The Text Recycling Research Project

Often called “self-plagiarism,” text recycling is the reuse of textual material (prose, visuals, or equations) from one document in a new document where: (1) the material in the new document is identical to that of the source or substantively equivalent in both form and content; (2) the material serves the same rhetorical function in both documents; and (3) at least one author of the new document is also an author of the prior document (Moskovitz 2018). As the use of plagiarism-detection software by academic journals grows, more instances of text recycling are being identified in submitted manuscripts—and yet there is no consensus on what constitutes ethically or legally acceptable practice. Text recycling is thus an increasingly important and controversial ethical issue in academic publishing. Nonetheless, in spite of the proliferation of journal editorials and guidelines on the topic, little actual research on text recycling has been conducted, and it is rarely addressed in the ethical training of researchers or in scientific writing textbooks or websites.

The Text Recycling Research Project is the first large-scale investigation of the subject. Our aim is to better understand text recycling, to help build consensus among stakeholders, and to promote ethical and appropriate practice. In Phase 1, currently underway, we are learning about text recycling through three research arms:

Beliefs and Attitudes: This arm involves interviewing and surveying experienced faculty, students, journal editors, and others regarding the ethics of text recycling. We are investigating questions such as these: What do expert researchers, students, and others involved in scientific communication believe to be appropriate practice, and why? Where is there a clear consensus among experts and where is there substantive disagreement?

Text Analysis: For this arm, we are analyzing a corpus of published scientific papers to investigate how researchers recycle text in practice: How common is text recycling in STEM? What patterns of recycling are common? How does the practice vary across STEM disciplines? Has the practice changed over time?

Legal Analysis: The third arm involves analyzing publisher contracts and copyright law to better understand the rights of publishers and authors regarding text recycling and to assess their legal validity: When is text recycling legal and when does it violate copyright or contract law?

In Phase 2, we will use what we’ve learned to develop model guidelines, policies, and educational materials in collaboration with selected publishers, scholarly societies, universities, and professional organizations.:

  • web and print based instructional materials for STEM students (and others new to STEM research) explaining the ethical, legal, and practical issues involved with text recycling, as well as accompanying documents for faculty, administrators, and librarians.
  • model policies and guidelines for text recycling that address appropriate practice in both academic and professional settings. We will obtain feedback on drafts of these materials from stakeholders and revise them accordingly, after which they will be disseminated.

Funding

This project is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation: Cultivating Cultures for Ethical STEM program (CCESTEM: NSF15528)

Funding for this research has also been provided by the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation Endowment Fund and a Duke University Arts and Sciences Faculty Research Grant.