Monthly Archives: February 2014

How Much is Too Much?

[Note: This was originally published on Monday, then accidentally deleted yesterday, and now re-published today. Apologies!]

Two anonymous readers write asking about self-plagiarism:

(#1) I’m been wondering lately about “self-plagiarism” and to what extent it is acceptable to reuse material from ones own previous papers. It seems to me that this is actually quite common in philosophy, but I wonder how to approach editors about this.

I’m thinking of submitting a paper to anthology, and (maybe) later another paper to a journal. The latter paper would reuse material from the anthology-paper, but develop it in a slightly different direction. To what extent would this be acceptable? Should one alert the journal editor about this and ask whether it is okay?

I realise that there are copyright issues here, but my question is more about the ethics of self-plagiarism. I would be interesting to hear what editors think about this.

(#2) What’s protocol for submitting two articles that have a significant amount of overlapping content (say, a page) to separate journals? The articles, as I am imagining the situation, are otherwise significantly different.

There are three sorts of contexts where the issue of self-plagiarism generally arises. The first is when you have the same material that you want to present to two, mostly disjoint, audiences. The second is when you are presenting new material which builds on previous material you’ve already published. The third is when you are presenting new material inspired by the same background setting as something you’ve previously published (even if the new paper doesn’t explicitly build on the previous publication).

Since I work in a field where I publish to two almost disjoint audiences (history of logic and mathematical logic), I face all of these situations regularly. In almost every paper I write, before I can present the new and interesting material, I have to provide some historical, expository information. (Once you’ve written more than a few papers on obligationes, it becomes very hard to present the same background material in new and exciting ways! But since my audience is rarely historians, I can’t assume any of them already know anything about the genre.) So I’ve developed a few personal guidelines:

  • There should be as little verbatim material as possible. (You cannot be sure that you won’t end up having overlapping readers — especially if the readers of the second paper are assiduous in following up references to the first — and no one likes to read exactly the same paragraph over and over.) If you can rewrite the material, even a little bit, do so.
  • Where you can get away with simply referencing the previous paper, do so. (This is easier to do when what you’re referencing is, e.g., previously proven theorems.)
  • Be explicit. If the argument has appeared in print in a different version, say so.
  • Ask yourself what you hope to gain by re-packaging the argument and presenting it to a new audience. What can the new presentation give your new audience that they wouldn’t be able to get from the previous one? What do they gain? This can be either the addition of necessary background information that was assumed in the original paper, the augmentation of the paper with new arguments, responses to criticisms raised to the previous paper, discussion of how the subject of the paper is relevant to the interests of the new audience, etc.

There is no hard-and-fast quantitative guideline that can be given as to “How much overlap is too much.” Any attempt to give such a quantitative rule (“75% is too much”; “50% is too much”; “25% is too much”; “any is too much”) could only be justified by circling back to the motivation behind both of the questions above. These questions arise from the stand-point that plagiarism is bad — a foundation that I think all agree on. In my opinion, whether the work being plagiarised belongs to the person who is plagiarising or to another does not really matter: The standards of what counts as plagiarism should be the same in both cases. (I know not everyone agrees with this, and invite dissenting arguments in the comments!) But before one can say “how much (self-plagiarism) is too much”, we need to first consider why plagiarism is frowned on, because this differs between self- and non-self-plagiarism. Plagiarising someone else’s thoughts is an attempt to appropriate for your own credit something due to someone else. Plagiarising your own thoughts is an attempt to receive credit twice for the same idea.

This gives us an important distinction for the question of “how much is too much”: Ideas. There is a qualitative difference between self-plagiarism of arguments and self-plagiarism of expository matter, with the former being significantly more problematic than the latter. In fact, for the most part, the latter is going to be almost completely unproblematic, so long as it is restricted in amount and the other guidelines I suggest above taken into account, and this is because if you’re writing more than one paper in the same subject material, there is no way to escape the need to present the same expository information in more than one paper. But in a profession like philosophy where publications matter so much, a problem arises in when there is an appearance that an author is attempting to double-dip, that is, to get two papers for the “price” of a single idea.* So what you want to do is show — both to your reader and to the editor — that you are cognizant of this, and you are trying to offer more than the same paper repackaged different.

The moral of the story: Cite your sources. Be explicit about what you are re-using. Say how the derivative piece goes beyond the original. Document, document, document, and then let the editor make the final decision as to whether there is too much overlap. Then the question becomes not one of “does this paper exhibit plagiarism” but one of “does this paper provide sufficient new and interesting content to warrant publication?”


*. This is a norm that differs from field to field. In computer science, for example, it is completely routine for large portions of papers published in conference proceedings to be lifted with minimal change into journal articles which extend the conference results substantially. But these cases are nevertheless still explicitly marked: The journal article will include in its acknowledgements or in the introduction a statement that it is an extended version of one or more conference papers, with full citations.


