Ask Retraction Watch: Is publishing my thesis verbatim self-plagiarism?

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

Last week, we launched a new feature, “Ask Retraction Watch.” We invited readers to send in their questions. Here’s one we got right away:

I’m a graduate student in geology, and have a question about the thesis I’ve written.  Can I submit sections of it verbatim for publication in academic journals?  Is this considered plagiarism?  The thesis itself will be housed online in ProQuest’s open access database, and also on my homepage.  Thanks so much for your opinion!

So, what do Retraction Watch readers think? Take the poll below, and post your comments. Have questions you’d like posed in this space? Find our contact info here.

[polldaddy poll=7348988]

46 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: Is publishing my thesis verbatim self-plagiarism?”

  1. oops – I answered the question in the title instead of the question on the poll (noticed just as I clicked ‘vote’) Maybe you want to ask the same question in the title as the poll?

  2. The real question is “has this work been published before?” I am not familiar with the Proquest open access database- looking at the site it appears it is primarily for open access uploading of graduate works and is distinctly different than traditional open access- ie, it isnt on medline, etc. If this is the case I think publishing the work in an academic journal does not represent self-plagiarism.

  3. Yes, it should be possible if the journal’s editor knows about it and is OK with it. After peer review, your article is likely to be very different anyway 🙂

  4. you’re never going to get in trouble or cited for scientific misconduct for republishing a thesis in a peer-reviewed article, it’s considered a rite of passage and a ‘sign of success’.

  5. Make it clear that what you’re publishing isn’t technically new work. If you’re taking paragraphs wholesale, use block quotes. If your “new” article is just sections of previous work, say so in an introduction or end note! Something like “This abridged passage was first published in its full form by G. Student as ‘My Awesome Thesis,” 2013.”

  6. It probably won’t be published strictly verbatim as additional introductory information, etc., will be required and edits will probably be suggested. The submitter must be explicit in where the content has appeared previously and the editor will guide. In some fields the journal may not accept (Inglefinger rule) – for such fields you may consider embargo-ing your thesis for some period to get the publishing done or you might pick a more friendly journal.

  7. The question is a different one…If I have published some articles from my thesis project before I defend it (as it is mandatory in many PhD programs), I am losing my right to include that research in the Thesis and therefore, precluding myself from becoming a doctor? Clearly including that published research in the Thesis could be considered plagiarism too.
    Nonsense. Defending a Thesis and publishing articles from it meet 2 different and compatible goals (academic and scientific), meet different evaluation requirements and is intended for different audiences.

    1. Two of the three chapters in my thesis (not counting intro and conclusion) were verbatim reproductions of previously published work. This was clear to everybody involved, and was explicitly noted at the beginning of the chapter.

      A thesis is not peer-reviewed, so it is substantially different from a journal publication.

      I study molecular biology, and I was told that nobody reads the thesis (aside from the thesis committee). Maybe things are different in the humanities. I kept the thesis under embargo for 6 months while I published the material from the third chapter.

      1. It’s technically (and possibly legally, depending on copyright arrangements) plaigiarism. That said, I don’t think it’s morally wrong. You shouldn’t lose any sleep over it. I did it myself.

  8. This isn’t plagiarism since graduate students don’t have a choice regarding this type of publication, whether it is electronic or physically published and sitting on a shelf in a library. The big question, though, is, whose work is it? Is it the student’s or the supervising professor’s? It should be the student’s, anyway.

    1. Your big question assumes that the supervisor has or might have a substantial contribution to the work. My observations point to the opposite problem: often supervisors just sign off something they’ve barely read by someone they’ve barely met. Especially in Europe, it’s not uncommon to meet once a year or so and if anyone at all pays any attention to the student, it’s the unsung postdoc who on paper is not allowed to supervise and therefore does not receive any credit whatsoever. If anyone takes undue credit, it seems to me to be most often the person in power and not the one under. In my own sad experience, sometimes the anonymous peer reviewers have made more substantial intellectual contribution to the work than the listed co-authors (be they supervisor or a colleague). Academic integrity is valued highly on paper but sadly gets constantly trampled over by standard, “normal” daily practices.

  9. Publishers such as ACS (American Chemical Society) have specific rules and policies dealing with publication of dissertations.

  10. I would never have imagined that your graduate thesis could not and should not be published in peer reviewed journals. It would be appropriate to add a note in the the peer reviewed publication that “Portions of this work were presented and published in thesis form in fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD for Student X from University Y.”

    Some departments may require such publications for graduation, and the thesis may consist of the published papers surrounded by an introduction and a conclusion. Such practices would obviously not become plagiarism, but would appear to violate standard copyright issues.

