I do the best imitation of myself

A recently published article in The Scientist reminded me of a recent incident in my lab.  One of my students handed me a draft of her latest manuscript, and as I was looking through the Methods section I noticed that the text was virtually identical to the text in the methods section of a paper that she had just published. Word for word. At this point I explained that this technically was plagiarism and possibly violation of copyright and that she should alter the text somewhat. “But why?” she said, “The methods themselves are the exact same ones I used in my previous paper and anyway, how can I plagiarize my own work?”  She obviously has a good point. I know I’ve written about 28 different versions of my methods section and about as many versions of my opening paragraph. I mean, when you work in a given field you always cite the same references in your introduction and large chunks of your methods are identical. In how many ways can you describe the exact same experimental conditions? And yes, you could cite yourself, but it’s nice to have a self-contained manuscript in which a reader does not have to look at your old papers in order to be able to understand it.

So why is it plagiarism? Because you are copying text of something that already has been published. And since most journals own the copyright to your manuscripts, re-using your own text verbatim is likely a copyright violation. It’s a bit silly, but apparently that’s the way it is and according to the article in The Scientist, papers have been retracted by journals because of this. My approach that I tell people in my lab is that it’s OK to take the old methods and change them around a bit, but that the introduction should be written from scratch. They can read an old introduction and then replicate it by memory, and this is usually enough to make the two texts sufficiently different, but they should never cut and paste text form their old papers. Where I find a larger gray area is sharing text between grants and manuscripts. Is it OK to paste a particularly succinct and well-written paragraph from your latest manuscript into a new grant application? Likewise, could you lift a paragraph from a grant and put it in a manuscript? I would argue that the second is maybe OK, since the grant is not a published document, but that the first is somewhat more iffy. To be safe though, I usually just write things from scratch, and since I’ve written the same things so many times they always sounds similar… yet different.

What about you, readers, what is your view on self-plagiarism? Where do you draw the line in your own work?

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12 Responses to I do the best imitation of myself

  1. biochembelle says:

    I will confess to using work I did on a review article as part of my dissertation intro. The dissertation was published first, without copyright, not electronically, and it was my PI’s intention in assigning the review to me that it serve as a foundation for the dissertation intro. Self-plagarism? Maybe…

    Regarding methods, it seems journals are more accepting of reproducing methods sections (almost) verbatim, as suggested in the article in The Scientist. With the age of digital publishing, particularly with NIH OA requirements, I think it might make it easier to do the method backtracking thing–so long as you actually cite a paper with an intact method, not one that refers the reader to yet another paper.

    When it comes to intros, there was the running joke about being able to quote from memory the first paragraph from our lab’s papers. Personally, I took it as a creativity challenge to reshape and rewrite the intro in a different way. Yes, there’s something to be said for simply refining previous writing. However, I also think sometimes the information in the old standard is redundant or unnecessary;.

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  3. drugmonkey says:

    You are nuts on this. It is absolute nonsense that this is plagiarism. *Maybe* you have a point about copyright violation (which is different) but this just points out how stupid it is that we sign over the right to our Methods phrasing. Write enough papers and one would no longer be able to write another one, by your logic. Absurd.

    • Namnezia says:

      OK, then what about the introduction?
      As far as methods – I agree, maybe copyright violation is more accurate.
      Also – what if you have co-authors in the paper? Can you then re-use this text since it is not 100% yours?

      That being said – It’s not me that has a problem with copying one’s own text, but it has been defined as plagiarism. So the easy solution is just to avoid it.

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  5. drugmonkey says:

    Yes you can re-use stuff that is not 100% yours because co-authors are *co-authors*. Now, personally I would only take the strong case of this within-laboratory and would expect that if it was a collaborating lab, you’d be seeking permission if there were direct re-use of things that are other than methods or recitation of results.

    but when the written discussion or introduction materials are a collaborative effort? sure, I don’t see where one co-author owns the sentence she contributed 70% of the words too but not the one where she only suggested a one-word change.

    there is another point you are not considering is that among the many ways to state something, some of those ways are better. So should a carefully crafted sentence or paragraph be discarded for one that makes the point less effectively? heck no!

