Best Practices for Text Recycling

  • Article
  • Writing

The use of recycled text has generated debates due to unclear guidelines, but researchers and publishers emphasize the need for ethical and appropriate practices. Text recycling involves reusing one's own writing without proper citation, and while it differs from plagiarism, it raises questions about when and how to credit oneself.

Updated on August 9, 2023

a researcher effectively and ethically using text recycling methods

Widespread confusion and conflicting opinions surrounding the use of recycled text have sparked intense debates in recent years. Researchers and publishers have voiced concerns over the lack of a clear definition and functional guidelines for its appropriate and ethical uses.

Text recycling is not a new practice by any means. For example, authors often reuse the description of a procedure or piece of equipment taken from one published article and inserted into a new one. Or, they may choose to translate their work to reach a wider audience.

While these and many other situations constitute text recycling, the rules and ethics regarding the practice are nuanced and contextual. By discussing the prevailing definition and advice for researchers, this article will help clarify the currently accepted expectations and applications for text recycling.

What is text recycling?

At present, text recycling seems to be the winner of a semantic battle of terms that refer to 

reusing material from your own writing in a new text without giving it credit through citation. While sometimes also described as self-plagiarism, duplicate publication, and recycling fraud, most agree text recycling carries less negative connotations and is an overall more accurate term.

For many years, not only was the name of the practice questionable, but its explanation was also murky and unstable. 

(To the contrary), policies addressing text recycling tend to employ inconsistent terminology, with different terms used to name the same key ideas; even more problematic, the same terms are often used with different meanings. These inconsistencies make it difficult for stakeholders—authors, editors, scholars, publishers or research integrity officers—to know precisely how the ideas or expectations articulated in one document relate to those of other documents, sometimes by the same organization (Moskovitz 2021)

Because of this and previous articles, the continuous work of its author and the affiliated project, most people now defer to the working definition presented by the Text Recycling Research Project (TRRP). As a multi-institution, NSF-funded initiative investigating text recycling in STEM research, the TRRP proposes that:

Text recycling is the reuse of textual material (prose, visuals, or equations) in a new document where (1) the material in the new document is identical to that of the source (or substantively equivalent in both form and content), (2) the material is not presented in the new document as a quotation (via quotation marks or block indentation), and (3) at least one author of the new document is also an author of the prior document.

How is text recycling different from plagiarism?

Whereas text recycling deals with reusing your own existent writing in a new document, plagiarism refers to taking someone else’s work and claiming it as your own. This act of borrowing from something you created versus stealing it from another is the fundamental distinction between text recycling and plagiarism.

Giving appropriate credit to other authors through citations or alternative acknowledgements is a universally accepted moral obligation. For this reason, plagiarism is always considered unethical and carries harsh consequences, including disciplinary action, professional disgrace, and possibly even legal prosecution. 

When to credit yourself is not as well understood, however. Text recycling raises the questions:

  1. Which types of my writing can I reuse?
  2. When is it acceptable to reuse my writing?
  3. When and how do I acknowledge the reuse of my previous work?

Because text recycling exists on a spectrum between right and wrong, recognizing its various forms and contexts is essential to maintaining an ethical research process.  

Acceptable text recycling

There are instances when text recycling is appropriate, and even desirable, so long as certain conditions are met:

  • Developmental recycling: Generally acceptable. The repurposing of one’s own text from unpublished documents, like notes, conference talks, or grant proposals. Necessitates written permission if the writing was contracted. 
  • Generative recycling: Sometimes acceptable. The reuse of method descriptions and research summaries from a previous publication. Must disclose and cite the recycled information. 
  • Adaptive recycling: Conditionally acceptable. The modification of large portions of or an entire published work to reach a target audience or discipline, such as with translations, opinion pieces, or blog posts. Requires acknowledgement and permission from the original author.

Unacceptable text recycling

There are particular cases, however, in which text recycling is not appropriate at all and violates ethical and, at times, legal standards. These terms have similar meanings and are often used synonymously:

  • Duplicate publications: Not acceptable. The reuse of either the entire or substantial parts of a published work without providing the appropriate references. By not disclosing the original work, the author attempts to deceive readers into believing it is new information. This practice potentially breaches author-publisher agreements and copyright laws.
  • Redundant publications: Rarely acceptable. The repeated publication of research in various forums that target similar audiences. When warranted, authors must get permission from both publications, disclose and cite the original work.
  • Salami Slicing: Rarely acceptable. The splitting of data derived from a single research project into multiple smaller, more publishable units. Only when a narrow portion of a study, or slice, tests a hypothesis that is distinct from the larger study or employs different methodology or populations, is it potentially acceptable to publish it separately.

