self plagiarism and online publication… some musings

I’m a journal editor, one of a collective that edits the Educational Action Research Journal.

One of the conditions of getting published in our journal is that authors sign an agreement which, among other things, says that the work isn’t published elsewhere.

We recently had a potentially difficult problem just as one issue was just about to go to the printers. On the very last day when corrections could be submitted we got an email from an author whose work had been refereed and accepted, and who had the proofs back for correction. They had submitted an earlier version of the article to an online journal which used open reviewing – that is where the original submission is published online together with the reviews and eventually the corrected article will also be published. The author now realised that the original online version, even though not the same as the one that we had accepted, still had substantial chunks identical to the manuscript we were about to publish.

One of my colleague editors and I took responsibility for trying to sort this out. We had a difficult decision. We didn’t want to publish something that was substantially already out there. So we had to ask the author how much our article was the same and how much was different from the one that was online. Only then could we decide what to do.

But the problem didn’t stop there. Even if we were convinced that the version we had was substantially different from the first version, and we went ahead with publication, there was another difficulty. Our publisher advised us that we were looking at an issue of self-plagiarism. We would need to get the author to formally quote the previous work, AND to seek permission for its use if they didn’t have copyright.

Fortunately, in this case, the author contacted the editors of the online journal who generously agreed to remove it from their site, even though they clearly didn’t have to. This was a great relief to the author and to us as editors. It was a narrow escape. We nearly had to literally stop the presses to remove the article and change the editorial. This would have delayed publication of the journal for the first time in its 19 year history.

Apart from the very obvious lesson here about not submitting an article to two journals, the incident raises some other questions about self-plagiarism.

It used to be the case that self-plagiarism was understood only as the substantial cutting and pasting of text from one article to another without any by your leave. This was pretty common practice until relatively recently and I confess to having occasionally done it myself.

But growing awareness of plagiarism per se combined with software that detects it (and audits of academic publications) have made all of us more aware that this is not really on. If it’s published it’s published – and a new article needs to start afresh or self-cite. There are of course exceptions to this, as in descriptions of research sites and research methods from a particular project – these really aren’t fluid, and need to stay substantially the same across project publications.

It’s the spread of online publications that complicates the question of self-plagiarism quite considerably. Many of us have for example put early versions of papers online in conference repositories. We generally still own the copyright on these but technically these are now published articles. How many of us own up to these when we submit the paper to our chosen journal? How many of us actually acknowledge in the journal text that an earlier published version exists, let alone formally quote from it?

As a journal editor, one of the things I now wonder about is whether we are approaching a time when we have to do online searches to find out whether one or more versions of a paper submitted for refereeing already exists out there as a publication. If they do, then the decision that faces any editor is whether we want to publish something that is already available.

I have heard of some journal editors who have already decided that the answer to that question is no. And that response raises a whole raft of other questions about what counts as originality and contributions to knowledge, not to mention the small matter of the ownership and purposes of scholarly knowledge production…

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in journal, online publishing, self-plagiarism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to self plagiarism and online publication… some musings

  1. Sarah Sloan says:

    great article, and something I had never even considered. I am in the process of writing up my thesis into articles and did wonder how to tackle the fact that my method is the same throughout the numerous papers. If I have submitted an article and it is being reviewed, how would I then go about referencing this paper in a later paper (as final published details are not yet available)?

    • pat thomson says:

      You do have to keep the method pretty consistent article to article. The way to cite unpublished papers is as in review or as a conference paper, if it was given as that.

  2. CordyLear says:

    What about publishing chapters from a published dissertation? I’m interested in publishing a chapter from my dissertation. I intend to change the introduction but the archival work inside will be the same. Would a journal accept it for publication?

    • pat thomson says:

      So you mean that the thesis Is part of a digital thesis repository? if so not a problem.

      • CordyLear says:

        Yes, that’s what I meant. So it is acceptable to submit the chapter without alerting the journal editors that it’s a dissertation chapter.

        I’m going through some of your other posts and I found them extremely helpful. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  3. Elaine says:

    Hi Pat,

    I asked this question under a different post but it seems more useful here, what happens in the event that you publish 1-2 articles from your thesis, then turn the thesis into a monograph?
    a. can you “lift” sections of the thesis into the article, and/ or do you quote your thesis in the article?
    b. May you “lift” passages from your article into any eventual book, and/or do you then quote the article (or thesis?? as in blah blah (Elaine, 2013: 116 in Elaine 2014:7896)?

    Because, and this adds to CordyLear’s post above, I routinely quote other peoples theses that are useful to me in the same way that I quote an article or other text, so shouldn’t I quote my own thesis in that case?

    Best wishes, Elaine

    • Elaine says:

      Ok, so now I found my original post which Pat had already answered, and this is the answer:

      A if you are writing journal articles, it’s probably a fair bit of rewriting. You are taking a piece of something not a chapter, and writing for a specific journal. The argument will require a new line of rhetoric. Re book, you need to work out what is going to be book and what papers. You’re right, there is a danger you could do the lot I n papers, in which case there will be nothing new left for a publisher if it’s already out there.

      Thanks again, Pat

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