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A student contacted me yesterday to ask my advice on the sticky question of self plagiarism.  She (let’s call her Cat) was preparing a conference paper, and, like all of us, being time-poor was seeking efficient ways to do the task of reporting on her research in a new context. She only has weeks to get the conference paper together. As a doctoral student nearing the end of her candidature she had written much and presented often on her research. Cat wanted to know if it was okay for her to re-use writing that she had put together for an earlier conference. In that earlier conference paper she had written about the same research project, although with a different slant. For this forthcoming conference she wished again to report on her findings – albeit to a different audience. Cat had never published that previous paper but felt some degree of unease about what was acceptable practice vis a vis reproducing segments of it for this new conference. How much could she reuse from that earlier paper? Could she reproduce the format and the content but simply change the words? Could she keep some, or all of the words? The ‘findings’ would be the same no matter how the words were changed. Is there an acceptable proportion of verbatim reproduction that is permissible? Is the essence of what’s acceptable to do with the words or the ideas being reproduced?

Her query raises some important questions, familiar to doctoral scholars and academics alike. In Cat’s case – in my mind at least – it was pretty straightforward because, although she may have circulated that first paper, it was never ‘published’. In that sense it wasn’t officially in the public domain and as such I felt there was no problem if she reproduced considerable proportions of it. On what basis did I make that judgement? I’m not sure I know. Certainly I am not able to point to a rulebook or a set of universally accepted guidelines or practices. I know there are different views – even within disciplines within the same institution. I know it’s not easy to get guidance from within the academy itself. Try asking your own supervisors, or Grad Schools, about self plagiarism. Try asking your publishers.

My concern is not so much about breaking publisher contracts, or transgressing disciplinary norms or in-house practices; I’m more interested in how we understand and practice ‘good scholarship’.

In a perfect world I think we’d probably all start with a blank page and write beautiful, pristine work on each and every occasion. Certainly I recall as a doctoral student and novice scholar starting every piece of writing anew. I recall being appalled if I found an established scholar had reworked the same ideas in a second publication.  Now I’m not so critical – I see the blurring of the boundaries, the way that ideas evolve in small increments rather than in leaps and bounds of unmitigated ‘newness’.  Einstein moments are rare. The everyday work of our writing is more often pedestrian; it can be slow – even repetitive and circular. But somewhere there comes a crossing of boundaries. I know as a reader, and as a writer, the displeasure and discomfort of rehashed work that offers nothing new. The line isn’t clear. It isn’t easy to tie down – it’s not simply a matter of saying “you’ll be safe if you only reproduce 20%”, or “it’s a different audience or purpose, so it’s fine”- although I do think proportion, audience and purpose are central to the discussion. Few guidelines exist (eg some publishing companies clarify the situation in regard to copyright issues).

Is self plagiarism a mortal sin, is it unethical – or simply sloppy and lazy? Is it an inevitable by-product of our ‘push to publish’ academic environment? Are there cultural and/disciplinary dimensions we’ve not countenanced?  This is a vexed issue and we’d love to generate some discussion of the complexities. Perhaps you’ve had some experiences you could share.  We’d love to hear from you.

Best wishes, Claire

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