Disclaimer - I'm neither in favor of, nor endorsing plagiarism with the following question. I'm only hitting on the fact that sometimes, the interpretation of self-plagiarism can be quite stupid.

Given the well-deserved emphasis on controlling the menace of plagiarism these days, various journals and even academic institutions have insisted on various cross-check measures. Mostly, this amounts to necessitating a clean chit from some anti-plagiarism software, which (I imagine) works by comparing string lengths of some x-words in the article, with its existing database. So, if some dumb guy didn't rephrase himself, there would be common sentences, which earns him disrepute and he gets tagged as a self-plagiarist.

Now, as a ''responsible'' author, I would try to minimize such overlaps, ideally to zero. But sometimes, you can't help it. Take this context for example. (Sidenote - I'm basically a Physics.SE user.) We have used one model in two different contexts, so there is no question of overlapping content between two articles. But, since it is the same model, when I describe it, in one place I write -

The free parameters of the wawa model, p1, p2 and p3 are fitted to baryon masses and vacuum characteristics in the wawa limit.

(''wawa'' = whatever)

Now, I don't see any self-plagiarism in repeating this one sentence in the second article, but if I don't, maybe I'm being the ''dumb guy'' in the previous paragraph. So, I'll try to work around this, finding synonyms, trying alternative descriptions, but even with all my maneuvering, that sentence was the best way to describe it.

My opinion is that, even though I'm not plagiarizing anywhere in the above context, this process is turning out to be a nuisance for me. Am I supposed to sit down and waste so much time rephrasing my sentences, when I have some meaningful information to communicate to the scientific world? (Worst still, I could've been investigating some hot problem in my discipline, where urgently communicating is invaluable.)

Also, as @mhwombat hit on in a comment, am I not compromising on the best way of putting it across, when I deliberately rephrase it, just because there is a ''plagiarism'' checker in place? That's surely not what the purpose of plagiarism check was?

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    I worry that even though I do rephrase every single sentence that I've written elsewhere, later on I might later edit the sentence back the way it was (unintentionally), because I decide it "flows better" that way. – mhwombat Jul 9 '14 at 11:31
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    @mhwombat - Right. When it flows better, we don't keep an encyclopedic retention of what we have written before. And that's not plagiarism. My question is - are we supposed to remember these trivialities, or focus on the bigger issue - what we are conveying through the sentence. – 299792458 Jul 9 '14 at 11:37
  • Also, note that you should define question 1 carefully to make sure it is not closed as a duplicate of this one – ff524 Jul 9 '14 at 11:45
  • Thanks for the concern, but I think that one's in the context of copy-paste in introduction. Different works should be introduced differently IMO so I denounce it completely. What I'm addressing here is that whenever you use a model, you ought to describe it in short. And since it is the same model being described, you are naturally forced to rephrase the same description over and over again, which is stupid. I'll be very sad if it gets marked as a duplicate. Anyways, I'll take precaution. Thanks :) – 299792458 Jul 9 '14 at 11:51
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    Just like there are only so many ways to skin a cat, there's also usually only a limited number of ways you can logically and concisely write a scientific concept. It's a silly situation if you have to compromise the clarity of your explanation just so it's different to what was previously published. – Moriarty Jul 9 '14 at 18:12

I think the focus on self-plagiarism here is overwrought when it comes to describing a methodology that may be reused from paper to paper. You are going to cite the first place you wrote that sentence, and you shouldn't need to worry about changing the wording in the series of papers that use the same methodology.

Methodology descriptions should be clear and exactly the same when the underlying methodology is exactly the same from work to work. Any editor who used software to flag your words should see your self-reference/citation and give you a pass. "Self-plagiarism" of this sort is a bad label and no crime.

Edited to add: At most, you may need an prefatory clause to the effect "Following our prior methodology described in [1], the free parameters of the wawa model, p1, p2 and p3 are fitted to baryon masses and vacuum characteristics in the wawa limit." Or something similar. But that won't fool the detector software. You need to trust that an editor will understand this for what it is.

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    Or you could stick the quote in quotation marks and not have to worry about it. – StrongBad Jul 9 '14 at 18:36
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    Why? What purpose does quoting yourself serve that citing yourself doesn't. You could block quote several paragraphs, wasting column inches, or you could simply preface your remarks with something like: "We follow our previous analysis methodology from [1] and reproduce that discussion as follows." Self-plagiarism only seems to be problematic to me when you're trying to double dip for credit, but if the methodology isn't new, it's not the meat of the paper. Thus, it's totally fine to reuse text that you've already made as clear as possible. – Bill Barth Jul 9 '14 at 21:14
  • So, this means the objective testing using a software is a first step, followed by a subjective decision making regarding issues of self-plagiarism. I like this perspective, and hope that my journal's think-tank has sensible people like you (though I'm a bit scared with what David wrote below)! And that clause is a very valuable suggestion. Thanks :) – 299792458 Jul 10 '14 at 7:29
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    I've been out of the journal reviewing loop for awhile. I would hope that if a journal was using software to spot plagiarism, then they would use common sense when evaluating its results. I don't know of any journal that is actually using such software, but it must be more common than I know. – Bill Barth Jul 10 '14 at 11:53
  • @StrongBad, I have a similar problem as the poster, and while myself I wouldn't mind using quotation marks, I worry whether this would be accepted in a science journal. At least in my field (neuroscience) I have never seen quotations in quotaton marks or as a block, except maybe in review papers. – A. Donda Jul 17 '15 at 17:42

Just because two sentences are identical does not mean that the person who wrote the sentence second plagiarized the person who wrote it first. For your example sentence:

The free parameters of the wawa model, p1, p2 and p3 are fitted to baryon masses and vacuum characteristics in the wawa limit.

If you copy and paste that sentence from a previous publication (it doesn't matter who wrote it originally), that is a clear case of plagiarism. If you thought about the model and how the parameters were fitted and you happen to come up with the identical wording, it is not plagiarism. If you don't want to think about the best way of saying something and you want to use the words/ideas of someone else, then you need to provide proper credit (i.e., quote them).

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    But what is a journal editor likely to do if they find, say, one sentence in an article you've submitted to them is the same as in another article you've previously published? Will they automatically assume it's self-plagiarism, or will they use some common sense? – mhwombat Jul 9 '14 at 13:46
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    I don't disagree, but I think two issues are getting mixed up here. Irrespective of how many times I think about the model, the parameters are still fitted using the same procedure, which is a separate paper WHICH I CITE in the sentence. I haven't fitted these parameters, so that isn't the subject of the paper. Using the model (with those fitted parameters), I have investigated something which was hitherto unconsidered, so the originality is lying over there. The quoted sentence is used while I introduce the model, before describing what I've done. – 299792458 Jul 9 '14 at 15:19
  • (contd.) This is why I have used the ''rephrase''. When I use this model (with those parameters) five times, I guess I'm supposed to rephrase that sentence five times too, otherwise the software will say I've plagiarized. And if you consider that the subject of the paper isn't the fitting of these parameters, this rephrasing is not just unnecessary, but just plain stupid. That's the point I was trying to make. :) – 299792458 Jul 9 '14 at 15:23
  • @New_new_newbie it is not that the software will say you have plagiarized, it is that if you cut and paste, you have plagiarized. – StrongBad Jul 9 '14 at 15:55
  • @StrongBad - haha, I appreciate that point, but I guess with your ''happen to come up with the same wording'' thing, it becomes impossible to formulate an objective criterion for checks, which is what a software requires to work. If output looks the same, how do you prove that you have a clear conscience and didn't plagiarize? Software will label you a plagiarist either way. . +1 nevertheless. :) – 299792458 Jul 10 '14 at 7:34

What StrongBad says about it not being plagiarism if you come up with the same wording independently is technically right, I suppose, but what you really have to worry about is whether certain other people (e.g. editors) think you've plagiarized, and those people are probably not going to be receptive to the argument that you came up with the same sentence twice. At least in theory, a sentence which is long enough to count as plagiarism is long enough that you can find a different way to phrase it. So I would say yes, you have to rephrase the sentence.

At least, this is standard practise in my field, theoretical particle physics, and I've been told that expectations are the same in other branches of physics and other hard sciences.

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    I think this is a crazy approach to the "problem". There is nothing gained by requiring authors to use circumlocutions to describe identical processes in order to hold to some over-strict notion of plagiarism. If you cite the original, there's no harm in using identical language to describe it. – Bill Barth Jul 9 '14 at 16:10
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    It happens that papers are rejected for reusing their own methodology descriptions, or that such descriptions are reused? – Bill Barth Jul 9 '14 at 16:18
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    Why the heck wouldn't it be acceptable if the methodology actually done is identical!?! Especially if it comes with a citation? – Bill Barth Jul 9 '14 at 16:43
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    Also, I think it would be good if you named your field so that the OP can see if that relates to his. – Bill Barth Jul 9 '14 at 17:17
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    According to Irving Hexham, "Like all plagiarism the essence of self-plagiarism is the author attempts to deceive the reader. This happens when no indication is given that the work is being recycled or when an effort is made to disguise the original text." This means rephrasing re-used text not just doesn't change the fact of self-plagiarism, it makes it even worse by trying to disguise it. (See what I did there? Proper attribution and quotation marks! ;) – A. Donda Jul 17 '15 at 17:46

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