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When is it plagiarism? June 6, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research, work.
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When I sit down to write a paper, I usually try to start from scratch.  I type up an outline and try to fill it in, and then I begin work on all the different parts of the paper.  While it has been tempting to reuse sections of previous papers, particularly the introductory material, I try not to do that.  If you work in a specialized field, people are going to notice that they’re reading the same thing over.  My writing may be fine, but after the 3rd or 4th time, it’s going to bore even me.

The issue came to the fore as I’ve been reviewing papers for a conference.  While it’s not one I think I will be able to go to (it’s usually in Asia), I have reviewed for this conference the past couple years and really get some interesting things to examine.  However, this year, all of the papers I reviewed has issues with self-plagiarism: that is, they copied verbatim materials from their own previous papers.  Many of the papers I review are now being checked automatically for similarity to other papers, and while the process is supposed to be double-blind (that is, they don’t know I’m reviewing their paper, and I’m not supposed to know that I reviewed theirs), it makes it very easy to figure out who wrote the paper I’m reviewing: it’s the one with huge tracts of text that are identical but never referenced.

As I mentioned, I try to write papers from scratch, but I started to wonder if this was an ethical issue.  After all, if I wrote a paper, shouldn’t I be allowed to copy it?  It turns out that it’s not a good idea.  In particular, most of the papers I’m dealing with will fall under IEEE copyright rules (that is, the authors transfer over copyright of their written materials should the IEEE publish those materials).  Therefore, if you wrote the paper and it was published by IEEE, it’s simply not a matter of copying your own writing but plagiarism of IEEE materials.  In fact, the IEEE communications society has an explicit policy that says,

IEEE Publications has long maintained the policy that verbatim copying of another’s work (plagiarism) is unacceptable author conduct.

The Communications Society values the intellectual contributions of its authors, and vigorously enforces the IEEE policy on plagiarism.  As IEEE modifies its publication policies, it is important that authors who submit their work to ComSoc journals and magazines are informed of these changes.

In November 2002, the IEEE Board of Directors approved a new policy on Duplicate Publication and Self-Plagiarism.  This policy is found in the IEEE Policies document, Sections 6.4.1B(f) and 6.4.1B(h).  These two sections are given below.

(f) Plagiarism is unacceptable.  The verbatim copying or reuse of one’s own research (as indicated in paragraph “h” below) is considered another form of plagiarism or self-plagiarism; it is unacceptable.

(h) Except as indicated in Section 6.3.4 (Multiple Publication of Original Technical Material in IEEE Periodicals), authors should only submit original work that has neither appeared elsewhere for publication, nor which is under review for another referred publication.  If authors have used their own previously published work(s) as a basis for a new submission, they are required to cite the previous work(s) and very briefly indicate how the new submission offers substantial novel contributions beyond those of the previously published work(s).

I know people who do this regularly.  All you have to do is read enough of their papers, and it becomes obvious that the intro section is commonly recycled by several authors.  I really don’t like the practice because it also drives up index values for papers that are simply examples of related work while not being foundational.  On the other hand, it is a pain to rewrite those sections every time.

I’m very glad the Com Soc is being very explicit about their policy.  However, other places are not as explicit, and this is honestly something that no one has ever mentioned to me.  It’s something I would like to see delineated more clearly by all publications as I think it would draw more attention to using ethical practices in paper writing and submission.

When reviewing, I can’t be certain that the person writing the paper is aware of the policies on self-citation, if there even is one for a given organization or venue, so I generally mention that it’s a good idea to change the text.  I’m always curious what the editors/session chairs do with this feedback, though.  Do they take it seriously?  Finally, it reinforces to me that it’s never a good idea to reuse previous writing unless it’s properly attributed, even if it is my own.

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Comments»

1. devbisme - June 6, 2014

Nobody who is well-versed in an area of research really pays too much attention to the introduction: they know where to go in the paper to find the new results and they don’t need all the background and context. Re-writing introductory material is a waste of time if they are considered to be the audience.

New people entering a field do need the intro. In their case, the introduction should be as good as it can be to help them place the research in context. Good writing is hard to do and is iterative in nature. Taking an already-published piece of material and improving it a bit is a way authors can polish introductory material. And if you can’t think of any way to make it better, then include it as is. Why go to the effort of moving the words around if it doesn’t add any value?

Finally, every definition of plagiarism I’ve seen refers to copying words or thoughts from others without proper attribution. “Self-plagiarism” is some strange concept dreamed-up by people with too much time on their hands and is another example of how the IEEE wastes the dues of its members while becoming a bureaucratic sideshow.

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2. The Minion - June 6, 2014

This brings up the issue (in a round-about sort of way) on the necessity of an introduction. If it is seen as something which isn’t necessary and only kept/written/copied for form, then why keep it. Or even better, change it! Maybe add some sarcastic humor. I can see it now, “I don’t like your SAS so that’s why we’re focusing on PCI-E for high speed serial.”

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3. mareserinitatis - June 6, 2014

A good intro is HARD to write, and I try hard to tailor each one to the topic I’m writing about. It’s tempting to copy, but copying, to me, indicates that the material you’re presenting in the paper isn’t sufficiently different from your previous work to warrant the work and therefore really is wasting people’s time.

I guess I’m also different in that I read the intros, even for papers where I am extremely knowledgeable in the field. It helps me to understand the writer’s style and what they think is important before I get too deep into the heavy stuff. Quite often, they may assume knowledge about their specific area or similar material that you may only get from reading the intro.

I like the idea of sarcastic comments, though. Maybe a good approach would to be ask, “Are you really reading this?”

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