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Addressing misunderstandings around self-plagiarism and inadvertent plagiarism in research

A discussion of research culture and practices relating to plagiarism, with Dr Matthew Salter

Plagiarism is often discussed in the context of deliberate attempts to claim credit for other people’s work, but it’s much more complicated and nuanced. This is particularly true in the research space, where higher degree research students and academics generally possess a more advanced understanding and experience of research conduct and writing, beyond the undergraduate level.

Matthew Salter
Dr Matthew Salter
Founder and CEO
Akabana Consulting
Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer

Plagiarism is often discussed in the context of deliberate attempts to claim credit for other people’s work, but it’s much more complicated and nuanced. This is particularly true in the research space, where higher degree research students and academics generally possess a more advanced understanding and experience of research conduct and writing, beyond the undergraduate level.

Nonetheless, plagiarism is a problem that regularly surfaces in the review process following submission of academic papers for publishing. We previously reported on a leading journal that rejects up to 23% of submissions due to identified plagiarism, encompassing ‘traditional’ plagiarism of another author plus self-plagiarism. So, why do researchers well-versed in research integrity still get tripped up by plagiarism?

Ideally suited to helping us explore this phenomenon is Dr Matthew Salter, Founder & CEO of Akabana Consulting; an independent STEM publishing and editing consultancy that provides publishing, editorial and promotional services to scholarly societies and publishers. Matthew has previously helped us unpack the issue of predatory and cloned journals, drawing from his expertise in publishing, and background in both industry and academia. Here, we look at addressing confusion around plagiarism in research.

Motivation and intent in research-based plagiarism

Matthew is quick to preface our discussion with his belief that the majority of researchers are honest and want to do the best possible job in the work that they develop and submit. According to Matthew, lapses by researchers in their due diligence is the main cause for inadvertent plagiarism. He explains that plagiarism can occur when researchers lose track of where they are in the research writing process - such as when assembling ideas and drawing from the work of others - and in the context of self-plagiarism, become unstuck in the handling of their previous work.

Where purposeful intent to plagiarise often drives research misconduct, intent can also swing in the other, positive way, where an informed commitment to research integrity will safeguard against plagiarism occurring. Matthew suggests that ongoing training in research culture and principles, where available, is the best defence against plagiarism. However, the robustness of such training is not always guaranteed and gaps in awareness or practice of citations and research writing still persist. This is particularly true in the context of citing one’s own body of work.

What’s the big deal about self-plagiarism?

If you’ve ever scratched your head or scoffed at the idea of plagiarising yourself or your own work, you’re not alone. It’s a contentious element of the plagiarism spectrum, for undergraduate students in particular, and stems from the fixation on authorship alone, rather than research responsibility more holistically. Put simply, self plagiarism means an author recycles the entirety or parts of previously written work for a different assignment or publication and represents it as new.

In the more complicated research context where researchers are often expected to build on their previously published or even unpublished work, discretion is very much needed when leveraging previous ideas to apply to new research. An over reliance on the same presentation of ideas effectively denies researchers and their audience of an evolution of the topic in the new paper. As Matthew explains:

“the expectation of a new manuscript that is published, is that you would have some new content there, new science and new insights. Just cutting and pasting and reusing what you've had before, is not really in that spirit and it reflects badly on you as a researcher.”

‌ ‌— Dr Matthew Salter

He goes on to specify that “each paper you do should be a development. it's unlikely that by cutting and pasting big sections of text that you would actually be writing the best paper you could write, so it's really important to not do that.” Of course, once you’ve perfected your research analysis and presentation of ideas, the prospect of re-wording it for citation in a subsequent paper may seem daunting, or at the very least, inconvenient. Beyond the values and principles discussed above, there’s another very important reason to avoid self-plagiarism, and it relates to copyrights.

Junior researchers in particular may not realise that there’s a legal precedent that underpins self-plagiarism in published research. Matthew explains that depending on the licence a researcher has signed with the publisher to distribute a previous paper, you may no longer own the copyright that would allow you to repurpose content in a subsequent paper. Furthermore, in the eyes of publishers, if you’re using text or data unchanged, what other shortcuts are you potentially taking as a researcher?

Even more reasons to avoid self-plagiarism

Another problem of self-plagiarism is that it can be symptomatic of a broader lapse in research integrity, such as what occurs in scientific ‘salami slicing’; a concept that Nature journal describes as “the practice of fragmenting single coherent bodies of research into as many publications as possible”. The premise here is that intent to stretch out research findings to increase paper count, effectively renders each research contribution ‘thinner’ on merit and insights.

Elsevier’s ‘Salami Slicing fact sheet identifies the repercussions of this practice, including research repetition that wastes the time of reviewers and editors as well as impacting readers’ understanding the context, impact and chronology of research findings, and falsely inflating an author’s cited works. It demonstrates that most journals take a hardline stance and expect researcher transparency to disclose findings rather than recycle work, and it aligns with Matthew’s advice for researchers: “Make sure every paper really adds something to the scientific record and think about it as your legacy as a researcher. You want the reputation of giving very coherent, interesting, insightful, useful research.”

So, how can researchers build on corresponding data responsibly use data from one research paper to another? Matthew advises that if you’re using material from a previous paper, you have to be absolutely clear about where you've got that data and use it in comparison with new, additional data. For example, if you have a set of original data and there's additional data you've since collected, you may add the two things together for comparison, but it has to have a real scientific purpose and you need to clearly distinguish this. You can't just put it all together and pass it off as new content, as you have a duty to your audience and the scientific community to give them the full, unabridged story.

Finally, another harm of self-plagiarism unfolds through egregious levels of self citations that run the risk of excluding other people’s findings and contributions to the research problem. Matthew likens this practice to poor professionalism and even tantamount to research misconduct if editors or reviewers determine that your self-citations have been unfairly prioritised over more significant citations that are critical to a readers’ understanding of the topic.

Image manipulation as another form of research misconduct

When considering breaches in research conduct, text-based transgressions are most common and seem to draw the most attention, but Matthew also points to the prevalence of image manipulation and likens it to those problems arising from misuse of text. Drawing from his own experiences in the publishing space, he confirms why image manipulation should be on researchers’ radar and the fact that journals and their staff spend a lot of time checking images to ensure they are used appropriately.

Matthew explains that it’s easy for researchers - especially early-career researchers - to inadvertently misrepresent something when including an image that either draws from their own research work or that of a different author. Matthew proceeds to describe how image misuse often happens rather innocuously, and describes a typical scenario, in which a researcher is trying to explain as clearly as possible what an image conveys in terms of information. In pursuit of optimum clarity for the reader, it’s possible to stray into ‘grey areas’ where a minor change may constitute unethical image editing or manipulation.

Enago validates this idea in their distinction between clarification and deception: “In clarification, an author may, quite ethically, attempt to “clean up” an image in order for it to be more readable…However, if the author fails to note that the image has been altered, [they] could be accused of misconduct and the journal could be accused of publishing inaccurate or misleading material.” A key takeaway from this is that whether or not an alteration of an image is justified, is not as immediately important as a clear acknowledgement of said change for publisher review.

And returning to the licensing and copyright issue we raised earlier in relation to researchers’ re-use of text, the same principle applies to images. When incorporating a previously published portion of text or image to support your paper’s ideas or hypothesis, Matthew points to the golden rule: “it needs to be reproduced by permission, there needs to be a reason for it, and it needs to be identified.”

Practical tips for avoiding plagiarism in the research process

Reflecting on research misconduct risks as it relates to plagiarism and the due diligence advice Matthew has offered above, a common thread of transparency emerges. Matthew reiterates that a researcher’s commitment to being open and transparent throughout the data collection and research-writing process goes a long way in circumventing such issues that may arise.

Furthermore, a lack of adequate planning can be a researcher’s downfall in losing track of data and making them more susceptible to shortcuts that lead to inadvertent plagiarism. As an advocate for pristine data management that avoids blurring one’s treatment of existing and new data and clarifies author attribution, what specific advice does Matthew have for well-meaning researchers who want to mitigate misconduct risks?

Here’s a selection of Matthew’ s key advice for upholding research integrity as it relates to research plagiarism:

  • Be transparent in your handling of data and research writing
  • Don’t reuse big blocks of data, text, or ideas in the same was as used before
  • Do your best to write original text
  • If you do need to quote previously-published work (whether your own or that of others) use quoted text as sparingly as possible, always clearly identify quoted text with inverted commas, and reference the original,
  • Consider legitimate writing improvement services for non-native speakers
  • Don’t fall back on egregious self citations
  • Ask colleagues or professors about any ambiguity in your understanding of research protocol
  • If you plan to reproduce figures, graphs or data that is someone else’s, you need to have permission from the journal/the copyright holder
  • Use text similarity software to help you catch potential plagiarism in your work
  • Be diligent in your data archiving and keep clear, preferably time-stamped records

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