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I published a methods paper about a data analysis method (in cognitive neuroscience), and I'm now working as a co-author with colleagues on two experimental papers using that method. Since the main audience of these papers will be much less technically inclined than that of my own, I have been asked to provide a concise (1 paragraph, about 300 words) summary of the method which explains its logic and workings as precisely as possible for that less technical audience. In one case the need for such a paragraph has been stated also by a reviewer, explicitly writing that just referring the reader to the methods paper is not sufficient.

My question is: Since the requirements of this paragraph for these two papers are identical, it would make sense to use the same text for both – but would this be considered as a case of self-plagiarism? And if yes, what can I do to avoid that?

Options I have considered:

– Include the text in one paper (likely to be published first) as-is, and then quote it in the other paper. However, explicit quotations either in quotation marks or as an indented block are extremely uncommon in (at least my) science. So would a footnote like "this paragraph has been copied verbatim from XYZ" be the right thing to do to mark it as a quotation?

– Slightly change the wording, sentence structure, etc. – In my understanding this is worse, because it just adds an attempt to disguise on top of the self-plagiarism.

– Just write a separate text for each. But because the requirements are identical and I'm writing them both within a matter of days, it his highly likely that I'll end up with near-identical text anyway, and that any differences would be artificial, just like in the last option. There are only so many ways one can explain a technical matter in a concise, clear, and accessible way.

In each case the paragraph is embedded in a longer passage that details how the method is applied to the specific experimental design of each study. In one case the text is going to go into the supplementary material, while in the other it will be part of a regular methods section.

Morally speaking I don't see any concern here, because this text in no way claims to be original anyway, but just paraphrases a paper which is of course properly cited. But should I be concerned about others seeing this as a case of self-plagiarism?

I'm interested in your personal evaluations of this matter, but if possible also in some "official" references.

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My personal belief is that it's fine to duplicate the text with a reference to the original methods paper and a statement that this is a short summary of that work. Unfortunately, you will find people in the world who think you should be drawn and quartered for doing this, so your best bet is to write two different descriptions lest you get "caught" by a pedant. Worries about self-plagiarism for methodology sections, in my opinion, are vastly overblown, but not everyone agrees with me, so you have to be careful who you work ends up in front of. You never know who is going to run your papers through plagiarism detection software and reject your work because of one paragraph.

  • Bill, thanks for the answer. What are thoughts on the problem that rewriting the text with the exact same goal does likely result in the a very similar text anyway, which might still be considered self-plagiarism by the draw-and-quarter crowd? Do you think quotation marks or a footnote would be a good way around this problem? – A. Donda Jul 17 '15 at 17:52
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    In particular, many publishers find this kind of text reuse unacceptable, at least in part because they could be help liable for copyright infringement if they published the text again. – Brian Borchers Jul 17 '15 at 18:50
  • @BrianBorchers, a reproduction license for that text should be easily obtainable given how freely many publishers are willing to give to others for figures and such. We're talking about 2 paragraphs here, but I do see your point. – Bill Barth Jul 17 '15 at 19:10
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    @A.Donda, just do your best. If you cite yourself, then it's not plagiarism, and if you reword, it's probably not copyright infringement. If you submit one article before the other, then cite the future one as "submitted" and explain yourself in the cover letter or response to reviewers. Cross-cite your two pending articles if you have to. This is a pretty rare situation, but you should be able to work it out with your editors. A journal would be pretty stupid to sue its competition or a submitter over this kind of piddly "infringement" which is almost certainly Fair Use in the US. – Bill Barth Jul 17 '15 at 19:13
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    +1. While dual publication is obviously not OK, I find it ridiculous when the self-plagiarism hysteria expands to include small parts of a methods section with a citation to the original. – Corvus Jul 18 '15 at 20:42
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Pedant here -- you need to be very clear about the fact that copying the text could have serious implications. Many publishers today use plagiarism detection software (that doesn't work as they expect it to, but that's a different topic) so your text may come back as "plagiarized" when it is submitted. Even if you are summarizing, give a reference to where the original methods section is given. Never copy text, even if you wrote it, into another paper. As a commenter has said: there could be copyright restrictions!

And maybe you can start to get your field to accept indentations or quotation marks for methods sections by showing how elegantly you can do this.

  • Hi, thanks, but I'm a bit confused as to what you are actually saying. I'm aware of the issues, otherwise I wouldn't have asked the question. And I would always reference the original paper, as I wrote (and I would hurt myself if I didn't – it's my paper). So what do you recommend: Quoting using quotation marks? – A. Donda Jul 18 '15 at 22:49
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    I would either quote using quotation marks, or use indirect quotation and a paraphrase, if that is possible. – Debora Weber-Wulff Jul 19 '15 at 21:42

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