Self-Plagarism and how to avoid it

Posted by Danielle Wallace, community karma 145

A professor of mine from a time long passed recently discussed self-plagarism on his blog ( 

I have to admit, his findings shocked me, but many of us are aware of a number of articles that chip away at a larger question in tiny increments (some people may call this a research agenda).  In fact, we are often told in graduate school and beyond that no writing should be wasted and that we MUST publish to be sucessful in academia (and gain citation counts too).

At the journal level, the process is easy in that editorial offices work to combat this. How do we, as authors, get around this? Perhaps the best advice I've ever heard on this topic is write your methods piece first so that you can cite yourself. This is something I'm  holding myself to.

What do others think? For those of you not in the criminology world, the subject of the blog, John Hipp, is a well respected scholar who routinely publishes in some of the best criminology outlets.

almost 12 years ago


Sheldon Bernard Lyke, community karma 4071

I think even if it's possible, self-plagarism is a victimless crime.  I think that if you are chipping away at a larger question in tiny increments, that is comprises a research agenda.  If you are writing the same paper over and over again, then that's being unoriginal--I am not sure that amounts to plagiarism.  Are you really using work without citing to it? 


almost 12 years ago
I think Sheldon's point about writing the same paper (in effect if not literally) is along the same lines as Cohen's argument about VSPs (“very similar publications”) in the blog that Danielle cited. As an aside, I do know some young scholars are worried about citing themselves too much, especially published conference papers or forthcoming papers in lower-tier journals that may not feel like weighty citations, but by not citing these papers the authors can fall into self-plagiarism of ideas if not word-for-word plagiarism.
Brian Cody – almost 12 years ago
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Gordon Douglas, community karma 549

First of all, thanks so much Danielle for posting this link and posing these questions. I was surprised and totally fascinated by Philip Cohen's blog post, even forwarded it on to some friends in (non-academic) publishing who I thought would just find it interesting regardless of the very real issues you raise re: the publish or perish system of professional academia.

As for these questions, I'm really torn. When confronted with the evidence as Cohen lays it out, it certainly does seem at the very least undesirable to have such similar research published as original and novel both times, and especially the WCopyfind results and lack of at least basic honest acknowledgement of the previous research seem problematic.

But then again, I am inclined to agree with Sheldon that this crime, to the extent it is one, isn't doing that much harm. Moreover, the act of "chipping away" at an ongoing research agenda is not only a common one in today's social science (a life's work composed only of disparate, groundbreaking monographs is rare), but a pretty admirable one really. It's nice that scientists can commit themselves to really feeling out a particular question (and its many parts and subquestions) over years of research, and so long as frequent publication is expected in the field, the only way to sustain this is to publish findings along the way. One's methods, for instance, will I think almost necessarily be described in multiple articles. And, more simply, I too am an advocate of the idea that, as Danielle puts it, "no writing should be wasted" and that it's always better to find something a home (any home) in print where at least one other person might read it than simply shelving it. 

Which brings us, I guess, to perhaps the real controversial contention contained in Cohen's post: the so-called "cycle of publication overproduction" that he highlights from the study by Harley and Acord. They contend that the current academic system demands "unrealistic publication requirements" at the expense of thorough, thoughtful work worthy of high-quality peer review, and that this is what must change.

Now I'll absolutely agree that many publication expectations for hiring and tenure decisions seem extreme and perhaps promoting of a quantity over quality approach to publication (this other recent thread here on the Conversation has much to say about this). But in changing this I would still hate to think that less academic work should see the light of day.  Compared to the popular press or anything else, scholarship of all sorts is already depressingly under-read (both in and outside of its field) despite, I think, great potential to be just as interesting and important to public discourse as any quality magazine article - if only it could be written legibly and accessibly. And in this sense, getting even one's smallest findings out there for consumption and debate is a good thing. (Though I'm still not sure doing so almost identically in multiple venues without acknowledgement is.)

almost 12 years ago
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Danielle Wallace, community karma 145

This is so hard! In graduate school we're taught to be original and push boundaries. But you hit a tenure run and we're told to "publish or perish". Now that I'm in a tenure run, I can say I never took that tag line seriously enough as a graduate student. I appreciate all the little things that people do to publish, and I do them to!

