Text recycling: Don’t be trashy- defining the line

Self-plagiarism is still plagiarism…except there are exceptions to the rule…and a razor thin edge that editors draw with their discretion…yet there can be serious consequences for crossing the line…

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Text recycling is the reuse of identical or similar text from the author’s own publications. The terms “self-plagiarism” and “text recycling” are interchangeable, although nowadays the latter is more commonly used because this type of plagiarism falls within a grey ethical chasm- Not all cases of text recycling are considered acts of plagiarism. Text recycling cases are considered on a case-by-case basis and the severity of the offense depends on several factors: the degree of overlapping sentences, whether the authors have cited their previous work, whether the manuscript has already been published, and, most importantly, which sections of the paper contain the recycled text. Consequences are divvied out at the editor’s discretion, making text recycling a hot, highly debated topic in publishing.

Unacceptable text recycling:

Text recycling in the results section is almost always inexcusable and unacceptable. When reporting duplicate work, authors should provide a citation and avoid publishing duplicate data. If the authors have significant justification for publishing previous data, they are required to comply with copyright requirements. Additionally, the discussion and conclusion sections of a manuscript should be original and not contain any text recycling because the function of these sections is to convey the originality of the research. Infractions of text recycling in the results, discussion, and conclusion sections of a paper will tend to receive more severe consequences and could result in rejection of a manuscript, corrections to a publication or even an article retraction.

“Acceptable” plagiarism?

Not all cases of text recycling are considered gross ethical misconduct. Introductions and methods sections are particular places where text recycling often occurs due to an inability of an author to alter an existing set of phrases in a significant way. In these circumstances, authors need to be transparent that their methods have been described elsewhere and need to cite the previous work. Other examples of “acceptable plagiarism” include reusing text from research proposals and conference materials. The rationale here is that research proposals and conference materials are not considered published and are only reviewed by a limited number of people. In these cases, the author should first check with the funding organization guidelines and the conference organization on whether they permit republication of their materials. Typically, research proposals do not typically require citation or noting; however, authors may make a footnote or endnote that their material was previously distributed at the conference.

Ultimately, actions against text recycling are at the editor’s discretion. Authors should write with care and cite their work.

For more information about self-plagiarism, authors are encouraged to read Text Recycling Guidelines written by COPE: http://publicationethics.org/text-recycling-guidelines

Further discussion:

Please share your thoughts! How similar is too similar? What percentage of sentence overlap is permissible? Can we define the line between the acceptable reuse of phrases and unethical self-plagiarism? Conversely, does self-citation falsely pad the citation numbers for a publication? Shouldn’t authors have a right to their own work?

Go to the profile of Marie-Elizabeth Barabas

Marie-Elizabeth Barabas

Managing Editor, Springer Nature

I'm an interdisciplinary neuroscientist with a research background in peripheral sensory/pain research, retinoblastoma, retinal development, and stem cell research. As the Managing Editor of npj Precision Oncology, my role is to assist the editorial process, implement editorial policies, and promote the journal, its articles, and the community. I also attend conferences and meetings to develop a relationship with our readers, authors, and editors. If you see me at a conference, feel free to introduce yourself.

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