‘Self-plagiarism’ isn’t plagiarism

2 April 2014

Plagiarism means appropriating someone else’s published material without giving sufficient credit to the original author(s). ‘Self-plagiarism’ is therefore an inaccurate term: after all, scientists and scholars cannot misappropriate their own material. It would be better to avoid that term altogether because it suggests, wrongly, that there has been a serious violation of scientific integrity.

Whether questionable conduct is involved can only be assessed by fellow specialists who are familiar with the scientific/scholarly field concerned and with the publication conventions that apply in that field. These are the findings of the committee set up by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW, ‘the Academy’) to clarify the grey area in between plagiarism and the correct reuse of texts, ideas, and research results.

At the request of the Academy’s Board, the Committee on Citation Practice, chaired by Prof. Jozien Bensing, has drawn up an advisory memorandum to clarify what constitutes the correct reuse of previously published texts, ideas, and research results. The reason for producing the memorandum is the terminological confusion that recently arose regarding the concept of ‘self-plagiarism’ and the ensuing broad discussion of what is and is not permissible when reusing previously published material.

The Committee analysed the various different types of reuse, with or without attribution. It also developed an assessment framework that provides guidelines for assessing specific cases and that can be used to help train young researchers.

In the world of science and scholarship, reusing one’s own texts is quite normal, with attribution being desirable but not always necessary. Determining whether a specific case of reuse constitutes ‘questionable research practice’ requires careful interpretation of the facts. The most important points that need to be considered are the purpose that the passage concerned serves in the new publication and the harm that the reuse does to other researchers or to science itself. Assessing these points effectively requires specialist knowledge of the discipline concerned, as well as familiarity with the publication traditions in the specific field.

Because no rules have been established regarding types of reuse other than plagiarism, caution is advisable when assessing previously published publications, certainly given that the analysis produced by the Committee on Citation Practice shows that even ‘unwritten rules’ on reuse include the necessary ‘shades of grey’. The Committee points out that researchers are entitled to have their work interpreted within the applicable context and to be assessed on the basis of careful consideration of the nature, reasons, and effects of their actions.

The Netherlands Code of Conduct for Scientific Practice applied by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) currently deals solely with the problem of plagiarism. The Academy recommends that a new version of the Code should include broader guidelines regarding the correct reuse of previously published material.

A PDF of the advisory memorandum Correct Citation Practice can be downloaded from the Academy’s website.

More information

Academy Communication Department, Marja van der Putten, +31 (0)20 551 0858 or 06 4624 2003, e-mail marja.van.der.putten@knaw.nl