    A thesis defense is generally public, and represents the students view of his or her work. It most likely includes items that are not published elsewhere (literature review, context, future directions, etc). It may include data that is published with joint authorships elsewhere although recognition of the joint contributions are generally made in a global acknowledgement.

    It would not seem reasonable to delay graduation pending publication of peer reviewed papers, not would it seem appropriate for a journal to consider a thesis defense as prior publication.

    The point of publication is communication, not unique documentation. The audience for the thesis is generally local, and should hardly detract from the subsequent publication in a peer reviewed journal.

  11. I checked out Elsevier’s policy for a journal in my field (economics), online posting is permitted under certain conditions. On their Article Posting Policy page, Permitted Scholary Posting, it says the publisher will accept papers that were

    “(v)oluntary post(ed) by an author on open websites operated by the author or the author’s institution for scholarly purposes, as determined by the author, or (in connection with preprints) on preprint servers.”

    In my field, this is REPEC (Research Papers in Economics). Many working papers posted to REPEC are accepted by journals – once accepted, the working paper is removed and replaced with the link from the journal.

    Typically, dissertations in economics are written as three essays, one is the job market paper. Based on my reading of papers from job market candidates, most papers need to be revised because they are too long for journals.

    The student should check out the posting policy pages for the journals in his/her field.

  12. In my field, mathematics, what the original poster describes is common practice. Chapters are published as journal articles, sometimes with hardly any change, and both before and after the thesis defense. Journals know this and are perfectly happy with it.

  13. My flippant response to this question is that it is not plagiarism because, by definition, plagiarism is stealing the words, work, or ideas of another. If the thesis and publications are entirely your own work, and claimed solely by you, then self-plagiarism is an oxymoron.

    The question of whether it is “duplicate publication”, however, is one that is not easy to answer definitively. That’s clear by the fact that, although this poll shows that the majority us think it’s ok to publish the thesis text verbatim in an academic journal, one-third of us don’t.

    It’s worth thinking about why duplicate publication is frowned upon, and how this impacts theses. Duplicate publication in journals—one person publishing the same words/data more than once in multiple papers—is wrong because it is seen as double-dipping. We all accept the idea that papers should contain unique contributions and that once a paper is published, identical contributions by that individual are superfluous, and merely a method to increase apparent scientific output without much of an increase in effort. And back in the day when journals held the copyright on your words/data, the process was especially problematic, because if you published your own words twice (without the journal granting you license to use them) you would be acting illegally, infringing on the journal’s copyright and arguably carrying out an act of plagiarism.

    With regards to theses, the rules of engagement become a bit murkier. I learnt this first hand a number of years ago when I was involved in a new graduate program. We were very keen to embrace the power of the internet at the time, and were initially excited about the prospect of theses appearing on line as a resource. In the end, however, we decided against it. We consulted journals and were universally told that they were not interested in publishing work that had appeared in any public forum before, including online. They were concerned about copyright, and the higher profile rags were also concerned that the appearance of work in a thesis stripped it of its novelty, a practice that would ultimately erode their place as “the place” to access all the hot new science. The former concern has been largely offset by the change in how journals deal with copyright, but the latter concern is real and perhaps all the more important in the days when the stakes are very high and the internet is our main source of scientific exchange.

    I voted “yes” here because I believe theses should be an exception to any definition of duplication publication. For one thing, many students don’t have the chance opt out of online thesis publication. We do not offer that privilege to students at my current institution (although fortunately bureaucratic wheels turn slowly and are particularly susceptible to passive aggressive students who want to protect their intellectual property). I do not believe is is fair to penalize a student that may not be able to prevent publication of their thesis, or may not have the forethought to block this practice. I also point out that—unlike publication in a journal—a scientist receives no “career points” for having their thesis appear online, so it clearly not an example of unscrupulous double-dipping. Copyright should no longer be a problem. And although exposing your best data to the world via your online thesis can certainly leave you open to intellectual theft, my experience is that most theses are hard to find online and thus their appearance on the web does not significantly usurp their novelty.

    The best use of my thesis is that it levels the sofa at my dad’s house, and I do tend to pine for the days when theses were private documents and not for broad public dissemination. But here we are. So my advice is to publish your thesis in a journal if you can—but please do it only once.

  14. I voted “No” only because for the most part, publishing dissertation materials verbatim is lazy, probably will not read well, and will probably not pass muster at first review by most journals. Of course there’s nothing wrong with further publishing your own hard-earned ideas, and further publication of dissertation materials is always to be encouraged. But dissertations necessarily tend to be long discourses, often taking 100 or more pages, far more than most journals will accept.

