We recently caught up with plagiarism expert, Jonathan Bailey of CopyByte and Plagiarism Today. Bailey provides consultation to writers, attorneys, researchers and anyone who needs advice on plagiarism, content theft and copyright issues. In this interview, Jason Chu of iThenticate asks Bailey about his thoughts on the repercussions of self-plagiarism, and how it can be avoided.
TRANSCRIPT -- Jonathan Bailey Interview | June 5, 2012
JC: Jonathan Bailey is a copyright and plagiarism expert, and he’s with Plagiarism Today. Welcome Jonathan!
JB: Glad to be here, thank you very much for having me!
JC: I asked you to join me today to talk about the issue of self-plagiarism. So maybe you can just start by giving us a real brief intro as to what constitutes self-plagiarism? I mean specifically from the standpoint of copyright.
JB: Well, self-plagiarism from the standpoint of copyright isn’t really a major issue. Copyright deals with, typically, what you can and can’t do with other people’s work. But, self-plagiarism deals with what you’re doing with your own work. Now, there are situations where you could run afoul of copyright, for example if you deal with a joint authorship and you use someone else’s work. But basically, the concept of self-plagiarism is that you are taking work that you did—or were involved in—sometime in the past (it could be very recently or it could be a long time ago) and you’re presenting it as something new, something that is fresh and original even though you’ve obviously done it before. And from a plagiarism standpoint, it’s a difficult issue, because we tend to think of plagiarism as a kind of theft and a lie. But, with self-plagiarism, obviously you did actually write it; it’s just not a new product, even though you are claiming in part that it is new. And from a copyright standpoint, it’s your own work and you have the ability to give yourself permission to do whatever you want to do with your content. Basically, it’s not much of a copyright issue, unless you’re dealing with a work of joint authorship.
JC: Thanks for that definition, Jonathan, that really helps. I think a lot of authors—particularly ones who submit to academic journals—have a difficult time understanding this, because they will have journals write back to them—let’s say a researcher submits a paper that self-plagiarizes or borrows significantly from a previous work. They don’t quite understand that even though it’s not a copyright issue, it may be an issue for the journal. So maybe you can just expound a little on that.
JB: I have to admit, I kind of sympathize a bit with the people who submit to academic journals, because professors and academics are usually under tremendous pressure to get published, to get out there, to get the name recognition, get the grant dollars—all that stuff (especially today with schools all across the world under all kinds of difficult times). You submit a paper to an academic journal and often times you won’t hear back for months. And, you’re not supposed to submit again until you get a definite “no.” The difficulty of that though is to help alleviate this a researcher will submit a paper to multiple people, multiple journals, at the same time. And, if it is a really good paper—sometimes when it’s not even that great—it might get picked up by several journals at the same time, therefore duplicating that effort across multiple locations. Or, sometimes in their haste to get research out there—to get published again—they’ll copy portions and even entire works, entire studies they’ve released before and submit them again as if they are brand new, even though they might have almost no completely new content inside them. So, the result is you wind up with a lot of the same material being published over and over and over again. That’s a major headache for the journals, because their time resources and publication space are extremely limited. It’s a very competitive environment. And, if you have one person submitting the same thing over and over and over again, it cuts down on the variety of the information that gets published in these journals and more importantly it also denies other scientists, researchers, and academics the chance to have their work published as well.
JC: Sure, that makes total sense. I think that there’s also the issue of validity. I know that there are issues of journals having to retract papers because it comes to light at a later date that some of their research has been plagiarized or based on plagiarized content. There are a number of issues that surround that, self-plagiarism being one of them. It would be interesting for our audience to get a sense of what else might be entailed in terms of what journals have to contend with in contending with these issues?
JB: Well, it can be very difficult for journals to wrestle with these issues, because there is no clear definition as to what does and does not constitute self-plagiarism. You can talk to eight different journals and get eight different standards. It is especially difficult when you’re dealing with someone who has been in the field for a very long period of time, because they might have had a dozen papers published in the past, and because they are in the same field, they are probably talking about the same things and you might expect them to cover a lot of the same ground. Certain things journals seem to be OK with include discussing methodology and some of the nitty-gritty things that you have to have in the paper, but not the “new” science. A lot of journals seem to have taken a more relaxed position about this, but some haven’t. There’s not a truly solid standard across all of academia as to what is and is not self-plagiarism. That leads to a lot of conflicts where researchers are submitting things that they think are perfectly acceptable. And, the journals are coming back and saying “No, that’s plagiarism. We have to retract that immediately.” And that creates drama and headache for both sides involved, because now there’s this big conflict about did the journal overreact, did he plagiarize—it sullies the reputation of both journal and researcher alike in that case. And, these cases are major time sinks, doing a plagiarism evaluation of a journalism paper, even a largely brief one, takes many, many hours of time, this is coming from a review board that is usually volunteer in most cases; it can be a major drag on a publication, and it can harm the researcher too.
