You may have heard the term “self-plagiarism” – or the related terms of “text recycling,” “redundancy,” “reuse,” or “overlapping text” – thrown around recently as a form of alleged research misconduct. In fact, a new wave of misconduct charges relying on these broad concepts has emerged, threatening research scientists from all walks of the science community. Unlike traditional cases of misconduct, the concern emerging from these self-plagiarism-based cases is that readers may be misled about the novelty of published material – even if that material is accurate and the author’s original work. Indeed, over the past 12 months, institutions across the country have fixated on protecting the authenticity of scholarly writing, as is evidenced by a sharp rise in the use of self-plagiarism as a basis to launch formal research misconduct proceedings against authors accused of not accurately citing, or quoting, their previous work.
What is self-plagiarism, really?
Self-plagiarism is an editorial concept. The term itself is not found in the well-known definition of research misconduct adopted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Public Health Service (PHS), nor anywhere else in the PHS’ regulations. See 42 Code Federal Regulations § 93.307. In fact, you would be hard pressed hard-pressed to find an institutional misconduct policy that uses that term. While research misconduct has long been limited to fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism – essentially, failing to present accurate information – in reporting research results, self-plagiarism does not negate the validity of the data. It instead refers to passing off one’s own previously published work as “new” new without informing the reader of its original source.(1) Related concepts of recycling or reuse are other forms of duplication on the self-plagiarism continuum articulating the same concept: that an author has presented prior work as new or novel.
What this means for researchers forced to navigate federal rules and regulations in publishing timely scholarly work is that they must be prepared to handle a slew of issues that could result in potential research misconduct. Though not grounded in the federal regulations, institutions’ reliance on self-plagiarism as a means to bring misconduct allegations has the effect of subjecting researchers to an expanded definition of research misconduct, beyond the traditional principles of fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. If institutions are permitted to do this, research scientists will continue to be scrutinized closely by their institutions and funding sources for what are, in effect, alleged editorial mistakes. This is a far cry from the PHS’s longstanding prohibition on plagiarism, defined as the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property, or verbatim (or nearly verbatim) copying of another’s work. Each of these elements is designed to prevent publication of work that materially misleads the ordinary reader regarding the contributions of the author.(2) The concept of self-plagiarism, by contrast, focuses exclusively on the novelty of the author’s own contribution; in most cases it is beyond dispute that the author’s work is his or her own.
Can I really be found guilty of research misconduct for stealing my own work?
In response to the rise in concern over self-plagiarist conduct, the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) has made crystal clear its view that self-plagiarism is not research misconduct.(3) The principle that scholarly publications must be diligently and accurately cited is neither new nor offensive, but, as ORI’s unequivocal statement shows, citation error does not a research misconduct case make.