    I have seen some dissertations crafted so that each chapter appears for all intents and purposes to be a self-contained journal-length paper, though this has been the exception rather than the rule. In such cases, the dissertation was clearly drafted with publication in mind, and such chapters are fair game for submission as stand-alone articles. Other long dissertations make fine books, after some rewriting and editing.

    A thesis or dissertation is generally part of an educational process, designed for presentation to a local committee in order to demonstrate the candidate’s worthiness for receiving a degree. They do not always have to consist entirely of original ideas, or even in some cases contain any original ideas, so their purpose generally differs from that of scientific journal publications.

    So unless you are one of the wunderkinder who do craft dissertations consisting of collections of journal-style chapters, resist the urge to publish verbatim. Even if you are one of them, rewrite the thing and reference your dissertation in it. You’re a wonderkind after all! The rest of us mortals can then enjoy two pieces of your fine work. If you don’t want to rewrite it, post bits of it on blogs with a link to the original.

    1. it is possible that thesis would be published as a book!! In some topics such as Sociology/social psychology/history etc – i guess they are already doing. Lot of them write books rather than publishing in journals…

  15. The likelihood of the thesis being published “verbatim” is essentially nil. As it makes the transformation from the document that won you a PhD into one or more articles in the scientific literature, your co-authors and referees will help you forge it into something barely recognizable.

    1. This may be field dependent, but seems extremely unlikely in my field, anyways, where a thesis is a handful of papers stapled together with an introduction tacked on (and maybe a conclusions/future/discussion bit at the end). Even if the thesis chapters weren’t published, no supervisor would allow a student to write a thesis that wasn’t written as papers; it would be a complete waste of time to write a thesis, then try to reform it as paper(s). Indeed, my thesis had a chapter that was subsequently submitted to a journal. Not verbatim, of course, but the only changes were changing “Chapter 1” to “Johnson & Smith 2009”, “Chapter 2” to “Johnson & Smith 2010”, “Chapter 4” to “Johnson, Wang, and Smith (in prep)”, etc.

      Referees may ask you to make changes (and so might committee members). Which is a separate topic. But I don’t think anyone here would accept submitting a manuscript to two journals on the grounds that going through refereeing would make them substantially different.

      1. Yup, this was exactly my experience. Several of my chapters had been published already, so they said: Chapter 4: The role of X in X, Published as Smith et al. Journal 2006, volume X, pages yy-zz.

    1. Regarding the specific question, I would say that if the university holds the copyright, and if explicit permission is not obtained from the university to re-publish parts of the thesis, verbatim, then it could be considered not only self-plagiarism, but also copyright infringement. This brings me to the issue of what I perceive to be a seriously predatory publisher that uses Amazon to fortify its image and products: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing GmbH & Co. KG. THis “publisher” spams scientists inviting them to publish their entire MSc and PhD theses as a book. Despite several queries to the publisher regarding their publishing model and practice, I have never received a satisfactory response (actually no response). My query is: if several parts of a thesis have already been published in several journals, and one then re-publishes the entire thesis as a book (with LAP or with any other publisher), is this not a serious violation of copyright (if the published works are not referenced) and pure self-plagiarism? More attention needs to be paid to this topic very specifically with the publishing practices of Lambert Academic Publishing.

      Here are some critiques of LAP/VDM: (in particular see the criticisms and the long list of chamaeleon imprint companies) (I love the visuals on this one) (Australia’s higher education board) and

      1. Oops, I forgot to add an important addendum as proof (names and fields of study edited):

        From: “”
        To: YYY
        Sent: Tuesday, January 10, 2012 11:05 PM
        Subject: Publication offer for your research work on TOPIC A

        Dear YYY,
        I am writing on behalf of the International publishing house, LAP Lambert Academic Publishing.
        In the course of a research on the ABC University, I came across a reference to your work in the field of TOPIC A.
        We are an International publisher whose aim is to make academic research available to a wider audience.
        LAP Publishing would be especially interested in publishing your dissertation in the form of a printed book.
        Your reply including an e-mail address to which I can send an e-mail with further information in an attachment
        will be greatly appreciated.
        I look forward to hear from you
        Kind regards,
        Acquisition Editor
        LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing GmbH & Co. KG
        Heinrich-Böcking-Str. 6-8
        66121, Saarbrücken, Germany
        Fon +49 681 3720-310
        Fax +49 681 3720-3109 /
        Handelsregister Amtsgericht Saarbrücken HRA 10752
        General unlimited partner: VDM Management GmbH
        Managing directors: Thorsten Ohm (CEO), Dr. Wolfgang Philipp Müller, Esther von Krosigk

  16. “After peer review, your article is likely to be very different anyway” – that is the truth! One of our students published their masters thesis work in a Wiley journal. The end publication was considerably changed and better after the peer review process.

