Ethics of self-publishing and self-plagiarism in academia

Yesterday, I presented in a panel discussion about ethics, equity, and plagiarism. I was encourage to talk about technology and how that related to the topic. In reflecting on the topic, the two areas where I felt I could contribute the most were that of self-publishing, self-plagiarism, and the relationship between the two. Here is the script of my talk.

Hello, My name is Rebecca Hogue and I'm both a PhD Candidate and a blogger. I write for two blogs, a blog that describes my husbands' and my travel journeys (http://goingeast.ca), and a more professional or academic blog, where I share my explorations as a PhD student, such as my journey through epistemologies, as well as technical tips and tricks, which sometimes relate to my teaching or research experiences (http://rjh.goingeast.ca). I use my academic blog as a practice area for writing – where I explore how best to write about different ideas, and how to disseminate the knowledge that I gain.

When I began my journey to become an academic, in January 2011, I quickly became aware of areas where there was a distinct lack of clarity in the guidance that is provided to a new academic, or any academic for that matter – that is, the areas of self-publishing and self-plagiarism. So, in the next 5 minutes or so, I'm going to share with you a little of my journey in this area, and where it has brought me.

Let’s first talk about self-publishing.  Although self-publishing is not a new idea, it has become so much easier, which is causing the practice to become more common. The biggest advantage to self-publishing is the speed in which the material gets into the hands of the readers. For example, in December, I helped Professor MacDonald self-publish a textbook on research methods. I was able to take the completed manuscripts and make it available to students in the span of about six weeks. Note that the manuscript had been written and was planned for publication with a transitional publisher, but after two years of issues with the traditional publisher, the contract was cancelled. The ability to make manuscripts available quickly is appealing, especially when that work is time sensitive.

Self-publishing can also be used to address cost and equity issues. When you self-publish, more of the money goes to the author, but also, the author can set the price, which can make the content accessible to a larger audience. That same eBook, which would have been sold for over $100 by the traditional publisher, is available for $29.99 as a self-published Kobo book.

When I blog, I am self-publishing. The moment I hit the publish button, my words are immediately available to anyone who has Internet access. Personally, I see great value in the work that I do as a blogger, and my work has a greater impact on practice – as a pragmatic researcher, I value the effect my work has on practice – so, blogging is a great way to reach that audience. But does it count?

Therein lies the issue.  At a recent presentation that was given to graduate students on ethics, the representative from the ethics board mentioned an issue with a professor who had listed a self-published item on their CV.  The problem I had was, that this example was given without any details or context, as if self-publishing did not count no matter what the circumstance.  I don't agree with that premise at all. Self-published works are valuable. They do count.  As long as the professor did not claim that these works were published in a peer-reviewed publication, than are they actually doing anything wrong by including them on a CV?

It is unethical to list a self-published work as if it has been peer reviewed or published by a traditional publisher – although frankly, often the traditional publishers do not add value to the process, but is it unethical to list it on the CV all? I don't think so. Self-published works still represent significant work that is publicly available – in the case of self-published books, they have ISBNs and can be included in the Canadian archives. Perhaps the measure of publication is incorrect. If we are talking about a textbook, the value could be measured by units sold or courses that use the use textbook, rather than by use of a traditional publisher versus self-publishing?

Personally, I choose to list my self-published works on my CV in a separate section that is clearly labeled as self-published. The writing I do for my blogs is valuable, and it does count for something, so it deserves to be included in my CV.

