Recycling your thesis text – is it self plagiarism?


The term self-plagiarism is usually associated with re-using your own work, recycling slabs of material already published, cutting and pasting from one text to another, producing something which duplicates something that has already appeared elsewhere.

Self-plagiarism is not the same as stealing someone else’s work and passing it off as your own, that’s plagiarism. Nor is it the same as violating copyright – using other people’s text without permission, or even re-using your own work when the copyright has been signed over to someone else. We all know these practices are wrong, so if self plagiarism is like these, it must be too.

The idea of self-plagiarism is scary. We all know that plagiarists get punished if they are found out. They can be sacked, their work pulped or retracted. And universities and publishers are increasingly on the lookout for plagiarism, using automatic software to detect it. So the notion of plagiarising your own work carries with it the spectre of the surveillance and punishment.

But recycling your own work is more often discussed as an ethical question not a legal one. A question of deliberate deceit perhaps. Reuse of your own writing can be regarded as a form of ‘cheating’ – you’ve written something which is published and then you don’t do the hard work of writing something new, you take the easy way out by dragging and dropping the text you made earlier. You aren’t producing something new or original, this version of recycling goes, and to make things worse, you’re tricking the reader into thinking that the work is new. You’re double-dipping – writing without integrity. Some people even see such recycling of text as a form of academic fraud.

But the reuse situation isn’t that straightforward. There may well be circumstances where recycling doesn’t seem unethical, but sensible. Where it’s not simply a question of saving the effort of producing a new version of material.

Think of descriptions of research projects which appear in methods sections of journal articles and in books. It’s not just that there are only so many ways that you can present the same information about the one research project – it’s more that you actually want the way in which you report your project, and its design and processes, to be consistent across publications. Similarly, if you have developed a novel interpretation or heuristic or model which you then use as the basis of future work, you also want there to be a through line from the initial work to the latter. While some of this origin tracing can and should be done via citation, there may also be some common wording that you want to use, something longer than a quotation, perhaps something more like a big chunk of a chapter. Re-use is often key to iterative knowledge-building.

Duplicating thesis text, repurposing it for publication often bothers PhDers. Sometimes a lot. That’s understandable. The PhD is most often now a digital text and is a publication in its own right, but the PhD is also the basis for papers and perhaps a book. Let me explain the most common examples of re-use.

Publishing before the thesis and then reusing it in the thesis text. Publishing prior to the PhD being finalised is quite common and is often done as disciplinary convention, as reputational move and/or as a means of developing a line of argument for the thesis itself. This isn’t a huge issue.

In the PhD by publication, the papers are by definition part of the thesis text. They often appear in their final published form, which may be copyrighted to a journal, not the final author version. I am not aware than any publisher has taken issue with the practice of using the final copyrighted version. But they could I guess. In which case you’d use the final author version as is often now done in university repositories.

By contrast, in the monograph PhD, the text of a previously published paper is usually incorporated into the text and an acknowledgement made, either at the beginning of the text or when the text appears, that some of the material has been published elsewhere. There are however some disciplinary differences here about how acceptable this practice is, and it is always worth checking out rules and conventions with your supervisor and/or your university librarian.

Publishing after the thesis is completed and publicly available. The situation is a little different when the thesis becomes the basis for post-graduation publications. Here the question is how much you can cut and paste from the digital thesis into another, usually shorter, form. There is an a priori question of course about how much you should recycle given that the thesis is written for a different audience and a particular purpose. Most books of the PhD are actually very substantially rewritten. Put that issue aside for a moment. The question is how much should, and can you, re-use of the thesis? What are the risks and wrongs?

Theres a lot of rumour about cutting and pasting from your big book. Everyone seems to have heard of the publisher who refuses a book proposal on the grounds that it will be substantially the same as an e-thesis. However, there seems little actual evidence of this happening. A study by UCL librarians Brown and Sadler found no cases of this happening in the UK, although fears and worries about the possibility were rife particularly among PhDers and their supervisors. But…

Because no one is quite sure about recycling from the thesis you may get various forms of advice. If you want to re-use substantial thesis extracts for a book you may be advised to restrict access to your thesis for a period of time so that the new publication become the major source. Embargo to avoid problems. Or you may be advised to discuss the re-use of thesis material with the publisher if you are writing the-book-of-the-thesis. Or you may be encouraged to learn about open access so that you can have a conversation with an editor about the benefits of having both the thesis and a new book version of the work available at the same time.

Maybe you’re not writing a book but journal articles and book chapters. Reuse here is different. You aren’t very likely to be carrying over thesis literature work – too long. Your methods chapter will be too big. So we are probably talking about bits of what appears in your thesis as results and discussion. For example, there may be tables, graphs or diagrammes. There may be descriptions of participants or places. Most likely there are chunks of worked analyses that you want to cut and paste. Usually it seems to be enough to say in the text of the paper or chapter that the material is based on doctoral work, providing a citation to the thesis online. But there’s always the possibility of something more sinister happening. Again loads of urban myths here.

So is recycling a real problem? Are we just getting worked up over not very much? The first problem seems to be that we don’t even agree on what self plagiarism is, let alone whether it’s a serious issue or not.

My own view, which won’t be everyone’s, is that provided you recycle thesis material in ways that are acknowledged, then some re-use in journal papers and book chapters is not only acceptable but also sensible. After all, you slogged over these chunks for quite some time and worked hard on making them as good as you could. You may find of course when you revisit them that you do still want to tinker with the wording, or add a bit more/cut some things out. For me, the key thing is to own up to this re-use and not to try to hide it. As long as you make sure to check with the relevant editors and journal rules then transposing some text from a thesis or research report to book or journal seems to me to be quite in keeping with the spirit of scholarly publication ethics.

But, as always, do check this out. If in doubt who to ask, start with your university library.

And help may be at hand. Do look at this research project on text recycling which offers some very helpful guidelines for how to steer through murky re-use territory. One of the things the project suggests is doing away with the ambiguous term self plagiarism – Yes!!!- and adopting a more specific set of terms – see the note at the end of this post.

Recognising the reality of text re-use, the project’s guidelines for researchers say:

  1. Authors should recycle text where consistency of language is needed for accurate communication. This consistency can be especially important when describing methods and instrumentation that are common across studies. If the amount of recycled material is substantial, authors should determine whether permissions are needed (see Recycling Text Legally) and whether it is acceptable for the outlet (see Recycling Text Transparently).
  2. Authors may recycle text so long as the recycled material is accurate and appropriate for the new work and does not infringe copyright or violate publisher policies.
  3. Authors should be careful not to recycle text in ways that might mislead readers or editors about the novelty of the new work.

Sounds good to me. Can we all decide this is the way to go?