  6. drugmonkey says:

    “it has been defined”???!!!????? Yeah, that’s the freaking PROBLEM here. Idiots who do not understand the conduct of science looking at it from the outside and accusing us of plagiarism when this is not at all what it is.

    We need to stand up against it, not lie down and validate this nonsense….

  7. I will confess to using work I did on a review article as part of my dissertation intro.

    Confess????? This is absolutely the correct thing to do. I was in a thesis committee meeting the other day in which the candidate was explicitly told to take his published papers and use as much of the text as possible verbatim in his dissertation.

    As far as the co-author thing, I’m with DM. A few years ago, I was writing a grant application and wanted to use a lot of the text from a review article I had co-authored in a grant application background section. As a courtesy to my co-author, I asked him if he minded, and his answer was–of course–“Dude, no problem!”

  8. neurowoman says:

    Ok, while I mostly agree with DM, I do think this is a useful thing to discuss because everybody comes across this issue at some point, and there is a wide range of gray. I myself received a reviewer criticism of a manuscript I submitted that harped on some reused Methods text, and am writing a review that is incorporating the essence of various intros and grant background, if not blocks of text verbatim. Many many papers I read reuse the same ideas, if not word for word, then in substance, but how can it not? You have to provide the same background. My anxiety about these things arises not from whether I think the practice is kosher but whether someone else might think it’s not and be accused of plagiarism. My belief is that it’s clear that grants are not published, so any text in them is fair game for reuse (my mentors have all said as much – grant writing isn’t a waste of time even if it doesn’t get funded – you recycle the background for a nice chapter!). Reused methods are generally ok, they usually have to be tweaked for each study anyway. Intro text is a little trickier – I would call it gauche, not plagiarism, to reuse whole sentences or paragraphs verbatim, and probably not good writing since every study is a bit different. I try not to do it, but even if I write things out anew, they sometimes end up in the same place through editing.

    I think the standard in scientific technical writing have to be a little different than ‘substantial similarity’ of a few sentences here and there. In the example in the Scientist story, I have to admit that I read the side-by-side comparison and, perhaps it’s a jargon thing, but I couldn’t see the similarity! Not such as could be called plagiarism, anyway. If the author was guilty of anything, perhaps it was stealing an idea (why wouldn’t she just cite the reviewed paper??) from a paper she reviewed, which could be considered misconduct, but plagiarism? Not so sure, but the journal editor sure seemed sure. Makes me wonder what I’m missing…

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  11. NetlabLoligo says:


    Every time somebody promotes the idea that we should expand the meaning of the word plagiarism, they forward the notion that the word should also serve as an umbrella term for the terms “copyright violation” and “contract breach”. These two behaviors are only vaguely related, and much less immoral, and repugnant than the act of using another person’s contribution as one’s own (i.e., stealing credit for the contributions of others).

    Those who forward this flawed, but plausable sounding justification for watering down the meaning of the word plagiarism, will then invariably water it down even further, by suggestion that we can now refer to it as “plagiarism” when a person re-states their own contributions. This behavior, after all, is often seen in cases of contract breach and copyright violation, right?

    Restating ones own contributions is a relatively trivial, and often perfectly justified behavior. It may fit your new meaning of the word plagiarism, but in so fitting, you artificially downplay the repugnance and shamefulness that should rightly be associated with acts of true (original sense) plagiarism.

    We will, therefore, need a new word to label the original, much more disgusting behavior.

    …may I suggest something that shares a common root with the word “slime” 🙂


    P.S. I’ve made a similar point in different words (entirely my own) in passing, in a recently published book. Look upon me, therefore, with suspicion and derision, you who think my behavior rightly belongs in the same classification bin with plagiarism. 🙂

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