Thursday, August 20, 2015

Is self-plagiarism all right?

In the TimesHigherEd post News blog: How big a sin is Zygmunt Bauman's alleged self-plagiarism?, one has text

Scientists have the same problem when writing successive papers that all rely on similar methods. The temptation to cut and paste their previous renderings of the processes involved is very strong, especially when the authors are not native speakers, and rephrasing would involve an onerous and sometimes disastrous use of the thesaurus. (I am reminded of Jack Grove’s 2014 article highlighting such “Rogetisms” as the conversion of “left behind” into “sinister buttocks”).

But while recycling the odd previously written self-written sentence or even paragraph may be forgivable, republishing in a new venue an entire paper you have previously published elsewhere (perhaps with just the title changed) is clearly unacceptable. Quite apart from the legal issues over copyright and the clutter and confusion it inflicts on the literature, this practice – which is surprisingly common – also gives unfair credit to the self-plagiarisers by making it look like they have made more scholarly breakthroughs than they really have. In the case of medical papers, it can also make it look like there is more evidence for the efficacy of a particular treatment than there really is.

As to the Bauman matter:

What Zygmunt Bauman is accused of doing falls between these extremes. There is a sense in which it is hardly a surprise that he apparently recycled significant chunks of his previous works in his later ones, given that he has published a book every six months for the past 25 years. That output is all the more remarkable given that he will be 90 in November, and he might argue (although we can only speculate, as he chose to remain silent) that having spent a lifetime in thought, it makes perfect sense for him to bring together all the fruits of that effort in his later years. And why Rogetise it all when he has already phrased it perfectly well before?

But the objection is not to his doing this. The objection is to the fact that he apparently does so without explicitly acknowledging the fact. And while no publication ethics crusader would put self-plagiarism at the top of their list of sins, it is also hard to argue with the view that it is something of a deception on his readers and ought to be avoided.

Queasiness about Bauman’s approach is only heightened by the fact that he also allegedly committed straightforward plagiarism in one of his most recent books, and that one of his unacknowledged sources was Wikipedia. Part of his response to that allegation ran as follows:

“While admiring the pedantry of the authors of the Harvard Guide to Using Sources, and acknowledging their gallant defence of the private ownership of knowledge, I failed in those 60 odd years to spot the influence of the obedience to technical procedural rules of quotations on the quality (reliability, effectiveness and above all social importance) of scholarship: the two issues which [Walsh] obviously confuses. As his co-worker in the service of knowledge, I can only pity him for that reason.”

As to science papers describing "similar methods," one would just cite the prior paper(s), noting any divergences. No need for repetition.

Also, in the patent world, think Jepson claim.

***Evans and Giroux have a piece on self-plagiarism:

Self-plagiarism can have victims. One example is the situation of a law firm preparing an opinion on a patent for one client and then selling that opinion to a second client at full price. The Wendler affair is another example of self-plagiarism with a victim.


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