There is no such thing as self-plagiarism

April 13, 2016

I keep reading pieces about self-plagiarism.

the whole idea is idiotic.

Plagiarism is “presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own“. So self-plagiarism is presenting your own work or ideas as your own. Which is nonsense.

Can we please abandon this unhelpful and misleading phrase?


Note added subsequently, in response to Snarky Mᶜ̵Snarkface’s tweet: my real point is that discussion of the practice is actively confused by the use of this misleading term for it.

18 Responses to “There is no such thing as self-plagiarism”

  1. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    I agree with you Mike that there is no such thing as “self-plagiarism”, but this does raise an interesting question: Can Dr. Jekyll plagiarize Mr. Hyde?

    But seriously, there are, shall we say, “lazy scholars” who use entire paragraphs and /or same figures in multiple papers. Technically that is not self plagiarism no matter what journals may say. Less offensive, but nevertheless in the realm of lazy scholars, are those that publish on the same topic ad nauseum. How often can you beat the same dead dinosaur? I guess some people are just stuck in their academic rut.

    Students: pay attention. You need to expand your horizon, hence your marketability.

  2. Michael Richmond Says:

    I have found myself accused of self-plagiarism by arXiv’s software, which checks for blocks of similar text in an author’s papers. Perhaps some of the readers of this blog can give me advice.

    In the course of describing measurements of an object in the sky, I write a short paragraph listing simple factual information: the location of the observatory, the size of the telescope, the model of the camera used, and so forth. Whether I simply “cut and paste” this paragraph from one paper to the next, or attempt to re-phrase it slightly, the plagiarism alarm bells apparently go off.

    What should I do? I could write “For details of the equipment used, see paper XXXX”, but that requires the reader to track down paper XXXX and look through it to find these simple facts — it would be much quicker for him to read 3 more sentences which provide those facts. In addition, if there’s a minor change to the equipment — say, the camera model changes — then I can’t simply refer to paper XXXX any more, but must re-write the entire paragraph anyway.

    So, what’s the best solution? My inclination is to continue to insert the basic facts into each paper, plagiarism be damned. It’s the most efficient way to convey important information to the reader.

  3. Andy Farke Says:

    I would say that re-use of one’s own text is just fine, as long as it is acknowledged as such within the paper.

  4. Kenneth Carpenter Says:

    A sarcastic dig at the journal would be to include the line ” As I have previously stated…. (Richmond XXXX – duh!)” It would acknowledge that you are quite aware of where you got the information.

  5. Andy Farke Says:

    (to clarify the above comment, that is in reference to re-using methods sections or similar situations as referenced by Michael; republishing an entire paper just to puff up the CV is an entirely different issue)

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    I agree with every comment here: specifically I strongly agree with Michael Richmond’s conclusion that he should write the best and most helpful paper he should rather then conforming to some idiot piece of software’s idea of how things should be.

  7. jrabdale Says:

    As far as I can determine, “self plagiarism” applies to two areas: academic papers that you write in school, and publishing material with different publishers. If you publish something using one publisher, and then you publish another article or book with a different publisher but you use the same material, you can be liable for “self plagiarism”…I think. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

  8. Ginny Barbour Says:

    This has come up a fair bit at COPE – hence this document BiomedCentral and COPE collaborated on. This is a really tricky issue and one that’s evolving. As for all our resources, comments on the document very welcome

  9. brembs Says:

    @Michael Richmond: At the moment, there isn’t much we can do.

    Generally speaking, however, all we’d need to do is implement a technology from 1968, it’s called “hyperlinks” and works almost everywhere except academia. If we had hyperlinks, you could just link to your text and when someone needs to see exactly how you did it, the paragraph would just pop right up. But I guess 48 years to short a time for academia to pick up a new technology it itself has invented…

  10. @Mike: The term ‘self-plagiarism’ is indeed misleading, mainly because in popular discussion it is used to cover qualitatively diverging practices, some of which can be regarded as questionable research practices (QRPs) whereas others are unproblematic in an ethical sense. There has been some discussion on the issue in the Netherlands following the Kourtit-Nijkamp-case at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. In short: Kourtit wrote a PhD thesis, with Nijkamp as supervisor, in which she reused rather large slices of texts, without attribution, from an earlier paper she had co-authored with her supervisor *and others*. (There were other objections to her work, irrelevant here.) The Dutch Academic Integrity Committee and the Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences later produced this advisory memorandum to clarify what should, and what should not be deemed a QRP (compare esp. cases B2 and C2), although the lines are blurred: I think it’s a wise and useful piece of analysis and advice.

  11. According to, plagiarism (as defined in Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary) comes in different flavours, including “to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source”. This seems to apply perfectly well to at least some of the uses of the word “self-plagiarism”, and whatever one wants to call it, is a serious offence.

  12. AlexB Says:

    If you so vehemently dislike “self-plagiarism” (SP) then come up with a better name for it. Its perfectly obvious what it means;
    Copying text from ones previous work without any indication that you have done so.
    Is this really such a big deal? As an non-native English speaker its obvious to me at least.

    SP is a real problem, whether you hate the term or not. Of course there is a grey area as with most things, writing 5 words in the same order as you have done before is not SP, much as writing 5 words that someone else has written before isn’t plagiarism. But 1000 words certainly is.

    I dont think anyone argues against using the same wording when writing methodology descriptions of equipment and statistics, the problem comes when researches have copied paragraph-quantities of their own, previously published text, in new articles.
    I mean some of it is so blatant I cant understand why you all think its such a non-problem. Such as the publication of the same, or similar article several times in different journals, or the merging of past articles into new ones. Of course having the same blurb about the statistics program used isnt plagiarism, but I see it like this, if the text is short enough to not be labeled SP then its short enough for you to re-write it anyway. And if its long enough that you want to copy-paste then you should probably write it again anyway. What are the chances that you have identical methodology in two papers? And really, the method part of a paper is the easiest, quickest, thing to write anyway, by far.
    When you paste paragraphs of the same discussion or introduction from an older work into a new paper that is in my view totally unethical. Not to mention that journals, what ever nice and strong wording in their journal guideline and agreed practice, never act upon it unless there is massive opinion and discussion about that particular case.

  13. Mike Taylor Says:

    If you so vehemently dislike “self-plagiarism” (SP) then come up with a better name for it.

    Other terms I have heard, all of them better, include “redundancy”, “duplication” and (the best one, I think) COPE’s “text recycling” — see their guidelines at

    COPE make a distinction between this and “duplicate publication”, which is a much bigger deal.

    If the text is short enough to not be labeled SP then its short enough for you to re-write it anyway.

    What for? To satisfy an arbitrary rule? No thanks. If a later paper requires me to say the same thing as an earlier one, I would much rather they used the same words — so that I the author don’t waste time and effort, and so that you the reader can immediately see that they’re the same. It’s a basic matter of honesty.

    I do agree, though, that recycling discussion suggests that something is very wrong.

  14. brembs Says:

    You write: ” What are the chances that you have identical methodology in two papers? ”
    I’ve been using my core experimental setup with modifications in the periphery since 1996. I’ve been largely c&p’ing the description of it from my supervisor’s papers about since then (it was built in 1963).

    “When you paste paragraphs of the same discussion or introduction from an older work into a new paper that is in my view totally unethical.”

    In that case, I’m a serial offender. I don’t recall having used intro/disc sections in research papers, but I get invited to write more review papers or book chapters than I have material for or am motivated to. I try to decline as many of them as I can, but if I’m invited by a friend or mentor, it’s not that easy to decline. As the audience is different for each journal (and I suspect almost non-existent for book chapters), I recycle much of my previous chapters/reviews in the new ones, maybe updating them with new references. One of the persons inviting me even recommended doing just that in order to coax me into accepting their invitation.
    I see nothing whatsoever wrong with that approach (neither do, apparently, the editors). In fact, in one case, it is specifically mentioned at the end of the PDF that large parts of the article were c&p from three previous articles of mine on the topic: (in German)

  15. A quick reply to Ginny Barbour (hope I am not meddling, since it is my article which this thread refers to): COPE has been actively involved into the Hricak self-plagiarism case, where text-recycling of a duplicated paper reached over 80%, plus figures. The journal’s decision to issue an addendum and not to retract the Hricak paper in BJR was explicitly approved by COPE, these emails were signed on behalf of Dr. Barbour.

  16. […] neurobiology professor of the University of Regensburg in Germany, Björn Brembs, commented on a third-party discussion thread relating to my self-plagiarism post as […]

  17. Justin Says:

    Self-plagiarism CAN BE a thing, John Fogerty once got sued on those grounds, because one of his solo songs sounded too much like one of his former band’s songs from back in the day (the rights to which were owned by somebody else). But that’s different, the subject at hand is more like Chuck Berry, who used like three musical pieces aside from Johnny B. Goode for the rest of his songs — e.g. School Days and Riding Along in my Automobile are the exact same music.

    I can see the journals’ argument of only wanting fresh stuff, but they should think of a better term for it if they’re going to complain.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Your John Fogerty example is interesting. Having read a little about it it’s clear that this was nothing to do with plagiarism, and that issue was (alleged, but not substantiated) violation of copyright in a song whose rights he had yielded. It’s the same as if he had made an unlicenced recording of a song that he had written, but the rights to which he had sold.

    The Chuck Berry example is much more to the point. The title of the second song Justin mentions is No Particular Place to Go and they really are exactly the same song: compare School Days with No Particular Place to Go. He didn’t even bother to do them in different keys.

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