Open Access

Whaddaya mean plagiarism? I wrote it myself! How open access can eliminate self-plagiarism

What if I write something and publish it — and then publish it again? Is that plagiarism?

What if I don’t mention the second time that there was a first time? Have I stolen from myself? Does that even make sense? If it does, is it unethical?

Two recent high-profile cases — one from the world of journalism and one from academia — illustrate self-plagiarism. The problem in academia can be solved with open access publishing.

Jonah Lehrer’s non-creative decision

The most visible discussion of self-plagiarism centered around Jonah Lehrer, author of the recent bestsellers How we decide and Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer’s blog, Frontal Cortex, is owned by The New Yorker. Last month, Jim Romenesko discovered that Lehrer was publishing material at The New Yorker that he had previously published elsewhere.

Slate‘s Josh Levin speculates on why Lehrer would “reheat his leftovers.” For peddlers of ideas like Lehrer, books are just a vehicle — one of many — and the real task is to achieve insight. Often.

On a slow idea day, an under-appreciated earlier posting might be the best one can do.

Should we care about this? The New Yorker clearly does. Several of Lehrer’s postings now bear disclaimers stating the locus of original publication and then, “We regret the duplication of material.”

Some media question the very notion of self-plagiarism. How can you steal your own work? People repeat themselves in lectures all the time. Why is that not allowed in writing? Surely scientists writing textbooks are allowed to use material that previously appeared in more esoteric journal articles.

Of course they are. But they have to acknowledge that earlier work — even when it’s their own.

Self-plagiarism in academia

Indignation among scientists towards those who recycle earlier paragraphs led to a kerfuffle this spring involving Columbia University’s Ronald Breslow, as reported in Nature. Unlike Lehrer, who immediately admitted wrong-doing, Breslow first claimed that his piece for the Journal of the American Chemical Societyy (JACS) was a commentary and not a scientific publication and that using a few previously penned sentences therefore contravened no conventions of academic integrity.

Apparently he came around, though, as the paper now has been “withdrawn at the request of the author due to similarity to his previously published reviews.” To Nature, JACS wrote that the article “was removed by the publisher due to possible copyright concerns.”

Copyright and ownership

Indeed, copyright seems to be the heart of the matter, at least in academia. If plagiarism means passing off of someone else’s work as one’s own, then one could be forgiven for initially thinking that self-plagiarism is impossible — it sounds like a contradiction. If I wrote it, how could it possibly be someone else’s work?

When we publish in scientific journals, we usually sign over the copyright to the journal. Copyright is ownership. That material no longer belongs to us; it belongs to the publisher. It is legally someone else’s.

We might think this system is wrong, but it’s the system we’ve willingly submitted to, as discussed in American Prospect‘s Copyright fight hits the lab. This is why I disagree with some of the comments Craig Silverman collected over at Poynter. The term self-plagiarism is coherent; you can steal your own work — if you’ve signed it over to someone else.

Self-plagiarism is not mere repetition. JACS follows the ethical guidelines of the American Chemical Society, where we read that material “quoted verbatim from the author’s previously published work must be placed in quotation marks.” Repetition in the form of quotation with appropriate credit is ethical. Self-plagiarism is not. (See also See Shawn O’Rourke’s elaboration at PopMatters.)

Can open access eliminate self-plagiarism?

If the issue is copyright, then the solution clearly lies with open access. In open access publishing, the author should retain the copyright and thereby ownership.

Under these circumstances, re-use is possible, and at times reasonable.

  • Imagine a complex laboratory experiment that leads to multiple publications, each describing different aspects or implications of the results. Every one of those publications has a methods section describing the experiment. If you write a good description of the experiment, why not use it for every article?
  • What if you’re in a field where it’s natural to describe previous research as part of your article? And what if some previous research is relevant for more than one article you write? Can you just re-use your descriptions of the foundational literature? Sure. But mention the article where you used it first.
  • What if you write a great sentence, pithily describing the essence of your theory. Go ahead, publish it as often as you want. You own it. Again, citation is ethically required, but it’s no longer necessary to beg a journal for permission to reuse a few paragraphs from your own pen that they now own.

In each of these cases, the legal issues of ownership — and thereby the notion of self-plagiarism — have been parked. The work is no longer someone else’s. The author retains the copyright and thereby the right to publish and re-publish.

Solving the problem of self-plagiarism is yet another advantage of open access publishing.  As more arguments emerge, the tipping point for a new model of scientific publishing gets closer.

And when it arrives, we’ll no longer be discussing the coherence of notions like self-plagiarism. We’ll just be thinking about problems, discovering their solutions, and writing. Always writing.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • How many repetitions of E=mc2 makes it “stale”?

    The problem here, of course, is both a legal and a public policy question with the law lagging behind as it usually does, relying on precedent, adhering to the doctrine of stare decisis and looking backward for guidance into the future.

    The “problem” for the writer who writes for the New Yorker is that the New Yorker likely “owns” the work and retains the right to republish it – contractually and/or under the legal doctrine of “work for hire.” Work for hire: I invented it but I invented it on your time and your dime. You are the owner of the copyright, not me.

