(Not) Self Plagiarism and Copy+Pasting Core Background Text


I’ve run out of new ways to describe antiquities trafficking background so I’m going to stop trying

My work is cross/inter/whatever-disciplinary. I regularly publish in journals and books that are aimed at a readership that is not familiar with some core, base-level definitions and concepts that I regularly use. In reverse order, my last few publications have been in journals for: archaeology, art history, geology/palaeontology, digital humanities, geography, criminology, law, justice studies, terrorism/security studies, museums studies. I have to bring in some basic concepts from discipline A, B, or C every time, foundational things, or else readers and peer reviewers simply won’t have the background they need to understand. On top of that, there are a number of core understandings and definitions related to cultural heritage crime that I simply have to put in there. Every time. I can’t refer out to prior work for this because it’s required stuff. It is “Reader, you must know this to understand anything I say and I don’t expect you to know it already”.

For years and, gosh, decades at this point I’ve been twisting and contorting these things to write them in slightly different ways for different publications. Somewhere along the way I internalised the idea that every publication I put out has to be surface different, even if this portion of the content does (and must!) say the same exact thing. Without ever thinking very hard about it, I concluded that copying and pasting this stuff would be “self plagiarism” even though no passage that I am talking about constitutes recycling of analysis or conclusions. None of it is making multiple publications out of one publication to boost my publication count. Yet I find myself copying and pasting past versions of this stuff into the new document and changing words here and there as if i was trying to evade a computer plagiarism detector.

Yesterday I hit my limit. There are no more “new” was for me to summarise the underlying base facts about antiquities trafficking. There are no more “new” was for me to define terms, list key actors and functions, and summarise the key issues involved. These are the things that I always need to include get all readers up to the base level they need to read on.

Further, I often have to summarise key criminological theories for a non criminology audience, again this is “get the reader up to speed” stuff, and if I managed to do that in a clear and concise way once, why I am breaking myself to try to find ANOTHER clear and concise way to write literally the same thing? This is a massive waste of time where there is simply no academic integrity issue here. Why am I not copying and pasting in these instances? It certainly isn’t for readers, they don’t care. Why am I wasting mental energy on this?

Donna, you ask, why don’t you just put all of this in quotation marks in the text and cite the “original” source? Well first because it would be a typesetting nightmare. Depending on this situation this can be two whole paragraphs and that looks bonkers as a big, unneeded block quote. It would distract from the vital content. See these could not be references to past “discussion” or anything like that. The papers I would be referring to likely have little relation to the paper I am writing. These are simply good and clear capturing of foundational concepts. Also, in some circumstances, these blocks of text have citations to other things, so I would end up having citations in the block quote that are core citations that need to be in my bibliography etc etc. All told I just don’t understand WHY I would be putting this in a full page block quote. It serves zero purpose. There is no reason for the reader to go back to the likely unrelated text to follow the citation. The fact that it was previously published doesn’t justify or validate the content in any way. There’s no requirement to acknowledge the prior work because I’m the scholar who did that prior writing…and the writing isn’t analytical or research based anyway.

So…I am going to start copying and pasting in these instances. I’m just going to start doing it. Unless there is a structural reason related to later argument that requires me to change the focus, I am going to just use the same wording for this stuff again and again. Let’s see what happens. It may really be nothing. Unless someone out there is reading all my publications back to back, I doubt they will notice because, really these passage already all say the same thing, just with different words. If anyone does notice while reading, well, I expect the nature of the content will make the situation obvious and non troubling. Y’all don’t care, right? No, I know you don’t. You probably are thinking you want to do this too.

The only problem I foresee is that the plagiarism software that publishers use might flag me as plagiarising me. A good editor would look at what was copied and think “yeah, okay, I get it”. However I can imagine a situation where I need to explain myself. I can imagine sending the editor or publisher this blog entry. Hi future journal folks!