Tracey Koehlmoos: Self plagiarism

Tracey KoehlmoosIn the US there has been a spate of high profile plagiarism incidents. In some cases, the writers have been penalized and in others the adage that the stars are different from us has rung true. However, the most interesting case to me—as a researcher and writer—involved a reporter for the New Yorker who was accused of and then excused of self-plagiarism. [1]

Self plagiarism? I had to think, what is that?

In order to combat the issue of self plagiarism, one could get into the seemingly terrible habit of citing one’s own work every time the same thought appears in writing. However, it might then seem like a self serving ego fest or like one is the leading expert in the field.  At its worst it could be seen as something more malicious in order to game the dreaded Hirsch Index.  Rather than dogging this idea, perhaps I should consider that if I have more publications worthy of citation, I might do this very same thing and then my thoughts on the H-Index might not be always preceded by the word “dreaded.”

A friend and I were engaged in a discussion on what is self plagiarism and how do you know when you do it? To answer the question I looked at the webpages for the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS) [2] They offer up the following advice to authors:

More extensive word-for-word copying of one’s own work is permitted (with permission from the holder of any copyright), but this must be clearly indicated in the article. This does not apply to previous documents such as working papers and theses which were written as part of the research. If an entire section is copied from another source (coauthored by at least one author of the submitted paper), it should contain words to the effect “This section is taken from section x.x of Roberts and Smith (1994)” (where Roberts and/or Smith are coauthors of the submitted paper). If the results of a section are based in large part on material presented in another paper (without significant copying), the section should contain words to the effect “This section is based on section x.x of Roberts and Smith (1994).” Alternatively, a paper might include an opening footnote with a statement such as:An earlier version of this paper was presented at the […] conference on (date). [reference to the original paper in the list of references]. The sections on […] and […] originally appeared in the conference paper. This paper adds results [ideas, analysis, improvements, ….] in sections […]. [2]

In an article that was written by the group who developed the new policies for INFORM, they  describe the process  and highlighted the peculiar challenges of addressing reuse of material by a researcher [3] .  

Of note is this quote, “Ninety per cent of the time was spent on the issue of guiding the re-use of an author’s own work. This is sometimes referred to as self plagiarism, which seems to immediately brand re-use of your own work in the same category as the theft of words and ideas from someone else. In the academic research community, plagiarism ranks as one of the most severe crimes a researcher can commit, perhaps comparable to faking results, and one that brings harsh penalties. Yet it became quickly clear that within the academic community, there are widely varying views on proper practices for using work from our own published work.”[3]

My fear is always that I have become a walking, talking sound byte, writing the same lines over and over again. For example, how many times have I said, or published, the following sentence:  “There is growing agreement and a sense of urgency that the non-state sector must be further engaged in the provision of health services in low income and middle income countries, if the ambitious objectives set by the Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved.” I can say this with no less than six or seven references following it because the ideas come from others, but I have fallen into the habit of using the exact same words and the same references everytime. Sometimes if I run out of things to say in a conversation, in an interview or at the podium, I will just sort of blurt out this sentence. It is a far cry more sophisticated than when I declared, “It is diarrhoea and it is poor children: not sexy!” on Swiss public radio when describing the national scale up of zinc.  Can a person actually plagiarise himself or herself?  Am I just hopelessly uncreative?

Further, sometimes if I am waiting for a manuscript to clear the peer review hurdle which can sometimes take over a year, I might mention some of the key elements of the paper in a blog for the BMJ. Once my BMJ blog was swallowed in its entirety into a paper written by other people. Graciously they made me a co-author on their paper and cited the blog. I assure you, I am thankful for both. However, could I be accused of self plagiarism? Should I be afraid of opening myself up for scrutiny? Perhaps I will stop talking now.


Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and adjunct professor at the James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh.