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I have a grant proposal that I'm ready to submit, and I would like to re-use a significant amount of the text (on the order of 5-8 pages) in a paper that I intend to submit to a journal for publication. Is this considered self-plagiarism?

As I suggested in the title, I am also interested in the reverse direction of this. Is it okay to take significant amounts of text from (e.g.) my own unpublished doctoral dissertation and use it in a grant proposal?

If this were an issue of paper-to-paper copying I know both of these would be clearly off-limits. The key issue that I am wrestling with is whether the rules are different for unpublished works like dissertations and grant proposals.

  • Just to be clear, I'm not talking about just a couple of paragraphs here, but something like the entire lit review section or the lion's share of the theory section. – mweiss Jun 26 '14 at 22:28
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Copying proposals to papers: I am sure many have not thought about this but many have copied material to and from proposals. Copying from a proposal to a paper should not be a problem since a proposal is normally not a publication and I have never come across a funding agency that claims copyright on proposal texts sent to them. If anyone knows of exceptions, it would be very interesting to know how they handle proposals. Taking the idea to the (silly) extreme one could argue that copying what you write in a notebook to a computer-written manuscript is self-plagiarism. The key lies in what sources are considered published and which are not.

Copying papers to proposals: Copying from a journal paper to a proposal should normally not be a problem either since the proposal is not a publication and not something that should be distributed. But, the journal text may be subject to copyright so it makes sense to see to what extent one might infringe on those rights by copying text to a proposal. I doubt any journal would care much (or indeed find out) as long as the proposals are not made public. Since most application processes are very strict and reviewers are not allowed to disclose materials (some actually ask you to physically destroy any printouts) I doubt there is a problem but strictly speaking this may indeed be a grey zone.

EDIT: I will add a definition for self-plagiarism: Copying material you have previously produced and passing it off as a new production from the site plagiarism.org. From this perspective the question becomes, is one trying to pass of the copied material as a new product?

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    I was thinking of this less from a copyright point of view than from an ethics perspective, but I appreciate the input. – mweiss Jun 26 '14 at 19:29
  • If you own the copyright on the journal article, the details in the second paragraph shouldn't be an issue, either. – Thomas Jun 27 '14 at 5:52
  • I can't really get behind this answer, since (as I wrote in mine) I've been shown examples of grant proposals which were rejected due to plagiarism. – David Z Jun 27 '14 at 16:47
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    one could argue that copying what you write in a notebook to a computer-written manuscript is self-plagiarism – that's why I prefer the term "duplicate publication" over "self-plagiarism". – silvado Nov 26 '14 at 20:37
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As in your comment on PeterJansson's answer: there are two different issues, namely, the literal copyright business, and then also "ethics". The copyright aspect is quasi-objectively decideable.

So, suppose there's no copyright conflict. The "ethics" issue still needs clarification. First, there's the idea of accidentally or intentionally double-dipping in terms of getting two status-credit-points for just one thing. That's the main external objection to "self-plagiarism", as opposed to plagiarizing from others. A grant proposal scores no status points in my world, so that element of ethical problems seems not present.

It's true that an over-the-top notion of self-plagiarism would seem to dictate that one is never allowed to re-use anything one has written, no matter what. I can't agree with this, even at the level of work done for courses, where I have very mixed feelings about declaring students cheaters because they re-use their own work to varying degrees. One objection I have is that this only really makes sense if either the university or instructor declares that it "owns" all the work done by students, or, worse, that the only point of the enterprise is in-the-moment... no accumulated expertise is re-usable? Odd.

Similarly, it seems to me that too often our thinking about self-plagiarism in professional settings is exaggerated, due to thinking of things as mostly pointless except for status/money-scoring aspects.

Srsly, we're not allowed to ever re-use bits of things "of our own" that have been polished a bit, etc? Start over every time? A very artificial constraint. For that matter, isn't most progress fairly incremental? Obviously... so it is perverse to require that everything be retyped every time, etc. And be sure to use different words... even if one took considerable pains with the earlier wording? Old effort must be discarded? :)

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Summary: Yes, you can reuse text from your own grant proposals because you did not assign the copyright to the NSF. The NSF states that proposals are the property of the proposers. A publisher could, in theory prohibit this, but that is unimaginable.

Going the other way—using material from a paper in a proposal—is less clear, but should also be fine. See below.


The issue is not what constitutes a "publication". That matters only for conferences and journals that refer to it in their policies. For anything else—such as grant proposals—the important issues are (a) "copyright infringement" and (b) "self-plagiarism". (I'll throw in regular plagiarism below, for context.)

  • Copyright infringement. If you assigned copyright to your (or someone else's) published paper to the publisher, then you no longer own the copyright. Therefore, if you use it in your proposal, you may be guilty of copyright infringement. However, such use would probably qualify as "fair use" since it is non-commercial and does not diminish the financial value to the copyright owner (publisher to whom you assigned your copyright).

    Yes, you could be guilty of copyright infringment, for using something that you created yourself. For example, imagine if a programmer at Microsoft (or wherever) was paid $200K to write some code, and then took it and sold it on the side. Since they were paid to do it, it would be copyright infringement. If you have assigned your copyright to a publisher, the situation is actually similar.

