January 9, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Self-plagiarism?

Posted in copyright, self-plagiarism at 8:19 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Self-plagiarism?

A reader writes:

 Would you be willing to comment on accepted practice with respect to writing the methods section of a manuscript when portions of the methods are highly stereotypical, as in the case of human or animal surgery?  In order to avoid plagiarism, must I reword a highly technical paragraph (that said precisely what I intended for it to say) in subsequent papers where this portion of the methods are identical?

 Of course, I will comment on it—when am I ever reluctant to share my opinion? But, I want to make sure that you understand that I am commenting on this specific question. I am not talking about publishing the same article in multiple places or salami slicing or anything else like that, which, to me,  are clearly examples of scientific misconduct. What the reader is wondering about is the re-use of a methods section. And about this facet of a paper, things are not so clear cut. In fact, there is a great deal of controversy: some think that using a previously written methods section is a clear example of self-plagiarism; others believe that there is no such thing as self-plagiarism, and by forcing people to rewrite this section, we are holding back science. I come down in the middle of this, I think. If I were King or Queen or Benevolent Dictator or whatever, in my perfect world, we’d be able to use our perfect methods section as often as needed, considering it boilerplate. But, in this real world, I am not King or Queen, and most people, including journal editors, have not achieved my degree of enlightenment and consider re-using a methods section an unacceptable action. Thus, in this real world, where the bottom line is to get published, I would not re-use a methods section.

Dear reader, I feel your pain. Often, we conduct research using the same methods as we have in the past, and often, one study can produce results that cover several areas and would make for a very unwieldy and difficult to understand paper if we tried to put all of the findings in one paper (this is especially true in survey research). Why shouldn’t we use the same methods section that we have used in the past—words that we crafted purposefully and carefully and that we are perfectly happy with? Those are our words, after all.

Therein lies the rub or at least one of the rubs. They are not (or probably not) our words. Odds are that if you published the methods before in a peer-reviewed journal, those words belong to that journal. That’s because you more than likely turned over the copyright to the publisher of the journal when the editors accepted your article for publication. So, our words are ultimately not our words—that’s a rub. To avoid copyright violations, reference the original work where needed.

The other rub, I alluded to earlier—the issue of self-plagiarizing. It doesn’t matter if any of us think it is impossible to plagiarize one’s self and that such an act can’t exist. All that matters is that many, including editors and reviewers, think it is possible, and this is the world we are living in.

So what to do about that pesky methods section. I’ve read that it is okay to reference the first article and omit a description of the methods. That doesn’t really sit well with me: to understand a study, it is really helpful to have all the required information in one paper. Another ploy is to reference the first article and re-use the original methods section keeping it all within quotation marks. I’m not crazy about that either; it lacks grace. What I would do is something like this:

 The methods used in this study were detailed in citation,1 and are summarized briefly, here. To be followed by a brief summary of methods.

 That way, the article is self-contained, and you provide a reference so the readers can find the more detailed methods.

The other thing to do that I would feel comfortable with is to rewrite the whole methods section. You need to do more than change a word here and there. It really requires a full rewrite. Put your original methods section away—it is really hard to rewrite when our perfect published words are in front of us. You know the methods; it is your study after all—just tell them again. I bet you will find that they are sufficiently changed to avoid charge of copyright violation or self-plagiarism. Of course, you will still want to reference your original article, but you would want to do that anyway, right?

While the thought of re-writing the methods is painful, the actual writing is not so bad. This the section we know better than any other, and we can tell this story over and over again. So, I feel your pain, and yearn for that perfect world, but this is where we are, and for now, we can’t re-use our perfect methods sections.

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