I am a theoretical physics postdoc. A while ago I began collaborating with a certain group of experimentalists on a joint project. This group has a good reputation in the field and I regarded the collaboration as a good opportunity. They work at a different institution from me and I am the only person from my institution involved in the project. My boss knows about the project but was happy to let me pursue it without being involved.

I sent my collaborators some calculations a while ago, which I believed should more or less wrap up the project and bring us to a point where we could write it up. They were a long time getting back to me - so long in fact that I began to assume they had lost interest in the project - but then out of the blue they sent me a draft paper and asked for my comments.

On first reading the draft seemed good. It gives an accurate description of both the experimental and theoretical results from the project. But then I went back and read another recent paper from the same group (which I was not involved with). I then realised that several paragraphs from the draft paper were copied verbatim from this other recent paper.

The paragraphs in question are from the introduction and methods sections of the paper. The draft paper and the recently published one are closely related in subject matter and the experimental part of the work uses a lot of the same methods, so to some extent I can understand why they may have regarded it as efficient to simply copy certain parts of the text over. On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable about this degree of self-plagiarism.

Is it worth making a fuss about this? I am very much the junior partner in this collaboration and getting this paper in collaboration with this group would be helpful on my CV, at a time when I really need to find a job. So I have incentives not to rock the boat too much. On the other hand, I know some people regard self-plagiarism very badly and if my name is on the paper I will be as much to blame for it as anyone else.

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    Not everyone knows that self plagiarism is an issue, so for many it is very natural to just copy from previous work. However, you should certainly mention the issue to them and recommend that everything be properly cited. Publishing the paper as is could bring comments, even condemnation, from readers and reviewers. – Buffy Sep 12 at 10:12
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    If the review is double blind (some are in my field) it might simply come across as straight plagiarism. – Pam Sep 12 at 19:57
  • Journals nowadays run automated checking so they can be the ones to deal with it. Also, if it's an expanded version of a prior paper, and their subsequent paper will have a note of this, what they are doing is perfectly acceptable. So you don't know enough to decide yet. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 12 at 19:59
  • @ASimpleAlgorithm Huh? What information do you imagine the asker here is missing, as a collaborator on the second paper who has access to its full (draft) text? I presume that if it were indeed an expanded version of the group's prior paper and explicitly framed itself in those terms, the OP wouldn't've asked this question in the first place, or at least would've mentioned those facts. – Mark Amery Sep 13 at 9:50

You do not need to make a fuss, or mention "plagiarism". All you need to do is to recommend adding a reference to the copied paper for each paragraph in question. That is a legitimate review comment, proposing an improvement in the draft paper.

Andreas Blass, in a valuable comment, suggests something along the lines of "The following description of our methodology is taken from [17]" or "Our methodology is the same as in [17], described there as follows" is adequate, without needing to also put quotation marks around the quoted description.

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    Actually, not mentioning plagiarism is a failure to educate. People who haven't even heard of it (a lot, possibly, especially older researchers, as it is a fairly new concept of interest) need to know. If you give them a solution without the reason behind the solution they have no way to know what is expected these days. Make a bit of a fuss, at least. – Buffy Sep 12 at 12:31
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    I don’t think this is sufficient. A copied paragraph should be enclosed in quotes, As a citation implies you used the ideas, not the exact words. – Dawn Sep 12 at 13:12
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    @Dawn It depends at least somewhat on the sections in question. Especially methods paragraphs, there is little to no reason to change a perfectly cromulent statement just to be different from previous papers. There may only be one way to state what you did. – Azor Ahai Sep 12 at 16:51
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    @AzorAhai In theoretical physics, there's always a bunch of non-novel information in terminology and definitions that needs to be (mathematically) precise and consistent. Modifying the text to gratify some aversion to "self-plagiarism" risks introducing errors for no real benefit. Omitting things with reference to a previous work is sometimes done but risks alienating readers; who wants to cross-reference definitions between papers? What if the reader doesn't even have access to that previous paper? – Xerxes Sep 12 at 20:24
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    As far as I can see, you and your co-authors just need to make it clear that the material in question is copied from their earlier work. I think something along the lines of "The following description of our methodology is taken from [17]" or "Our methodology is the same as in [17], described there as follows" is adequate, without needing to also put quotation marks around the quoted description. – Andreas Blass Sep 13 at 0:19

I would say something like, “I’ve noticed some reviewers/journals reacting negatively to using text from previous work verbatim. Here, I have suggested a rewrite and citation to address that potential issue.” Then actually rewrite the paragraphs in question. If the original author was copying text, they were likely trying to write the paper quickly and would appreciate that you took the time.

  • As @Xerxes points out in a comment to Patricia Shanahan's answer, this would actually be a disservice to readers. They might be familiar with the 'plagiarised' paper, and start to wonder why the description has changed. Better simply to make it clear that the previous paper is being quoted verbatim. – TonyK Sep 13 at 12:43
  • @TonyK I can see how verbatim repetition may be useful at times in a methods section, however, I don’t see how the argument would possibly apply to an introduction. Furthermore, If I were going to replicate work, I would certainly look at the original method paper regardless of what I saw in the second work. Verbatim would not save someone extending the paper any time, so I really don’t see any downsides to AyalewA’s answer here. – Dawn Sep 13 at 13:16

If the draft paper is addressing a new (though related to the previous work) research question, the background/introduction should be tailored to the new research question/objective, and as such needs to be original based on citation of a set of related previous works. However, the methodology may, for the most part, be the same as the methodology of the previously published work. In that case, it is worth stating that the details of the methodology have been published previously and to cite reference to the previous work and provide in the present paper a brief and pertinent summary of the methods. As per this editorial, "simply referencing the earlier paper" regarding the methodology may suffice, yet providing the pertinent aspects of the methods with referencing to the earlier paper may be more useful.

By and large, as per this article, if a new academic work involves some form of "text recycling" from a previous work, there is a need to clearly acknowledge that through reference citation. Besides, "...being somewhat lazy not to have attempted to rephrase/rethink previously written passages," seems worth avoiding (ibid).

However, when communicating with your collaborators about the need to avoid "self-plagiarism", you need to be wary (as pointed out by @Patricia Shanahan) not to tend to tell them that they have committed plagiarism but provide your inputs and forward your suggestions on how you feel the draft work can be improved.

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    A suggestion is to simply comment on it as if you already assumed they would (of course!) be fixing up those sections because they were at present verbatim copied from a prior paper. Under assumption that for a draft, they had put them there as placeholders for what type of information needed to go in those sections. – Carol Sep 12 at 12:48
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    Great advice, especially on how to deal with the methods piece. – Dawn Sep 12 at 13:10

It's common to reuse text in a draft, especially when after all it will likely be similar whether it is rewritten from scratch or copied. I don't think it's a good approach because it affects the flow of the text, but I wouldn't mention it to the collaborator, I would just try to edit it into the same style.

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