But here's my take on this: submitting a near identical article with a near identical research question and writing structure to a journal in a different field is not ok. Criminologist and sociologists (where this article hit) will read each others work. He wasn't reaching a new audience exactly. This author has received young scholar awards etc... and is being held up as an example in the field of criminology. To me, this is not the example you want to set. This type of activity moves us away from scholars as knowledge producers and more towards assembly line production. Widget making.

Where I think self-plagarism is ok is this: you're writing several articles on the same topic/project/dataset. You write one, and then in all subsequent articles, you borrow the structure/data/methods of it while citing that article heavily.  So long as your justifications and questions are not the same, borrowing modeling structure just fine. In fact, you know it works because it's already been through the review process somewhere else. All the errors are removed etc...that's good science. BUT BUT BUT the questions/justifications must be different.

Here is an example: I am working on two papers (one will be published shortly in Justice Quarterly) that have very similar modeling techniques, use the same data, but have drastically different front ends and justifications.One paper is more policy based, etc...

To me, I don't think it's a victimless crime. Hipp's reputation is hurt. People are talking about this. Departments are talking about this. Editorial boards are more wary. Hipp's co-authors may look bad now. We'll see, but there is a ton of talk in academia, and this will be remembered. Cohen's reputation is probably also hurt for exposing someone (i.e., being a rat).

almost 12 years ago
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Will Hauser, community karma 227

When I first read your question, I frankly wasn't sure what "self-plagiarism" might be.  I think the term is a poor descriptor but more on that shortly.  This is a great question because it touches on so many issues - the peer review process, the "publish or perish" philosophy, tenure, professional integrity, and morality.

The problem with plagiarism, the way I see it, is that the originator of the work doesn't get credited for his or her efforts and someone else gets credit for something they didn't do.  'Credit' is more than simple acknowledgement, it's the currency of tenure.  It's basic thievery.  You can't steal from yourself, so the term seems to be a misnomer.

But whatever we call it, it's surely not good.  I'm not familiar with the articles mentioned in Cohen's blog but the widely cited 1998 articles by Paternoster, Brame, Piquero, and Mazerolle [both] on the appropriate significance test for the equality of coefficients across models immediately came to my mind.  One was published in Criminology and the other in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology - both top journals in the criminology field.  The authors, like Hipp, are well-known and respected.  I'm sure if we looked, and no one does, we could find many more examples from other authors.

I don't want to speculate about why people do this.  The obvious answer is the requirements of tenure at research oriented universities, but sometimes the obvious answer is not the right one.  I will say that the perpetrator - Hipp in this example, is surely harmed as a result and rightfully so.  I suspect these journals, which are great journals, will not be so eager to publish his work in the future.  He may have also alienated other journals as well as other academics generally, which is certainly not a boon to his career.  The bottom line is that this is cheating; it's tantamount to scribbling notes on your hand before an exam.  Others aren't directly harmed by this; their articles might not be published and the journal's resources are wasted reviewing and publishing something that's already been published elsewhere.  Any single instance of this behavior is of minimal consequence to others - the same is true of the exam example - but in both scenarios imagine what happens when lots of people cheat.  Besides, it's morally, intellectually, and professionally dishonest.

I can say that in my specific area - judges and sentencing - the convention seems to be that given a good dataset the authors publish many related articles from it that belong in a single publication.  For example, in considering how different judges sentence, authors typically publish one article on black vs. white judges and another using the same data and method on male judges vs. females.  They are "thinly sliced 'salami' articles" to quote Cohen.  The exception here is the recent work by Brian Johnson (2006) but even his article which is comprehensive compared to many previous publications on the same topic shares some similarities (and the same data) with Ulmer's 2004 piece. 

I find myself sitting on a fantastic dataset and grappling with these same issues, counting the number of publications I think I can squeeze out of the data.  It’s a gray area.  I think varying a couple independent variables does not warrant a separate article unless the theoretical focus of the paper is different.  I guess one way to think about it is this – if the lit review and theory sections would be very similar for both articles then the methods section must be substantially different (i.e. better statistical technique, different outcome variable, etc.).  Adding a couple more predictors or swapping one predictor for another is not a justification for a new paper unless the theoretical focus is changed and this should necessitate a rewrite of the frontend, discussion, and conclusion.





almost 12 years ago
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