Plagiarism is a gross academic misconduct that should be treated with zero tolerance. Merriam-Webster defines plagiarism as “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person”. However, every now and then I hear a colleague worrying about self-plagiarism — usually related to their own work (and not as accusations of what others are doing). My answer is always the same:
There is no self-plagiarism.
There can be no such thing as self-plagiarism. The term typically refers to publishing one’s own work more than once, using partly or even wholly a previously published text. Yet, as the above definition suggests, you cannot steal intellectual achievements from yourself.
Publishing the same material several times can violate copyright agreements and journal editorial policies, and it is unlikely to be appreciated by academic colleagues. But these should not be confused with plagiarism that undermines the way academic knowledge production is motivated. The problem with the word ‘self-plagiarism’ is that it draws issues that we should be able to discuss into a toxic zone that shuns meaningful debate.
For instance, what are ‘different enough’ results that merit another publication or whether it is really necessary to describe, for instance, the same dataset differently in every publication are matters of opinion. Is it really so important that you write: “we did 56 semi-structured interviews with organizational members…” in one publication and then “the authors conducted over fifty interviews among employees using a semi-structured approach…” in another paper not to self-plagiarise? We cannot always avoid taking a position with respect to such questions in our work — yet, at the moment it is better to pretend that no such issues exist, since nobody wants to be seen as defending plagiarism.
Getting rid of the word self-plagiarism would contribute to making space for more nuanced discussions on what makes a novel enough paper instead of just selling old wine in a new bottle. Yet, I may be fighting a losing battle here–Merriam-Webster has already an entry for self-plagiarism that is defined as “the reuse of one’s own words, ideas, or artistic expression (as in an essay) from preexisting material especially without acknowledgment of their earlier use”. Thus, even if the annoying word may not go away any time soon, we should keep reminding ourselves that plagiarism and self-plagiarism are two different things and must not be haphazardly equated.