Originality sin? Self-citation and self-plagiarism (Helen Young)

Photo by Brooke Lark | unsplash.com
Knowing what to do when it comes to referencing your own publications can be difficult, even for experienced researchers.

Self-citation is sometimes seen as a kind of self-promotion that ‘good’ researchers should not do. But the real issue when it comes to deciding whether or not to reference is audience, not authorship.

According to the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2007) “researchers must ensure that they cite other relevant work appropriately and accurately when disseminating research findings” (section 4.6).

This doesn’t only apply to the work of others. If you have been working in a particular field for any length of time then it is extremely likely that you are building on something you have published already in current work. As Sam Cooke and Michael Donaldson have argued we can think of self-citation as “an inevitable outcome of a cohesive and sustained research program.”

Citations give credit where it is due, but they are also there for readers who want to follow up on, and understand more about, a particularly idea, set of data, etc.

Might your readers benefit from the citation? To quote the Code, is a publication “other relevant work?” If it is, then you should cite it, no matter who wrote it.

This might sound too easy. In many fields, there are literally hundreds of publications that might be “relevant.” So, how can you decide if your own are the best ones to include? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer.

The principle of blind peer-review is a good reference point to bring up here. Peer-reviewers don’t know the names of authors so that each piece of writing can be judged on its own merits, not by reputation, friendship, or other personal factors.

Of course, we can’t cite ‘blind’ in quite the same way, but we can put the same principle into action and think about the publication itself, not the author(s). You could ask yourself: “Would I cite this if someone else wrote it?”. From another perspective, you could ask yourself: “Would I feel like I was plagiarising if it was by someone else and I didn’t cite it?”. If the answer to either question is “yes” then you should probably include the reference.

Managing self-citation can get even trickier when you are directly quoting your own words rather than pointing to another publication that expands on a particular idea. It’s very common to write about the same topic in more than one place.

If you write blog post, a journal article, and a book chapter around the same topic is it OK to re-use sections of text without including quotation marks and a reference across two, or even all three of them?

Again, there is no perfect rule that applies in all situations. Some commentators say that it is impossible to self-plagiarise because you cannot steal your own ideas. This justification for re-using text (or perhaps images) takes a very limited view of what citations are all about. It assumes that citations are all about authorship and nothing to do with the audience.

Quoting is one way of giving readers an indication of how original the publication is. Different genres have different expectations attached. Journal articles, for example, are usually expected to put forward a new piece of information or argument. It is relatively common for a chapter in a monograph or PhD thesis to be based on a previously-published article.

Even if you don’t ‘cut-and-paste’ it can be hard to find new ways to say the same thing, such as when you are describing a methodology. It can also be difficult to keep track of whether you have used particular phrases or sentences in published work before if you are drafting and re-drafting publications. Text-matching software like iThenticate can help you manage this.

You need to judge what to do about re-using your own words on a case-by-case basis.

Here are four important questions to ask yourself if you want to re-use text without directly quoting it:

  • What are the norms of this discipline? 
  • What are the conventions of the genre I am writing in (e.g. journal article, blog etc)? 
  • What are the expectations of my readers? 
  • Am I abiding by copyright regulations and the ethics of authorship? 

If you do not hold the copyright to a publication (as is the case for many academic works) then you may need to get permission to re-use text. If a publication was co-authored, you might have obligations to your collaborators as well.

Some style guides include a section on self-plagiarism that might be useful if you are trying to get a sense of what is considered the right thing to do in your discipline. Many journals have a policy on their websites, and some have published editorials on the issue, especially those in the biomedical sciences.

It can be better to think about the ‘citation’ not the ‘self’ when deciding what publications to reference. In the end, it’s your name on a publication, so you need to be comfortable with what is in it.

When and how you cite yourself is an individual decision (or a small-group one if you have co-authors). It should be an informed one as well.


Helen Young has worked in research in the humanities, social sciences, and biomedical sciences. She is currently part of the Research Education and Development Team at La Trobe, and also runs a small research consultancy https://writingresearchanalysis.com

She has previously held a Discovery Early Career Research Award at the University of Sydney (2012-2015). 

Her research interests include race and whiteness, popular culture, and historiography.


Matt439miller said…
Why not re-use text across multiple publications? After all, your wrote it, and you can hardly plagiarize yourself. Rewriting good text (so as make it less recognizable) inevitably makes it worse. Re-using text, especially from methodologies, helps standardized procedures.