Are there a limited number of ways to describe the the background and methods of an experiment? Once something has been written well, and vetted by editors, is it a waste of time to rewrite it ? And if text has been reused, how should that be indicated — if at all?
These are questions we’ve asked before — and are revisiting after reviewing a pair of commentaries published earlier this year in Research Integrity and Peer Review. We’ve certainly seen our fair share of retractions due to duplication (so many we can’t cover them all) — but in one commentary, Cary Moskovitz — the Director of Writing in the Disciplines at the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University — argues that some text recycling — aka, “self-plagiarism” or duplication — is sometimes unavoidable, and, in some situations, even preferable. He told us:
Some amount of recycling is appropriate in some situations. Of course, it is also true that recycling text in some situations is not appropriate.
Examples of the former, he told us, include when scientists are writing background or methodology for the same audience and context as the earlier work — such as readers of a specialist journal:
In those situations, it seems disingenuous to suggest that authors can always improve their prose by rewriting it.
The problem, said Moskovitz, is that there are no guidelines for authors to let them know how much recycling will be acceptable to journals. He suggested establishing a “threshold” — say, 5 or 10% — at which the community could conclude that any duplication below this amount “doesn’t really impact the scientific legitimacy or the scientific record.”
If papers contain duplicated material, Moskovitz argued it shouldn’t be flagged by quotation marks: “Using quotation marks for this purpose seems kind of preposterous for a scientific research article.” But authors should, somehow, indicate which text is recycled to editors, so they can adjudicate whether the kind and amount is appropriate, he said:
If the norm in some field is to recycle text for some kinds of things, and readers expect that, then I don’t think that readers need to – and don’t want to – be shown which specific text was recycled.
AN OPPOSING VIEW
Miguel Roig, a professor of psychology at St. John’s University who wrote a response to Moskovitz’s commentary, disagrees. Readers deserve to know which text authors have lifted from their previous work, he told us — although authors don’t have to use quotation marks, they can add a phrase like “as I described in my previous article, verbatim,” Roig said:
Let the reader know you’re reusing stuff. What’s the harm?…The English language is really rich. There has to be a creative way of saying ‘I’m reusing this.’
Roig — a member of the board of directors of our parent non-profit organization, who has written extensively about plagiarism and duplication in academic writing — conceded that there are rare times when it’s okay to use similar text:
When you’re dealing with extremely complicated methodology – and really, that’s the only instance in which I think that would be acceptable.
But Roig said he disagrees with the often-used argument that revising text just to avoid duplication could worsen the writing unnecessarily:
Just because something is published doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from revisions…There’s always room for improvement. I don’t care how good a writer you are.
And that’s a practice he tries to follow in his own writing, Roig added:
I go through great lengths to not [reuse text]. However, we all have a fingerprint. And I am sure that if you were to run all of my articles through some plagiarism detection software you would find snippets I would repeat. So it’s not that I’m consciously reusing them. I start all my articles from scratch.
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