Common Misconceptions about Text Recycling in Scientific Writing

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Among the fundamental principles of scientific publishing, originality is one of the most important. Every manuscript is expected to offer a unique contribution, something clearly different from what has already been published. We typically think about originality in terms of a paper's content: What does this manuscript add to the knowledge of the field? An article may offer some fundamentally new idea or evidence that substantially alters the field, but more often, advances are incremental.

An example of such incremental advances is a series of articles investigating a new vaccine. Many papers are published before a promising vaccine gets to the stage of clinical trials. Then there will be many more studies: safety studies; pilot studies; studies on different populations, such as adults and children; studies about the efficacy of varying dosages; and so on. If done well, each new paper will offer important insights and inform future research. But from one study to the next, some things will stay the same: the essential problem being studied, the relevant prior research, the biochemistry of the vaccine, the method of vaccine delivery, and so on.

This overlap in content raises a question about writing that has troubled both researchers and editors: When is it acceptable for researchers to repeat material from their own prior papers? Prior to the digitization of written communication, the duplication of material between scientific articles must often have gone unnoticed. It certainly wasn't a topic of discussion in the realm of research ethics. But with the growth of digital communication came online plagiarism detection tools, and these identify overlapping material regardless of whether the prior work was written by the same authors or someone else. Concern over what came to be called self-plagiarism was amplified by the companies selling these tools. They could market the software to publishers to flag papers with overlapping text and then sell the same tool to universities for researchers to use to identify (and therefore change) overlapping material before submitting the manuscript so it wouldn't get flagged (Moskovitz and Colton 2021).