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Apparently he came around, though, as the paper now has been “withdrawn at the request of the author due to similarity to his previously published reviews.”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.
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