or protocols, the journal now permits them to use text that is identical or “substantively equivalent” to prior publications, as long as they cite the original source. “It seemed appropriate to enable people to use their best description of what they had done,” he says, even if it had been published previously. Clarifying what constitutes legitimate text recycling “helps to draw a brighter line against plagiarism,” Kharasch says.

Rasmussen hopes the TRRP guidance will help editors tailor their focus to aspects of text reuse most likely to protect research integrity. Simply flagging text repetition using plagiarism detection software doesn’t really ensure integrity, she notes, and can create unnecessary work and potentially a loss of clarity. That is “not achieving anything that really contributes to research integrity,” Rasmussen says.

Moskovitz hopes the TRRP guidance will help people better understand the scope of text recycling and build consensus on when it can be done ethically. “Scientific research intrinsically works in stepwise fashion,” he says. “People talk about standing on the shoulders of giants, but in some ways, people stand on their own shoulders.”

*Clarification, 25 June, noon: This story has been updated to specify that the mention of “fair use” referred to U.S. copyright law.