In 2020 we hosted a webinar with invited speakers from the Text Recycling Research Project (TRRP) to hear about their latest findings, and the ethical and practical issues involved in establishing good practice and effective policy.
Cary Moskovitz explains TRRP's current definition of Text Recycling and the differing perspectives on when text recycling is or is not appropriate. Michael Pemberton shares key points of TRRPs research to date, and David Hansen talks about the legal and ethical standards associated with text recycling.
Questions with answers from the Text Recycling Research Project team
We had time for questions at the end of the webinar, some of which you can hear on the video, some of which we didn't have time to answer. Cary, David and Michael were kind enough to answer some of those we couldn't get to, after the webinar:
1. If a publisher requires you to sign a document that your submission is original and has not been published elsewhere, doesn't this require that any recycled text must be cited?
Great question, with no clear answer. This is one of the major issues we are working on in developing our new model text recycling policies. Publishers (and even individual journal editors) have different views regarding what is considered an “original” submission. That said, our sense is that most editors in science, technical, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields believe that “originality” means a novel intellectual contribution—rather than that every single sentence in the paper is unique to that work. Unfortunately, journal policies do not generally make explicit statements about how authors should be transparent about the presence of recycled material in their manuscripts.
And while most publishers and scholarly organizations state that recycled materials should be cited, even this is not universal. The American Psychological Association’s current style guide notes that if the amount of recycled material is small and the authors feel that citing their prior work may result in excessive self-citation (a different ethical issue), authors are not required to cite that recycled material.
2. What about the reuse of abstracts and copyright? These seem to have a de facto status of fair use (they appear on PubMed and many other websites). Can we say that reusing abstracts is always fair use?
Within United States law, we cannot imagine a situation in which recycling an abstract from a journal article would not be a fair use.
3. Chapters of MS thesis and PhD dissertations are often written in manuscript form and submitted as such to a journal. Is this permissible and not text recycling?
First, we strongly believe that the term “text recycling” should be used as a neutral term. Text Recycling may be acceptable, even desirable, or inappropriate and unethical--and possibly illegal. If text recycling is used to infer inappropriate use, then we do not have a term to name the practice generally.
Second, to answer your question, reuse of any prior material falls under our definition of text recycling. Whether it is permissible depends, ultimately, on the specific language of the publisher. I am increasingly seeing publishers make explicit allowances for the re use of thesis and dissertation materials. I also believe that in stem disciplines, such reuse is generally considered both ethical and even professionally desirable. I expect that our model guidelines will be including such explicit permission for students to recycle material without limitations between theses and dissertations and these students’ other written products such as journal articles and books.
4. Can the presenters clarify why these guidelines wouldn't be broadly applicable to all disciplines?
First, while two of our published studies have included broad populations across the academic disciplinary spectrum, the focus of our work is on STEM fields. Thus, we may not have sufficient empirical evidence to speak authoritatively about text recycling norms broadly. Second, while our studies have not shown strong disciplinary differences in norms and practices, there are some discipline specific matters that would apply to some fields and not to others. Because text recycling is such a complex issue— including ethical, legal, and practical dimensions— our work currently is focused on helping sort out things in STEM fields and to develop useful guidelines and policy documents there.
5. For systematic reviews and meta-analyses it is inevitable that in order to describe the studies in the reviews, we have to describe verbatim the approach used in the analysis. This is important where the research design, methods of data collection and analysis have implications for the strength of the evidence presented. However, if it is only a short phrase here and there, do we still have to use quotations even if we cite the reference to the original text?
First, I question the underlying premise about the need for verbatim repetition of methods in a review article. While there might be some need to repeat specific technical phrasings in order to not misrepresent a study, I would expect most editors would want a concise summary of those methods written in the language most easily understood by the target audience for the review. Depending on the outlet, that audience may or may not be the same as the audience for the original article. For example, the article might have been written for an audience of subspecialists, but the intended audience for the review is a more generalist or practitioner-based audience. Ultimately those are rhetorical issues; specific questions about how much to replicate verbatim passages, paraphrase to accommodate your target audience, or summarize should be worked out with the journal editor. Of course, we’re addressing here only matters regarding reusing one's own previously published material. Our work is on text recycling not plagiarism.
As far as your question about than need to place short recycled phrases in quotation marks: this is matter is inadequately articulated (and perhaps not even considered) in those publisher’s policies that state that all recycled material should be placed in quotation marks. Our sense is that most editors in STEM fields would, in fact, balk at having such passages show up as quotations in their journals. One of the issues never discussed is that placing words in quotation marks is not a neutral act. It is the nature of quotation marks to draw readers’ attention to the particular words that are quoted. That is what readers would typically expect when seeing a quotation. But the kind of phrasing that you are referring to here is not that kind of thing that authors would want readers to notice per se; instead, the quotation marks would be used solely for the purpose of avoiding accusations of ethical or legal misconduct. We will be trying to clarify this issue in our forthcoming white paper on text recycling that will accompany our model guidelines. In the meantime, I think it would be a fairly simple matter to produce a paragraph with such phrases placed in quotation marks as an example, and then send those to the editor in a pre-publication query to see what they really expect.
6. As Dr. David Hansen explained, rights are accorded to the authors as per the Fair Use sections of the law--and the publisher contracts somehow put a check on those rights as the authors give away all those rights to the publisher as per the Copyright Agreement. So does the law allow the publishers to prepare the contracts in such a way wherein all the rights are transferred to them whereas the authors have to let go of their own fair use rights? I understand that it is important for the publishers to own and control the content which is being published with them, as that helps in maintaining the quality checks associated with their publications. But I just want to understand how the law allows these two contradicting provisions. Is it possible to come to a middle ground and prepare the Copyright Agreement in a way wherein the rights of both the publisher and the authors are restored and balanced accordingly?
US law does, in fact, allow publishers to word contracts in such a way as to have authors forfeit their fair use rights. That said, we do not see this as desirable. Our thinking is that limits on how authors can recycle material from their prior publications should be handled as a matter of research ethics and disciplinary norms, rather than a legal matter. No one benefits from authors being pressed to rewrite perfectly functional prose merely to avoid the possibility of a lawsuit—especially since such legal action is highly unlikely. One of our goals in developing model language for author publisher agreements is to promote contract language that is as permissive as possible— with the explicit understanding that authors should follow Journal ethical guidelines on text recycling.
(Note: author-publisher agreements can also grant authors broader rights than fair use would allow. For one example, the Association of Computing Machinery gives authors all rights over any future work deriving from an article published with them—as long as the new work contains at least 30% new material.)
Text Recycling Research Project, update on the project March 2021
Text recycling research project, COPE European Seminar 2019, with members of the Text Recycling Research Project
Page last updated: March 2021