Preparing a Manuscript for Anonymous Review

A nuts and bolts type post about best practices:

The submission process for most journals includes the request that the author prepare their submission for anonymous review. This step ensures that referees, and editors in triple anonymous reviewed journals, can’t discover the identity of the author simply by reading the submission.

While some aspects of preparing a manuscript for blind review are universally known (e.g., delete your name from the first page), many are not. And for some aspects, there may be disagreement about best practices. So how should you prepare your manuscript, aside from the obvious step of removing your name from the paper?

Acknowledgements: Many authors include acknowledgements or thanks to those who helped them in their papers, perhaps as a first or last footnote. These should be entirely deleted, and replaced with something that indicates they were removed, like “Acknowledgments removed”. But in my view this should also include any time an individual is recognized as contributing to the paper throughout. You might want to thank a person at a particular point in the paper, rather than general acknowledgements. Those should be edited as well. Even such remarks as “Jane Smith pointed out to me in conversation . . .” should be edited, in my view, since such remarks may inadvertently cause the reader to discover your identity. (Some sub-disciplines are small, and now the referee knows that the author is not Jane Smith, for example.) Something as simple as “[Name removed] pointed out to me in conversation . . .” works well.

Document Properties: Word processing software often automatically, perhaps without even your knowledge, include your name, institution, email or other identifying marks in the meta-data of the file you submit. You can find this information in the document properties. For example, open a Microsoft Word document that you created on your computer, go to file>properties, and you may see this information. If it’s there, it’s easy to delete, and preparing your submission for anonymous review should include this step. (The way to delete these properties, and the ease with which it can be done, differs from software to software.) In spite of including specific instruction to authors to check for this information, probably half of the submissions to Res Philosophica include them. (We had to set up a process where the Editorial Manager checks for this, before sending the submission to the Editor.)

Self-citation: Often you want to cite your own prior work. Indeed, in research projects, you are often building on previous work, and so you need to cite your own work. But for anonymous review you have to anonymize those references. Standardly, this is done as I suggested above for acknowledgements. So instead of “As I argue in Jacobs 2011 . . .”, you would have “As I argue in [citation removed] . . .” Again, though, doing it this way, especially in a small sub-field, can often lead to the author being identified by the referee, since the referee knows, for example, that all the authors who are named in the submission’s bibliography are not the author of the submission. (I’ve even seen bibliographies that leave the author’s own entries in alphabetical order, but with the details deleted, so that it’s clear the author’s last name begins with, say, “M”.)

In light of this, it seems to me that there is a better way to handle self-citation: Edit the paper so as to not use first person in self-citation contexts. So instead of changing “As I argue in Jacobs 2011 . . .” to “As I argue in [citation removed] . . .”, you would change it to “As Jacobs (2011) argues . . .” This does require a bit more editing on the part of the author, but it does seem to avoid the worries that simply deleting the author’s name raises. It’s not perfect, but initially I’m inclined to think it’s the best way to handle self-citation.

What do you think? Is that the best way to handle self-citation? Are there other issues to think about when preparing a manuscript for blind review?

Conflicts of Interest

[Micro-intro: I’m a new author on this blog. I’m Carrie Jenkins, one of the editors of Thought. Hi!]

Wesley Buckwalter writes, via our Suggest a Topic page:

It would be very helpful to hear a discussion concerning editorial and referee conflicts of interest. For instance, there are many potential kinds of conflicts of interest in reviewing (author is your PI, history of co-authorship, shared grant, same department, etc) with seemingly no consensus in philosophy which are appropriate or inappropriate when issuing invitations of review. I frequently receive invitations in which I declare even remote/perceived conflicts, or sometimes even feel that I must decline in light of them. I realize it is difficult to recruit referees, but this seems like an issue essential for quality of review, and something we should have transparent consensus both from the perspective of editor and reviewer response?

The first issue this raises in my mind is that of anonymity. If a reviewer is in a position to declare a conflict of interest, then there is no possibility of anonymous review, and that is an issue independently of the conflict of interest. In my experience, there is little by way of disciplinary consensus regarding when non-anonymous reviewing is acceptable. There do exist areas of philosophy in which expertise is so limited that the only alternative to non-anonymous review is non-expert review. The rest, I take it, is a matter of judgment calls.

Qua editor, I would say it is best practice for reviewers to declare to editors if they know who the author of a paper is, especially (but not only) if they feel that there could be a conflict of interest. In some circumstances they might still be the best (and/or only) person available, but it really helps if editors know that there could be an issue, so that they can ask someone else wherever possible.

Further thoughts/discussion welcome!