Now, this of course brings up the issue of self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism, as defined by Colberg and Kobourov, is "when authors reuse portions of their previous writings in subsequent research papers" (2005, p.88). Note, definitions of the different types of reuse for example select reuse, incidental reuse, reuse by cyptomnesia, opaque reuse, and advocacy reuse are provided in the same article by Colberg and Kobourov (2005). However, exactly what qualifies as self-plagiarism is not at all consistent across publications, institutions, and even areas of study. In looking at the literature on self-plagiarism, I was able to find articles that required that you re-write all sections using different words, even if the underlying meaning was the same and other articles that said it was OK to re-use specific sections of an article – such as the methodology section – as long as the research finding were different. Some publishers provide guidance in this area, by clarify specifying reuse in their publication agreement. For example, IGI Global states:

"While the author may use any and all thoughts and research results developed or accumulated while working on the manuscript, and may rewrite, update, and re-title them for use in other publications, the author CANNOT use the verbatim text of the manuscript or any part thereof that has been copyrighted by IGI Global without first obtaining the written permission of IGI Global" (IGI Global, personal communications, February 18, 2013).

An area where this is quite prominent surrounds papers submitted to conference proceedings and journals – note that in the technology area, it is much more common to submit a full paper to a conference for publication in the peer reviewed proceedings. This is seen as especially valuable, as it allows for timely publication of findings. In technology fields, journals are used more to serve as "archives" of knowledge rather than "announcements" of new knowledge.  As a result, it is not uncommon for there to be overlap between what an author publishes in a conference proceeding and what one publishes in a journal – further to that point, there are often special editions of journals that specifically invite authors from the conference to submit longer versions of their conference papers. So, this begs the question – where is the line for self-plagiarism? Is it self-plagiarism if you submit the same finding (perhaps in a little more verbose format) in a journal after it has been published in conference proceedings?

In favour of specific re-use, Shafer, the editor and chief of a prominent journal on anesthesia argues, that "It is unrealistic to expect an officer working in a field to generate a novel description of a concept or technique every time he or she chooses to write about it. Indeed, abandoning a perfectly accurate description to avoid 'self plagiarism' runs a risk of corrupting a previously accurate description." (Shafer, 2011, p.492).

So, what happens when I pen a "perfectly accurate description" in my self-published blog and I wish to use that same text when I submit and article to a journal. Since the self-publication isn't really a publication – but is it? – does this qualify as self-plagiarism?

Does the blog count? or does it not count? It seems that in some ways, academia wants it both ways – and not always in favour of the author. That is, they say it doesn't count in credentialing in the CV, but is does count as self-plagiarism. Is that not a contradiction?

Another issue that I have not mentioned is that of copyright. When you self-publish, you keep your copyright. When you publish in a journal or conference proceeding, often you sign an agreement to transfer your copyright. However, as we have seen in the IGI Global statement, copyright usually refers to the textual and graphic representation of the ideas (that is the words and images themselves) rather than the ideas themselves. So the publisher does not copyright your ideas or your findings, but they do copyright your words. Usually, the journal's copyright agreement says whether or not you need permission to re-use portions of the text. It usually stipulates that you need to footnote or otherwise mention the prior publication – this is clear for already published works, but what does that mean for self-published works? Where you own the copyright to the text and images.

I find myself looking very closely at the author guidelines and publication agreements when I submit my works to conferences and journals.

For example for IRRODL, the author guidelines states "Articles that appeared in conference proceedings or were self-published shall acknowledge this distribution history in a footnote". This is great when the publication makes the statement, but often no statement is made regarding self-publication, so what do you do then?

I always end up self-declaring to the editor that portions of my work were self-published on my blog. Fortunately, I am submitting to conferences and journals where the practice of blogging is recognized as a positive contribution, and as such, I have yet to have a paper or document declined due to previous publication.

I don’t yet know how to approach the issue of textual reuse for portions of an article – or textual reuse when something that is published in a conference proceeding is then penned into a journal article. The only ethical guidance I can recommend is to always tell the editor when you submit an article, the extent of your reuse – that way, if they do reject it, they do so quickly and you do not end up black listed for unethical behaviour, and if they accept it, they do so knowingly.

References:

Collberg, C., & Kobourov, S. (2005). Self-plagiarism in computer science. Communications of the ACM, 48(4), 88–94.

Shafer, S. L. (2011). You will be caught. Anesthesia and Analgesia, 112(3), 491–3. doi:10.1213/ANE.0b013e3182095c73

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