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The Question of Self-Plagiarism in Research

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Oct 31, 2012 11:46:00 AM

self plagiarism many hatsEarlier this week, Stephen Matthews, the chair of the physiology department at the University of Toronto’s medical school, had an article retracted from the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Review.

The accusation against Matthews was that he had reused content from other papers had written and published, including the abstract, which was described as “An almost verbatim copy of an abstract of another paper by the same author.”

The journal, in its retraction, said that Matthews’ reuse was a “severe abuse of the scientific publishing system,” and the journal’s editor Verity Brown, has been equally critical in interviews since saying that, “This is a copyright issue. I tis also an intellectual infringement.”

However, Matthews’s case raises serious questions about research funding. According to his university profile, Mathews has received dozens of government grants totalling more than $18 million since 2000, setting the stage for a possible battle over the funding given to draft the allegedly self-plagiarized work.

In the meantime however, both Matthews and his university are silent on the issue.

But Matthews isn’t the only self plagiarism scandal to break out in recent months. In the journalism sphere, Jonah Lehrer case famously started out with accusations that he was lifting quotes from earlier works. This, in turn, led to a debate over the issue of self-plagiarism and if it was even a problem at all.

Though larger issues such as fabrication and traditional plagiarism eventually sank Lehrer’s career, for a time it would appear that his employers were going to stand by him, doing little more than appending a footnote to his columns that had an issue.

However, self-plagiarism is not an issue that’s going to die off any time soon. As the demands on researchers, journalists and other authors grow, the temptation to reuse older works will become stronger and stronger.

But this opens up a lot of difficult questions on the subject. What obligation does a researcher or author have to cite previous works? How is the best way to do so? What are the potential copyright issues when an author self-plagiarizes work he or she wrote for a previous employer? What are the ethical and monetary concerns when a researcher self-plagiarizes when writing a report they received a grant for?

Most importantly, though, how do we balance the need and desire for works of original authorship with the right of the author to own his or her work? In particular, how does this work for researchers and authors that work in a small niche and likely have to cover the same ground repeatedly?

These are not easy questions, but an upcoming webcast on the topic, hosted by iThenticate, will attempt to answer some of them. The November 1st webcast, entitled “What is Mine is Mine: Self-Plagiarism, Ownership and Author Responsibility” will attempt to look deeper at the issue of self-plagiarism and address some of these tough issues.

The webcast will feature Kelly McBride, Kelly McBride, the Senior Faculty on ethics, reporting and writing for Poynter and Rachael Lammey from CrossRef, and myself, Jonathan Bailey, from Plagiarism Today.

While it’s unlikely we’ll be able to resolve all of the thorny issues surrounding self-plagiarism in the time allotted, discussions such as this one are critical to finding good answers to these issues and discovering a consensus on how they can be approached in the future.


What is self-plagiarism and how to avoid it

What researchers and journals can do to prevent self-plagiarism