What are the consequences for unethical text recycling?

By not adhering to protocols for ethical text recycling, authors jeopardize themselves and negatively influence the readers and publishers. In fact, unethical text recycling practices have the power to mar the research surrounding an entire study and can pervasively dilute the quality of science.

When readers consume research information, they expect honesty and authenticity. When an author fails to acknowledge that all or part of their work is reused, however, it both deceives the audience into believing that it is new and original and denies them the opportunity to reference the initial data.

Through the editorial and peer review processes, publishers invest extensive resources to vet manuscripts for rigorous research and credibility. Unethically recycled data wastes the time and effort of these systems. Ultimately, it taints the journal’s reputation.

Poor text recycling methods can further result in copyright infringement disputes between authors and publishers. Before reusing any copyrighted materials, the author must obtain explicit permission from the owner of that copyrighted work and then give proper credit to the original. Even when an author retains all copyrights, it is still unethical to publish multiple versions of the same article. It represents a sole desire for personal gain without expanding scientific knowledge. 

Because most publishers and professors are now utilizing plagiarism and duplicate text detection software, the chances of avoiding the consequences of unethical text recycling are slim. By negatively impacting the reputation of an author, these infractions curtail their prospects for future publishing and can halt career advancement.

Text recycling advice for researchers and academic writing

Understanding when text recycling is acceptable is obviously crucial, but knowing how and when to apply that knowledge can be confusing. Starting with the consideration of each section of a manuscript, here is some helpful guidance:

  • Introduction and background: Yes. With ongoing research that revolves around related topics or research questions, some text recycling in the introduction and background may be unavoidable or even desirable. It provides coherence and correlation to the research.
  • Materials and methods: Yes. As there are only so many ways to describe materials and methods, the use of similar or identical phrases  is not unusual. Once a concise and understandable explanation is written, there is no reason for change.
  • Results: No. Results are original outcomes for one particular study. If the results section reuses text from previously published data, it is duplicate publishing and is unacceptable.
  • Discussion: Possibly. Some degree of text recycling may be acceptable, but not by presenting  previously published ideas as new. Since the results must be original, and this section contextualizes those results, copious and justifiable text reuse is improbable. 
  • Conclusion: Unlikely. Researchers use this section to summarize their unique study, the  research question, arguments and outcomes, and scientific implications, for the readers. Text recycling here is most likely unethical duplication.
  • Figures and Tables: Unlikely. Like results and conclusions, the figures and tables offered in a manuscript represent data that is exclusive to the current study. Authors must clearly justify any reproduction and get the appropriate permissions.

For more details, examples, and practical guidelines, see UNDERSTANDING TEXT RECYCLING A Guide for Researchers from the TRRP. 

How can I avoid text recycling?

By implementing a clear outline and thoroughly developing each step of the writing process, authors create a solid foundation for telling their unique story. This practice avoids text recycling altogether.

When an occasion does arise that reusing portions of your work seems to make sense, take a step back and consider alternatives. Rewriting the text to reflect your current tone, viewpoint, and context, is the most straightforward way to avoid the possible pitfalls of text recycling.

If text recycling is still the best option for the situation, always get permission from the copyright holder to republish and cite the source. When the copyright is retained by the author, it may be sufficient to refer readers back to the original publication with a note and citation.

Regardless of the circumstances, it is essential to verify the source and destination publishers’ policies surrounding text recycling and copyright. Knowledge and transparency are the author’s most advantageous weapons against the repercussions of unethical text recycling.

The bottom line

Text recycling is neither a new practice, nor is it ever going away. There are times when it just makes sense to reuse something that you have already written.

The concept is complex, though, and replete with ethical and legal considerations. While some forms of recycling are acceptable, others are highly discouraged due to their misleading nature and potential consequences.

To maintain the integrity of their work, researchers and academic writers should exercise caution by always seeking permission and giving credit to the original publication. This integrity and transparency not only protects the author but also the scientific community as a whole.

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