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There is an article which contains a section describing preliminary materials, that is, results which have already been published elsewhere and on which the current work is based.

This section is not supposed to contain any new result.

It appears that part of this section (one to two pages) is, up to minor modifications, a copy-paste from another published article.

The other article is from a collaboration of the author of the present paper with other authors. It is cited somewhere in the current article but not as the source of the copied part.

The context and methods of the articles are very similar (hence the need for similar tools), but beside the copied part, the contents and results are different.

In particular, there does not seem to be any plagiarism in the actual novel part of the article in question.

Is this a case of acceptable self-plagiarism?

There are a lot of questions in academia.SE about self-plagiarism but I couldn't make my mind about this case from what I've read.

EDIT: Thank you for all this helpful contributions. As referee for this article, I've chosen the option to ask directly the editor's opinion.

  • Which area is this? – mdd Jun 3 '16 at 14:26
  • How much does this matter? – user55133 Jun 3 '16 at 15:19
  • In some areas (Medicine?), duplicating a method section might be more acceptable. the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/29245/title/… – mdd Jun 3 '16 at 19:09
  • What is opinion of Editor on this issue ? – IgotiT Jul 23 '16 at 9:04
  • After scrutiny, the article was discarded. – user55133 Jul 24 '16 at 10:49
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Lots of people would object to this. LOTS. I think somewhat differently. If this section doesn't cite the original, I think that's pretty bad. I don't think that it's career-ending, but I also don't think that we should be slavish to not copying ourselves when the material is rote or nearly so. Methodology sections that don't change much from paper to paper are places where I think reproducing text and saying so and citing yourself are particularly acceptable to me, but lots of people disagree vehemently with me. I'm aware of this propensity, so I don't copy text in my own papers as much as possible. I rewrite such sections and cite my old work for alternative descriptions.

In the case you mention, both articles appear to have been published, so unless you have a vendetta with this author and want to try to ruin their career, it's probably not worth saying anything to anyone about it. In other words, what would you do if we all said it was bad self-plagiarism? The only thing you can really do is tell the journal or their department chair and hope for a retraction or firing. If it doesn't change the result, then there's not much point in bringing it up. That being said, it's probably best if you don't follow their example. It's also probably worth being wary of future articles from this group of authors since there might be other aspects that aren't exactly above board.

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    If I were to personally do something like this, I would simply note that this section was previously printed elsewhere. The easiest way to deflect any accusations of self-plagiarism is to call it out yourself. Given that the entire section is not meant to be new or novel, what would the writer lose by simply saying "this background information was also background information elsewhere?" In the specific case you mentioned, where you're not the author - I agree with Bill. – Jake Jun 3 '16 at 17:11
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    @Jake, some people are so adamant about not reusing text like this, that they will toss your article during review. Also, the author often doesn't own the copyright to the copied text, so some journals are too shy to let you get away with it. At the very least, you probably need to ask the first publisher for permission to reproduce. – Bill Barth Jun 3 '16 at 19:04
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    @Jake: Why not just omit the background material entirely and say "the necessary background material can be found in section X of [Y]"? – Will R Jun 3 '16 at 20:19
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    @WillR: One reason could be to keep the work self-contained. – J W Jun 3 '16 at 20:58
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    @JW: well yes, but if to that end you're perpetrating a deception on the journal, and in doing so tricking them into breaching the copyright of a competing journal, then quite aside from the academic ethics of it you're clearly jerking your editor around. If you do what Will says, then I suppose reviewers/editor could always ask you to quote the referenced material. – Steve Jessop Jun 4 '16 at 1:01
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I am one of those people that Bill Barth mentions that will object to this. I agree rewriting what essentially is the same thing is not the answer, but neither is copying the text verbatim. I think a much better approach is to summarize the content with a few sentences and say "for a much more detailed description, check ref. (my paper that I published last year)".

In terms of doing something, I agree with Bill Barth that it doesn't serve you much to challenge this.

Bottom-line, I would say this is not an acceptable form of self-plagiarism.

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    I would agree with you and say more: are you sure the same text is suitable for both? Unless both works have exactly the same objectives and development, the text should be written differently, to highlight these objectives or the involved methods... – Fábio Dias Jun 3 '16 at 15:04
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    Is the problem that the author is copying text from an earlier paper, or that the author is copying text from an earlier paper without admitting that fact to the reader? "To keep this paper self-contained, we recall some relevant background from our earlier paper [42]." – JeffE Jun 3 '16 at 15:24
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    "summarize the content with a few sentences and say (...)" - unfortunately, this opens your work up to the accusation that it is not sufficiently "self-contained". – O. R. Mapper Jun 3 '16 at 16:37
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    @FábioDias I disagree with the point that text should be written differently depending on the paper itself. It's perfectly possible that preliminary information for two papers be identical - in paper A you attempt method A, and in paper B you attempt method B, but both methods work off of the same data previously generated and published and therefore the information regarding that data is identical. A separate section on methodologies would obviously be completely different in each paper. – Jake Jun 3 '16 at 17:14
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    I disagree with this, because access to research papers is an issue. If the material is important to understand the paper, then a reader with access to this paper should not need access to another paper to understand it, unless this is materially mandatory. – Benoît Kloeckner Jun 5 '16 at 8:44

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