    If the writer plagiarizes himself and publishes his “stale” ideas at the New Yorker, he likely violates a contract that requires him to publish only original material for the New Yorker because – presumably – the New Yorker is paying him for new stuff, not old stuff. The stuff of Bar Exams is this question: if you plagiarize yourself at a publication to which you’ve transferred ownership rights as of the moment of publication in that journal, is The New Yorker now the owner of the original copyrighted work or is The New Yorker the (inadvertent) infringer along with the writer – who may have liability under the doctrine of co-infringement.

    Angels dancing on the head’s of pins.

    What we need are new laws for the new era and savvy, forward looking executives who can make their own law anytime they want by crafting agreements that are as beneficial for the (usually grossly underpaid) “creative” as they are for the publisher.

    Now that the “means of production are in the hands of the people” publishers should be finding ways to join hands in equal partnership with their human capital or they will go the way of the Beta tape, WordStar, and IBM punch cards.

    As to the academics – never did have any business sense. Hard to imagine them leading the way into the new century. (with due apologies to the few who actually ARE)

    • RMS says:

      Vickie Pynchon: “As to the academics – never did have any business sense. Hard to imagine them leading the way into the new century.”

      Thank you for differentiating us academics from the crooks on Wall Street (and Mitt’s buddies), that’s exactly why I am a scientist (and not a starving one at that).

  • Anna says:

    “As to the academics – never did have any business sense. Hard to imagine them leading the way into the new century.” And as we struggle through the fifth year of the worst economic downturn since the 1930’s, I suppose that our great businessmen – many of whom are ‘helping the police with their enquiries’ or in jail – are the ones to lead us into the 21st century?

    I think not.

    It is precisely this sort of lambasting of academic endeavour and excellence that is in danger of making the West a ‘has been’ culture, and many in the media who have no understanding of science are driving the anti-science agenda. A pity because in Niall Ferguson’s language, ‘Science’ is one of the killer apps that allowed Western society to dominate for the last 500 years.

    The next time you use your phone, internet, play with your ‘apps’ or even switch on a light, spare a thought for the fact that none of this development would have been possible without the work of the likes of James Clerk Maxwell and Marconi 100 years ago, who were interested in the fundamental principles of electromagnetism, not in making a ‘quick buck’. The technological advances of the last century would not have been possible with mere serendipity and tinkering in a workshop. They are reliant on a deep understanding of Nature. Even your GPS requires relativisitic corrections (Einstein) to be sufficiently accurate.

    As regards publishing, the boycott by academics of Elsevier turned out to be pretty effective. Research publishing has become a rip-off ever since it moved from being run by the learned societies to being a profit making activity while keeping the same model. Recently, with the advent of excellent ‘desktop’ typsetting tools (e.g. LaTeX), many publishers don’t even do the typesetting anymore, merely providing their templates for the authors. And at least one on-line computing journal has been set up by the panel of peer reviewers of a traditional journal, who got fed up and resigned en masse to start their own. (So – not so lacking in business sense.)

    Thus – the public pays for the research. The researchers do all the work – come up with the ideas, do the research, write the paper. (And this is the difference with e.g. working for a newspaper – they are not doing it on the publisher’s payroll and time.) They also do the peer reviewing for free. They give up their copyright for that particular piece of written work. (Actually ours don’t under advice from our lawyers – they cross out that bit of the contract. The publishers either don’t notice or don’t care.) The paper is published. Then, the publisher charges the same research institute where all the work has been done exorbitant fees for subscription to its journals many of which are bundled in such a way that you have to take the rest with the ones you want. And if you, a member of the public and taxpayer who funded the research want to read it – well you have to pay as well. In short a licence for printing money.

    Open publishing should put paid to all that and it is now a stated policy of the UK government, announced this week, to make all publicly funded research publicly available as soon as it is published by 2014. Like the dinosaurs, the publishing houses will have to evolve very rapidly (though it’s hard to see what role they can play), or become extinct.

  • Peter Gray says:

    Once more you are ahead of the game…just came looking to post a comment about self-plagiarism but you were already there! It has just come to my attention because a journal, for which I have been guest editing, ran a “plagiarism detector” over an article written by a respected professor describing a large, EU funded project. This revealed that some of the material was drawn from project descriptions available elsewhere on line. Of course they were – you can’t describe an elephant without using words like ‘trunk’, ‘tusks’ and ‘large’. I was astonished that a device designed to compensate for the failings of the US education system – unoriginal assessment questions = unoriginal responses – is being used to flagellate academics who are already having to recycle their own writing to conform to the insanity of ‘publish or perish’. Someone recently remarked that in politics, no-one listens, therefore politicians resort to saying the same thing ten times over to get attention. It’s the same for Academia – in order to get any attention, the same research or other activity needs to be spread around as widely as possible.
    This is a wholly pernicious trend and one which we should resist. And, it points yet again to the need for OPEN ACCESS NOW!

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