    We also made sure that there were not any block quotes taken from the thesis. It is not hard to rewrite a thesis into journal submission. You will find that you improve the work as you modify it…rework it..reread it. A publication is rarely ever “done”. You can always find a word or a phrase to tweak.

  17. To find out whether publishing a thesis verbatim is allowed, check your own university’s regulations. If publishing the results that have already been included in a thesis is indeed not acceptable, merely changing the sentences will not make the republication legitimate, as long as the same data and figures have to be reused.

    The relevant guidelines of Sydney University are quoted bellow:

    Publishing your thesis
    You have completed your thesis and your degree has been awarded. Now you can decide if you want to publish your thesis. Discuss publication options with your supervisor as they will be aware of publication trends in your discipline.
    You will have a range of publishing options including:
    * adding your thesis to Sydney Digital Theses, the online archive of PhD, professional doctorates and Masters (Research) theses from the University of Sydney. Sydney Digital Theses is part of the national Australian Digital Theses Program
    * publishing your thesis as a book with a commercial publisher
    * turning individual chapters into journal articles for publication in commercial journals
    * self-publishing the thesis on your own website

  18. The critical issue as we have found it seems to be public accessibility. Most journals will not have a problem if the work is in a thesis on a shelf. They may well have a problem if the work is on line. In submitting a paper, you certify the work is original – if its already on line and publically accessible, “originality” becomes questionable. The issue is not so much one of plagiarism, but moves into the area of copyright.

    My university has had problems where a student (not mine) published a paper (as part of his studies) and subsequently incorporated the figures into his thesis. The thesis was published on line, and significant problems with the journal ensued.

    We now ensure that students who publish papers make sure (under whichever publishing model) that they have, and cite in the thesis, permission to use the figure.

    In this case (thesis first) there should be no problems in simply re-writing to a paper format, and including a citation to the thesis in some manner. It is also very, very worthwhile if you are in any doubts to state explicitly in the submission letter to the journal exactly what point you are not sure about.

    Editors can be quite understanding and responsive.

    1. Agree that it’s important to check with the relevant journal(s). Some will consider the work already published and will be unable to consider it. Of note, ProQuest did (last time I checked) have an embargo option, so it’s possible to keep the full-text from being available for 1 year (I believe). This can be helpful to give time to get the work published in a journal (but even so tell the journal about the thesis).

  19. In one situation, duplication isn’t merely permissible, but preferable. Under the ICZN rules (unless they’ve changed) the name of a new organism has to be “published,” a term defined in such a way as to exclude dissertations. As part of the naming process, one has to review the same taxonomic literature, designate the same holotype, and thus describe exactly the same material, which means the same data and (one hopes) the same analytical results in the dissertation and the paper. As a reader, I’d hope that the author would use exactly the same words and figures for the appropriate parts of the paper, so that there is no question about the identity or characteristics of the holotype.

  20. If you are publishing a scientific article, you are usually signing a “transfer of rights” form: and after this point the text that you have written does not “belong” anymore to you but to the journal.
    If you write a thesis, you usually do not transfer rights to anyone: therefore it is your right to reuse the text the way you like.

    1. Not sure how it is in other Universities, but in my University all thesis (MSc/PhD) have to have, on the front cover, “Copyright of WXY University”.

    2. I think in all the copyright transfer forms I’ve signed in recent years, there was always a section that the author retains the right to publish the work or parts of it in a thesis.

  21. I agree with the comment that “self-plagiarism” is an oxymoron, because plagiarism requires that there be deception regarding the true author of the text. Previous publication is a contractual issue between you and your publisher, not a question of scientific ethics. But any publisher that made a practice of suing students for publishing their thesis work (or retracting publications on that basis) would rapidly end up being boycotted by scientists.

  22. I voted “No” and agree with many of the comments made by the “No” community. There are issues.
    In science, engineering and medicine, papers do not equate to a thesis, the two are very different animals. this may not be true in the humanities, where books are more common. We can stick to science, engineering and medicine for now.
    A paper is much more dense than a thesis chapter. However, this is changing.
    First a number of Masters programmes (including our own in Liverpool) specifically request that the “dissertation” is in the form of a paper for a specific journal, with the aim of teaching students how to write a paper. If the dissertation is online, then you have a problem of duplicate publication.
    Second, as some have noted, thesis chapters are often written as papers. Again, with the thesis appearing online, duplicate publication becomes a problem.