JC: That makes sense, and the elephant in the room, so to speak, is the whole question of academic misconduct. If academics and researchers know well in advance that the journals are not going to accept papers that have been self-plagiarized and yet continue to submit those papers, it does speak to the ethical issues of doing something like that. And, it certainly does call into question the ethical standing of the authors and researchers themselves.
JB: I think the reason for that is because when you publish something under a journal especially or even looking at academia more broadly—it can even be an essay that you submit for a class, a dissertation, a thesis—you are going to find self-plagiarism anywhere you find good old-fashioned, traditional plagiarism. Anywhere you find copy and paste a time saver, you’re going to see it at some point. Whenever you turn in something that bears your name, you’re essentially making a series of claims about that work, even if you don’t think about it or know you’re doing it. One of those is obviously that it’s yours, it’s an original work, but the other is that you’re usually making the claim that “this is new, this is something I created for this journal, for this assignment, for this project or whatever.” And if there’s too much borrowed material, especially from your own past works, it does raise some serious ethical issues, because it is a form of lying fundamentally. It’s misleading and it raises questions about that researcher’s ethics.
JC: And that brings us full circle to what you touched on earlier, which was the tension—the anxiety, if you will—a lot of researchers feel around having to publish or perish. I think what’s insightful is that the journals, in prompting researchers to send them only original work, are really trying to push the margins around researchers being a little more innovative in their own study or research and in the direction of originality and creativity.
JB: We talk about how the academic marketplace is so competitive for researchers wanting to get published. It is equally as competitive for the journals themselves. They are all neck and neck. There are very few fields that I can think of that have only one or two journals these days. It seems like there are tons of journals out there, but even the space available compared to the research being done—it’s dwarfing. The problem is when you have so much competition from all sides, there’s this huge pressure from the journals to come up with newer, exciting, more ground-breaking things and to be constantly pushing the envelope, and the researchers to publish or perish (which is a good way to put it). These forces meet at a collision in the middle, and that’s where you get a lot of this testing of the waters, so to speak, trying to be new enough, original enough to escape that self-plagiarism claim. One of the things that I see a lot of when people ask me about it is “How much of it has to be original?” Well, there are no hard lines. It’s not like traditional plagiarism where we at least have academic guidelines and tons and tons of well-known case studies. We’re only beginning to see the case studies of self-plagiarism really coming to light. We’re only really beginning to understand this, because the rules are that much different.
JC: It sounds like you’re really advocating strongly for some guidelines to be in place. Looking ahead, it does not seem likely that journals are going to change their stance on self-plagiarism. What do you think would be a good thing for journals to do to try and reinforce the message that self-plagiarism is not going to be accepted?
JB: Well, I wish that journals could be a little more open about their self-plagiarism policies rather than keeping them behind closed doors. Make it clear what is and is not allowed to be copied from previous works and their publications. That way, if someone comes along and violates it, it’s not this arcane, hidden rule that was buried in some fourth drawer of a file cabinet somewhere and no one knew about it. It’s out there and in the public and that makes it a lot more clear ethically that that researcher was violating rules that were clearly presented to them before publication. Most journals these days will say no self-plagiarism quite prominently, but they won’t explain what that means.
JC: I think that covers it for me in terms of questions. Is there anything that you would like to add in closing?
JB: For any researchers that are worried about being accused of self-plagiarism, especially those operating in a small field, I always advise people if you’re nervous about it before you submit, talk to the publication. You can probably find someone there who is more than happy to speak with you. Clear it with them, and that way if they say it’s OK and they come back and try to challenge you on it, at least you can say that you did your research and your good faith effort to try and avoid any conflict there. Basically, researchers, be careful and journals be aware of it and try to be a little more open about it if you can.
JC: Well, thank you again Jonathan. Thanks for taking the time—always a pleasure to speak with you. For more information about Jonathan and his work, please visit www.plagiarismtoday.com. Thank you again Jonathan!