3 Questions About Text Recycling

In August, the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) hosted a webinar about text recycling. Members of the Text Recycling Research Project (TRRP) presented on (1) current definitions and standards on text recycling, (2) the results of an opinion poll from gatekeepers in scholarly publishing, and (3) what American law says on the topic.

1. What is “text recycling”? ​​​​​​​

According to presenter Cary Moskovitz (Lead PI, Professor of Practice and Director of Writing in the Disciplines, Thompson Writing Program, Duke University), it varies: organizations have different definitions as well as different ideas of when it is acceptable, if acceptable at all. The term “self-plagiarism” has been used in the past, but “text recycling” is preferred now because it doesn’t have such a negative connotation.

  • The COPE Text Recycling Guidelines for Editors define text recycling as “when sections of the same text appear (usually un-attributed) in more than one of an author’s own publications.” Per Moskovitz, text recycling usually reuses small sections of text that are revised slightly between publications.
  • A new definition of text recycling offered in the webinar was “the reuse of textual material…where…the material is identical or equivalent, the material is not presented as a quote, (and) at least one author of the new doc is also an author of the prior doc.”

But is text recycling ethical?

If the authors want to use, for example, the same methods as a previous paper, shouldn’t they just revise it to avoid plagiarism?

Moskovitz says that when text is rewritten solely to avoid text recycling, it does not improve communication: readers may have a difficult time determining what is similar or different between two articles that used similar methods if one paper worded that section in a completely different way than the other. Using the same text in both papers can make it clearer how the methods line up or differentiate.​​​​​​​

If the text is the same, though, can’t the authors just indicate that with quotation marks?

Moskovitz argues that sometimes authors should recycle rather than quote. An extensive use of quotations in a paper might be distracting or misleading, resulting in a rejected paper. For these reasons, text recycling can be useful and even preferred, according to Moskovitz. But what do different people in scholarly publishing think about this topic?

2. How does the publishing community feel about text recycling?

Michael Pemberton (Professor of Writing and Linguistics, Director of the University Writing Center, and Editor of Across the Disciplines, Georgia Southern University) presented a survey of editors and researchers across academic fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM]; social sciences; and humanities) from top English-language journals.

In answer to the question “Is text recycling always unacceptable?” most respondents said no (in other words, that text recycling was sometimes acceptable).

  • However, the source material affected how acceptable people thought it was.
  • More people were OK with recycling text from conference papers and grant proposals than published proceedings and journal articles. It seemed that if the original material had a small audience or was thought of as a “work in progress,” it was considered more acceptable to recycle.
  • Moskovitz also pointed out that things like conference proceedings might be thought of as prepublications in fields like engineering but final publications in computer science, so norms may vary across disciplines.

Then there’s the question of authorship.

Most survey respondents said that if the author bylines for both publications were exactly the same, it would be OK to recycle text from one paper to another. It was also mostly accepted if at least one author was the same on both papers and all authors gave permission. However, there were more mixed responses if the authors didn’t give permission or the papers were from the same research project but all authors were different.​​​​​​​

What say the editors?

In addition to the survey, more thorough interviews were conducted with journal editors. A couple points of interest that came up were that sometimes their practices as editors and teachers conflicted with their beliefs: editors sometimes enforced stricter rules about text recycling than they thought were actually necessary. In addition, many editors were concerned about copyright law without being fully knowledgeable about it.

David R. Hansen (Associate University Librarian for Research, Collections and Scholarly Communications, Lead Copyright and Information Policy Office, Duke University Libraries) provided a legal perspective on the issue. Hansen emphasized that the TRRP is currently mostly focused on American law, but “where you are and where the use happens matters a lot.” In the United States, said Hansen, you can’t sue someone for plagiarism, but you can sue them for copyright infringement. If research funding is involved and there are rules about the use of material, that may constitute legal action.

In scholarly publishing specifically, typical contract terms give almost all of the authors’ rights to the publisher, although they may retain more rights with open access articles. Publisher contracts tend to vary in what kind of information they provide and what use they allow. Some journal contracts are actually stricter than American fair use law, whereas some are less specific and leave fair use up to interpretation by the authors.

Where do we go from here?

According to TRRP, there are many disparate opinions on text recycling, and there is a need for more standardized information. As TRRP continues research, they plan to develop new model guidelines, policy statements, contract language, and educational materials. The general opinion on text recycling may continue to change as research and standards advance.


Article contribution by J&J Copy Editor Carson Risser.

Thank you to Stephanie Boyter, Emily Hammond, and Catie Sharpe for their helpful feedback and edits.