Self-plagiarism in academic publishing?

I've recently reviewed manuscripts for two interdisciplinary journals, journals in which philosophers can and do publish but in which articles by philosophers would be in the minority. I later surmised that the manuscripts I reviewed were not written by philosophers. Both had features that struck me as being unorthodox. Most notably, both manuscripts contained many references to the authors' extant published work. They also included long (200 word+) quotations from the authors' previously published work, flagged such (e.g., "As I remarked in my (2005)…")

So far as I know, this sort of self-plagiarism would be unusual in a philosophy manuscript. Anonymous references in a philosophy manuscript are common (though one objection to them is that they essentially blow the cover on blind review), and it would not be strange to have many such references if the manuscript were part of a symposium, etc., where the author might say things like, "In response to this criticism about X, let us revisit my article on X." But I found this strong reliance on the author's previous work off putting and unprofessional. It seems faintly like a fallacious appeal to authority, for one. What if the position, arguments, etc., of the published work being self-plagiarized weren't convincing in the first place? And if all the arguments were made elsewhere, why should the manuscript I'm reviewing be published? 

Lastly, it looks like a way to pad your CV: republish, with small modifications,what you already published. This seems unfair to those authors who have actual new ideas to contribute.

Yet I'm also willing to concede that my reaction may reflect norms about originality, authorship, etc. specific to philosophy. So I'd be curious to know if others have reviewed manuscripts with these features; if the practices I've described are common outside philosophy; and if self-plagiarism (taken to this degree at least) is unprofessional. 

13 Replies to “Self-plagiarism in academic publishing?

  1. Quick question: why do you call this self-plagiarism, Michael? There were at least quotes and citations in place, weren’t there? Perhaps you mean something like self-foraging or self-plundering? At any rate, it’s a rather weasely practice, but I don’t see the purported unfairness to other authors “who have actual new ideas to contribute.” Could you say more about that?

  2. This reminds me of a Sellars reading group I did my first year in graduate school. We insanely read all of his articles, in historical order. Any way, that guy could out self-reference anyone in the history of philosophy! Not sure there were many long self-quotations, but his tendency to say things like “see my other paper X for defense of this central premise” was truly maddening. Then again, since it was Sellars, it sort of worked as an appeal to authority.

  3. David, you’re right that ‘self-plagiarism’ isn’t an entirely neutral description! And yes, everything was above board — the authors weren’t trying to pass off previously published work as new work. I guess I see it as an attempt to capitalize on one’s status that probably works to the detriment of less established authors. In a discipline with very low journal acceptance rates and (in my estimation) a tendency toward intellectual conservativism, this self-plundering seems like a way to limit the disciplinary discourse in unhealthy ways.

  4. I think the concerns are legitimate but calling it self-plagiarism is misleading. Plagiarism is the use of another’s words or ideas passed off as one’s own. Perhaps this can be extended to passing off old work as new work, but if the author is noting that it’s his own work, then the problems are in my view real, but not plagiarism.
    I agree that this is especially bad practice given the low acceptance rate in good journals and what I agree is the (strong) tendency toward intellectual conservatism.

  5. I don’t think that self-referencing must obviate anonymity. You just take whatever chunk would give the game away, omit it and insert brackets with “omitted to preserve anonymity” in the brackets. There won’t be a whole lot that can’t be dealt with that way. Most of us aren’t both so well-known and so original that it will be obvious who wrote the piece. Or you could write that bit in the third person and then rewrite it in the first once it has been accepted.
    I do realize that some really well-known people might not be able to pull this off in every case, but then it is unlikely to be leveraging one’s past work to enhance one’s reputation and citations.

  6. I suspect that at some point we all find ourselves making points that we’ve made previously in other publications. That doesn’t mean that the new piece doesn’t contain new ideas; some overlap is inevitable, especially if you want the new piece to be accessible to someone who hasn’t read your entire corpus to that point. Self-quotation isn’t usually the way that philosophers handle this sort of overlap, but I don’t see anything about it that is any more ethically problematic than the self-paraphrasing that we usually do. It might even be more honest, by making the fact that you’re drawing on previous work entirely explicit. Although in some cases I might wonder whether an author was quoting herself because she could only think of one way to explain a certain point, and in that case I might wonder whether she really understood it herself.

  7. Consider Anscombe’s use of two paragraphs of material drawn from ‘Brute Facts’ in her ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’. I can’t see that there is anything the matter with introducing, in a relevant context, a summary version of an argument that one has made elsewhere. In Anscombe’s case, the argument is helpful in the new context. She notes in the later paper that the paragraphs constitute an abstract of the earlier brief paper.

  8. I must confess to sometimes being guilty of this crime. The problem is that when I have found the right words to formulate an argument, it is often hard to think of alternatives which aren’t actually worse. This is particularly a problem if you have developed a relatively formalized version of some important argument such as Moore’s OQA. I think my analytical version of the OQA is pretty neat, bringing out its logical structure of and displaying its hidden assumptions. So I tend to cut and paste every time I have occasion to to talk about it in print (which is quite often given that one of my specialities is meta-ethics). Do you really want me to reformulate the damn thing whenever I have occasion to discuss it?
    More generally, if your current work builds on earlier publications, then those earlier publications sometimes have to be summarized. Is it really going to be a requirement that every thought you have ever had has to be laboriously reformulated every time that you need to refer back to it? Cumulative work requires some repetition of content. It seems to me simply silly to insist that that content should clothed afresh in new words whenever it is necessary to repeat it.
    Also I’m at one with Cora Diamond. There are many things to object to in Anscombe’s ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ but the self-plagiarism from ‘On Brute Facts” is certainly not one of them.

  9. I agree with Charles. As well as needing to build on and so recapitulate previous material in some work there are occasions where editors of collections and companions want a piece which represents your known position. They don’t want something that is too big a departure from what you’ve said before. But mining existing work is much less appropriate for journal publications.

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