Self-Plagiarism: How to Define It and Why You Should Avoid It

What is self-plagiarism, and why is self-plagiarism wrong? Understand the ethical (and practical) reasons to avoid this behavior in your research writing.

Updated on February 21, 2024

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In the process of publishing, each new paper builds on previous work. However, it's important to note that rules about quoting and citing previous work (to avoid plagiarism) apply equally to one's own writing. The concept of self-plagiarism can lead to many questions, but here is a definition and three reasons to avoid it in your research papers.

What is self-plagiarism?

Self-plagiarism is commonly described as recycling or reusing one's own specific words from previously published texts. While it doesn't cross the line of true theft of others' ideas, it nonetheless can create issues in the scholarly publishing world. Beyond verbatim sections of text, self-plagiarism can also refer to the publication of identical papers in two places (sometimes called "duplicate publication"). Moreover, it is best practice to cite your previous work thoroughly, even if you are simply revisiting an old idea or a previously published observation.

In short, self-plagiarism is any attempt to take any of your own previously published text, papers, or research results and make it appear brand new.

"Self-plagiarism is not usually an accident so much as a misunderstanding of journal copyrights," says Kim Yasutis, Ph.d. "Authors, particularly in certain fields and certain cultures, tend to think of text they have written as theirs in perpetuity. However, once they publish in a journal, they have almost always transferred copyright to another journal. At such a time, that text is no longer theirs from a right to publish perspective. So while authors might not think there’s anything ethically wrong with using “their own” text, a journal puts itself in legal jeopardy if it publishes text that another journal owns the copyright to."

Why is self-plagiarism wrong?

Although some forms of self-plagiarism may seem harmless, the rationale for avoiding this practice is threefold, ranging from the philosophical to the practical:

1. The fundamental role of research papers

The broadest reason to avoid self-plagiarism deals with the integrity of the research record, and of scientific discovery as a whole. It is widely understood that each published manuscript will include new knowledge and results that advance our understanding of the world. When your manuscript contains uncited recycled information, you are countering the unspoken assumption that you are presenting entirely new discoveries.

"Salami slicing" data, reusing old material to publish again, and duplicate publication erode your standing in your field and also the public's trust in research and science more broadly.

2. Publisher copyright - your own words may not belong to you

It is important to note that the standard process of publication in many journals includes ceding copyright of the finished paper to the publisher. While you are still the intellectual owner of the ideas and results, the publication is property of the journal. As such, reuse of that material without citation and/or permission is not acceptable. While this is counterintuitive, in the eyes of the law, reusing your own words is copyright infringement, even if you wrote them.

Open access journals commonly use Creative Commons licenses allowing for reuse with attribution. In these cases, reuse of your own words is acceptable, but it is always necessary to cite the original publication.

3. Journals will catch it and your publication process will be delayed or blocked

The vast majority of scholarly journals use software like iThenticate® to screen for plagiarized work upon submission. If you have copied text from a previously published paper, it will be flagged during this process. Even if you are not rejected for the issue, it will cause a delay as the editor asks you questions and you rewrite or otherwise more clearly identify reused material.

The most practical reason to avoid self-plagiarism is actually the most common reason it occurs in the first place: to save you time while trying to get published.

How to avoid self-plagiarism

Luckily, self-plagiarism can be easily avoided. Instead of repeating what you've already stated in another manuscript, just reference your previous work.

"Mostly avoiding self plagiarism can be done by referencing previous papers rather than recycling text (most commonly in sciences in the methods section)," says Yasutis. "Second tip is simply to open an entirely new document when writing each paper, rather than starting from a previous draft of something else"

At AJE, we know ethical reporting of new results is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge. Please contact us with any questions.

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