What Is Self-Plagiarism and Why Is It Considered an Ethical Issue?

What Is Self-Plagiarism and Why Is It Considered an Ethical Issue?
Plagiarism is usually defined as using the words, ideas or any intellectual property of other individuals without properly acknowledging the original creator and source. This traditional understanding does not entirely encompass self-plagiarism, however, for the simple reason that when an author reuses his or her own material, the original creator is acknowledged. However, the original publication of a document often involves the transfer of copyright to the publisher, which means that the physical words and any images in that text no longer belong to the author. In this case, only if the original publication is properly cited and acknowledged in the new text can the author borrowing from his or her own writing avoid self-plagiarism, and then the reuse of the material must usually be reasonable and appropriate for the textual or intellectual context.

The academic and scientific research papers published in scholarly journals, for instance, are normally expected by researchers and other readers to be original in the sense that they describe new research, report new results and share new interpretations of those results to advance the body of knowledge in a field. Reusing portions of earlier published material is considered unethical and unacceptable in such a context, and so are other practices that are associated with self-plagiarism such as publishing the same paper in more than one journal, using the same research data to write and publish papers that are slightly different in perspective, or dividing the results of a complete study into smaller chunks simply to achieve more publications.
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Self-citation and self-quotation are acceptable, however, and can not only provide background and support for a new study, but also draw attention to an author’s previous research. It is important that such citations be justifiable in intellectual terms; excessive or unnecessary self-citation will achieve little more than revealing a desire to earn yourself additional citations. If you need to use a significant chunk of text or perhaps a table or image from one of your earlier publications, be sure to request formal permission from the original publisher and make it absolutely clear to the new editor and readers exactly what has been borrowed and from where.

Open access journals present a slightly different situation because reuse of the material is acceptable, so formal permission is not required, but it remains essential to attribute and cite the earlier publication. Legal issues of copyright will also not be a problem if you need to borrow your own words, ideas or data from an earlier document that has not been formally published, but ethical concerns remain. In an academic or scientific context it is wise to alert readers to any work that has been previously disseminated or shared in a significant or public way. If, for example, you gave a conference paper on your research or you have been posting your progress on your blog or university website and are now preparing a journal paper on the same research, the best practice is to refer specifically to the earlier dissemination in your paper and let the editor know about it in your cover letter. If, on the other hand, you are recycling earlier research and writing that was never published or otherwise shared, there will be no need to refer readers to a particular venue, but it is a sound policy to inform them that you are making use of older research in your new text.

Authors often feel that they can do whatever they wish with their own writing, but self-plagiarism is becoming an increasingly controversial issue in academic and scientific publishing. Once research has been published it is considered part of a public bank of knowledge and in many cases it literally becomes the property of the publisher, so it is hardly surprising that journal and other editors will reject the manuscripts of authors who reuse their writing in inappropriate ways. The best approach is therefore to avoid cutting and pasting as much as possible and to cite your own writing with the same frequency and rigorous scholarly documentation methods you use when discussing the published writing of other researchers in your field.

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