    Any solutions?

    The institution could embargo the release of the dissertation/thesis while it is submitted to a journal. Good choice of journals (ASBMB does this, for example) allows you to put the unedited manuscript into the library as a dissertation/thesis.

    Vice-versa, if you have a paper accepted for publication, why try to re-write the thesis chapter? The solution is to put the paper into the thesis, with a short introduction section. Following the paper (with contributions of all authors explicitly listed on a separate page, since a thesis is your own work!) you can add “other relevant results”, which may include interesting negative stuff and then an extended discussion, that does not recapitulate that in the paper.

    Most of the PhD theses coming out of my lab now follow the second route in some form, though the University of Liverpool has for a long time accepted a thesis with published papers at its heart and not all institutions do this.

    I would note that many other European universities do this too.

    This sounds like it may be too late for you, in which case the traditional and not very productive slog of writing the same thing twice, but differently awaits.

  23. I was reviewing a PLoS one paper, when I noticed that the author said that part of his data was published in Nature proceedings (A non-peer review service from Nature) and cited it. I sent to the editor asking whether this would be considered as a “publication” or not? One week later the answer came with No, it is not a publication and therefor it is still can be published. The work was good and got accepted.
    So I think it is OK to publish part of the thesis since it was not published in peer-review journal.

    1. Ahmed, are you perhaps referring to Nature Precedings ( I always personally considered that journal to be a scam because scientists were allowed to submit pre-publication copies and then to re-submit the same data sets, in a more refined manner, to other journals. In these cases, I think all such “duplicate” NP papers should still be retracted. Why should some scientists be given the advantage of publishing the same text or data set twice? Just because it is Nature? I love the euphemism for failed project used “Since 2007, technological advances and the needs of the research community have evolved to the extent that the Nature Precedings site is unsustainable as it was originally conceived”.

      1. A little off-topic but just to exemplify that Nature Publishing Group is not immune to publishing unscientific rubbish: An exhaustive investigation and a 125-page report and 15 PDF files, reveal that the concept of “human photosynthesis” may just be a marketing ploy to campaign for a product, including the NPG paper in Nature Preceedings. Why would a so-called revolutionary and visionary “Doctor” not have even a single paper published in a refereed journal listed in PubMed. I am not surprised that Nature Preceedings died abruptly. Not that this has anything to do with theses…

  24. I would like to disagree with those who claim it is only an issue once the thesis goes online.

    Technically, the accepted thesis is public. It usually is available in the library of the institution/university. In Germany, any doctoral program is not formally finished, until a few copies of the thesis are deposited at the resprective university library. Anyone can go and have a look at it, so it is formally published. I would assume that world wide anyone can get access to any a doctoral thesis. If it is online, it is easier, but online is not a prerequisite to call it published!
    Or does anyone actually know of any non-public secretive dissertations? Wouldn’t that totally defy the original ideas behind a dissertation?

    That said, I would think you can published parts of a thesis in a journal. It should be mentioned that parts (or all) of the paper are based on the thesis. Journals should accept that. In most natural science fields, verbatim quotes would be highly unusual, simply because the stile of writing would be different in a long thesis vs. a concise paper. But even if it is only the raw data that are shared, it should be noted to make that clear. It is not acceptable to repeat the data in two papers, even if it is not verbatim. But first thesis-then paper would be ok in my opinion, again, as long as the fact is made clear.

  25. I have come to the conclusion that indeed most dissertations are meant for some academic purposes. In most cases the details and contents are not used in my part of the world nor made available to the journal world. Publishing your own work whether abridged or whole then tends to put your work out there for researchers and industry consumption.

  26. The chances are it will be paraphrased for the publishing rather than published verbatim, just as somebody mentioned previously.
    There are other 5 types of paraphrasing that can be revealed in your thesis or the dissertation that are mostly relate to the wrong use of the citing, quoting and referencing, these things should be done strictly according to the format. For example, quoting can be used in the dissertation when you want to copy the whole piece of text without changing it in your own words. Lazy students often overquote their thesis that makes their work unreadable. The formatting for the quote is as following: The quote should be taken into the quotation marks and if it’s long (40+ words in APA Style), you need to format it according to the style, the most common after APA is MLA, Chicago, and Turabian styles. I wrote the atricle called – Dissertation Paraphrasing or How Not to Flush down Your Future with Plagiarism it describes the process of such delicate thing like paraphrasing the sources in the thesis,
    hopefully for some student that one will be helpful. Good luck everyone!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.