    Takeaway: It is best not to use work that was published as "archival" with the copyright owned by a publisher, but even that would probably be excused as "fair use". This only deals with copyright (lawsuits), not allegations of plagiarism (below).

  • Plagiarism. The National Science Foundation (NSF) defines “plagiarism” as “the appropriateion of another person's ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit.” (45 CFR § 689)

    This is separate from the issue of copyright. Even if someone gives you written permission, it is still plagiarism if you don't give them credit.

  • Self-plagiarism. If you submit your previously used text in a setting that requires only original (i.e., first-time use) text, and you have not attributed the original source clearly and dilineated the quoted text, then you are guilty of self-plagiarism. This depends entirely on the policy of wherever you are submitting to. For example, many conferences state that previously used text can be used, if it was from a "non-archival" publication. Then, they (hopefully) define what "non-archival" means to them.

    The laws that govern the NSF's rules on research misconduct do not mention self-plagiarism. (45 CFR § 689)

More information on the NSF's position and enforcement actions regarding plagiarism is contained in this detailed report by the NSF to Congress (pp. 40-42). Also, searching for searching for unattributed text within the NSF site reveals many examples of prior investigations by the NSF Inspector General. For example, a professor was accused of copy-pasting text from a former student's dissertation.

  • This clearly addresses the "reuse of material from a a paper in a grant proposal" part of the question. Does it also apply to the "reuse of material from a grant proposal in a paper" part of the question? – mweiss Aug 9 '16 at 20:37
  • Yes, you can. Clarified. – Alex Quinn Aug 10 '16 at 1:02
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The 'right' answer seems to be field-dependent. In my field, mathematics, it is customary for phd students to convert any unpublished parts of their thesis into papers after graduation. This is not only accepted, it is even expected.

I myself would have no difficulty reusing any amount of a submitted grant in a paper; I don't believe this constitutes any form of Questionable Research Practice, and I believe that that would be the opinion of my peers too. (The Dutch Royal Academy recently wrote a letter on reuse, which doesn't explicitly mention grant proposals, but gives guidelines for published sources that support this point if view; it takes 'false impressions' and 'harm to others' as central criteria, which exonerates reuse of material from your own grant proposal).

The best advice I can give you is: talk to the people around you, find out what they think.

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Well, the operative question is not really whether this is called "plagiarism" - it definitely is - but whether that's a bad thing. After all, the intended audience of any given document you prepare might be okay with copying large sections of another work; if that's the case, go ahead and plagiarize all you want, nobody will care. But if the people who will be reading a document do not want to see plagiarized material, you'd better not do it, regardless of whether the document will count as a "publication."

From what I've heard, grant review boards generally fall in the latter category. There are probably some exceptions out there, but I've been told in no uncertain terms that plagiarism in a grant application will result in instant rejection, and perhaps even punitive measures such as a temporary or permanent ban on submitting any further grant applications to that funding agency. I've seen examples of proposals which were rejected because they copied as little as one paragraph, or one figure, from decade-old papers, despite the proposals having excellent scientific merit. The copying need not even be exact, so tweaking a few words per sentence from your existing writing doesn't make it okay (as is the case for plagiarism in general).

Bottom line: everything in your grant application should be written exclusively for that application, not repurposed from elsewhere, just as you would do with a published paper. Grant reviewers treat plagiarism much the same as journal editors do.

(And also: though this answer treats plagiarism in general, as far as I'm aware the same rules apply to self-plagiarism.)

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    But the question was not about using text from an extant paper in a proposal; it was about using text from an extant proposal in a new paper, or using text from an unpublished dissertation in a proposal. – mweiss Jun 27 '14 at 9:06
  • @mweiss That directly contradicts the second paragraph of your question... but regardless, my point is that no wholesale copying is acceptable in a paper or a grant proposal. Even though your dissertation is not published (in the sense of being in a journal), it is a public document. It's available through your university's website, or on request from their library, right? So it is a source that you should not plagiarize from. Someone may catch it if you do. I guess if your dissertation is actually not publicly available at all, you might get away with it, but it still seems sketchy. – David Z Jun 27 '14 at 16:44
  • I'm curious about how the downvoters would explain away the examples I mentioned... – David Z Jun 28 '14 at 6:48
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    I did not downvote, because I appreciate the response, but my guess is that some people think the jump from "plagiarism in general" to "self-plagiarism" is too facile. I mean it seems obvious to me that using somebody else's words (even if from an unpublished dissertation) in a grant proposal without attribution is totally out of bounds. But using one's own words, from an unpublished source, seems (to me) entirely different. Do you know any examples where a proposal was rejected on those grounds? – mweiss Jun 29 '14 at 4:07
  • @mweiss No, I don't. I think one of the examples I saw may have been self-plagiarism, but still it was from a journal article. (For what it's worth, I do not consider the distinction between a dissertation and a journal article significant when determining if inappropriate plagiarism has occurred, but I guess others think differently.) – David Z Jun 29 '14 at 5:07

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