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Part of my doctoral thesis is based on three articles I wrote during my PhD. My supervisor suggested that I directly use part of the articles I had written (the part related to the data analysis and results) as chapters in the doctoral thesis. The theoretical background was rewritten in an extended form and forms the first chapters of the doctoral thesis. The articles have also other authors in addition to me and my supervisors, who played a marginal role in the work.

Unfortunately, I did not know that you need to cite your work to avoid copyright problems (I should have written "this chapter is based on this article..." at the beginning of each chapter). Even my supervisor, who read the thesis, didn't notice, and the PhD Thesis was fine for him. I earned my PhD some years ago.

I am worried that this can represent a problem and it can lead to losing the phd title. Do you have any suggestion how I can fix it? It was completely unintentionally. The chapters have exactly the same title of the papers, I have really not tried to hide it. I have currently a quite successfull career in the academia, and I would like to continue it, but this problem is causing me worries.

Edit: Maybe I should also mention that I have a double doctoral degree in two different European countries, which have different standards. While one country is stricter, the other has not yet developed clear legislation to help prevent self-plagiarism and copyright problems. I developed my doctoral thesis in the second country (the one I came from), but now I am working in the first. This explains part of my pain

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  • Has the degree been awarded? Has the thesis been published anywhere?
    – Buffy
    Nov 30, 2023 at 21:57
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    To be clear, the "offense" of self-plagiarism is getting credit multiple times for the same work by being deceptive and presenting it as new work. Directly mentioning prior publication in the thesis is one way to make reuse clear, but any other way of communicating that to your committee is also valid.
    – Ben Voigt
    Nov 30, 2023 at 21:58
  • yes, the degree has been awarded and the thesis has been published
    – Pachita
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:00
  • @BenVoigt, with self plagiarism there is also the (IMO more important) issue of providing the full context of ideas, some of which will be in the original articles.
    – Buffy
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:32
  • As @BryanKrause's answer says, there's not much to worry about here from a purely academic perspective. If you ever get into the sort of career where you have political opponents, they might try and have a pop at you about it, so be ready with your rebuttal. Jan 13 at 12:26

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I wouldn't worry about it at this point coming from a US perspective for academic (dis)honesty concerns; possibly there is some local difference but I highly doubt it.

The "stapler thesis" is a common format in my field at least, and while it's expected to be clear about where content is coming from, it's also expected that the thesis itself is almost useless for outside purposes: no one will read it except your committee and possibly any grandparents who are still living at the time. It would be a waste of time to have much of the thesis not be also published somewhere else, and no one will be giving you separate credit for the thesis and also for the publications: they are separate entities that are expected to overlap, and nothing to be gained by omitting a statement that they are the same.

Copyright is an entirely separate beast; you can copy things that you own copyright to however you want and never violate your own copyright. Self-plagiarism has nothing to do with copyright, you can't violate copyright by self-plagiarism. The only copyright concern is that you've assigned your copyright to some journal or promised them an exclusive license to use your work in exchange for them publishing it. If that's the case, even a statement "this chapter is based on this article..." does not save you from infringing the copyright. You can't freely copy a movie and print a bunch of DVDs (do people still use DVDs?) and say you're in the clear just because you add a statement saying "I copied this movie from Steven Spielberg". The copyright concern is not about giving proper credit, the copyright concern is that someone who has the rights to reproduce and publish and sell your work doesn't want to lose the value of what they can sell because you've released the same content in some other form. That said, every reasonable journal has a clause that allows for the original author to reuse it for a thesis. If they don't, your only risk would be that they come to sue you for some financial cost claiming that your thesis is costing them sales. They will not bother to do this, and there is absolutely no risk to your degree.

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  • Thank you. I feel better now.
    – Pachita
    Nov 30, 2023 at 23:08
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I doubt that the university would withdraw the degree. After all, the error is partly theirs in not being more vigilant in such things.

I also doubt that there is much you can do about it other than to ask the publisher of the thesis to withdraw it and promise a better version "soonish", if that is your desire.

The publishers of the original works might complain and then you would have to deal with that as a matter of copyright if you have given up your rights.

How hard it would be to provide a better version depends on how much you "copied" from the earlier papers. If it is within acceptable bounds then adding citations might be enough. But that isn't a plagiarism issue, but a copyright one. A simple note that the thesis is 'based on' the earlier papers covers you on plagiarism, but over copying remains a copyright issue.

Alternatively you can just ignore the issue until and unless a problem arises, though, as I said, it is unlikely to come from the university.

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  • The journals are from Elsevier, and Elsevier gives permission to reuse part of the articles or even the full article in the doctoral dissertation, however, they ask that reference be made to the article. In my case, a full reference to the article is missing. The only reference is the title of the article, which exactly matches the title of the chapter.
    – Pachita
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:28
  • Then you are probably clear with them if you can add a reference to the published thesis, even as an erratum.
    – Buffy
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:30
  • I had this idea too and will do it! Thank you so much for the advice
    – Pachita
    Nov 30, 2023 at 22:34
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I don't think this is a big issue. Although there are common standards regarding plagiarism and self-plagiarism, these are ultimately customary norms, meaning your university and advisor decide if you've plagiarized. If they thought you were fine, then you were fine. As for me, I just submitted my thesis, and my advisor asked me to list my publications, like 'This thesis is based on these publications,' in the preface so I could include content from my publications in the thesis. I also see students from renowned institutions, like CMU, doing the same thing. If this were problematic, then half of the theses in our field would have to be revoked. However, I see that some places require stricter citations, where you have to cite precisely at the point where you reused the content. I believe that if you adhered to the guidelines from the institution you graduated from, it should be totally fine. Don't overthink it.

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  • Thank you! But do you think that the fact I have not declared it clearly can represent a problem? The title of each chapter is the same title of each publication, but it missess a clear reference to them. I was not really trying to hide something.
    – Pachita
    Feb 2 at 13:00

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