The Dos and Don'ts of Text Recycling

April 25, 2022

Publishing is an integral part of a researcher’s development; it is not only important for validating one’s work but for expanding the knowledge base in your field of research. A nerve-wracking aspect of publishing is the peer review process. When a researcher/author submits their manuscripts for publication, they anticipate that experts in their field will review their submission and provide feedback on its novelty, accuracy and even its general interest. They also expect the originality of their manuscript to be assessed; therefore, authors are careful to avoid text recycling/self-plagiarism and plagiarism.

The Dos and Don'ts of Text Recycling
The Dos and Don'ts of Text Recycling
Source: Hendia Edmund

In recent years, opinions about the definition and use of recycled text have been fervently debated amongst authors and publishers alike, prompting leaders in the field to evaluate if, when and where text recycling may be appropriate. Below is a crash course on the ethics of text recycling and some basic practices for scientific writing, designed to help authors navigate publishing scientific research.

What is Text Recycling? 

Text recycling, also known as self-plagiarism, refers to the repurposing of text by an author from a previous publication in a new manuscript. This practice often includes, but is not limited to, the reuse of language from the author’s published research paper, dissertation and/or book without citation.
As the use of plagiarism detection software, like Turnitin and iThenticate, becomes a publishing standard, the debate over the ethics of text recycling has increased. Although, sentiments have slowly evolved on text recycling, a glaring roadblock has emerged—, the lack of consensus around guidelines for appropriate text recycling. Additionally, researchers continue to express concerns about how the pervasive use of text recycling may unfairly inflate an author’s publication record (by churning out multiple manuscripts that are only cosmetically different) and potentially breach author-publisher contracts. Meanwhile, groups like the Text Recycling Research Project (TRRP) have argued that limited text recycling, in the introduction and/or methods and materials sections of papers, is both acceptable, and unlikely to pose legal risk by breaching author-publisher contracts.
TRRP is a National Science Foundation-funded, multi-institution and multidisciplinary research project that performed the first comprehensive investigation on text recycling in STEM research. In its mission to educate both researchers and editors on text recycling, TRRP suggests that editors rethink their distaste for text recycling and take a more nuanced approach when evaluating text overlap in submissions. 

Plagiarism vs. Text Recycling

Unlike text recycling, the writing community defines plagiarism—as the uncredited use of someone else’s published ideas, text or images and considers the practice to be unacceptable in scientific writing and publishing. Flagrant and/or recurrent incidents by an author may trigger an institutional research misconduct investigation and can potentially lead to a ban by the publisher. Plagiarism is so broadly condemned that the term “text recycling” is preferred by advocates in place of self-plagiarism to avoid the confusion and stigma surrounding plagiarism. Another difference between text recycling and plagiarism is that, according to TRRP, there are several forms of text recycling, ranging from acceptable and ethical to illegal.

Developmental Recycling
Developmental recycling is the repurposing of text from unpublished documents, like a conference talk, poster or grant proposal. This practice is generally acceptable, unless the original document is widely available or is the product of a “work-for-hire” agreement, which would require written authorization for use by the author’s employer.

Generative Recycling
Generative recycling involves an author reusing language to describe methods or research summaries from their previous publication. The ethics and legality of this practice depend on whether the author disclosed the recycled text and how much recycled text appears in the author’s new manuscript. 

Adaptive Publication
Adaptive publication occurs when an author modifies the entirety or portions of their published work to suit a specific target audience or discipline. A translation, opinion piece or blog based on an author’s previous publication is considered an adaptive publication. This practice is only acceptable if the author acknowledges the adapted material and has permission from the owner of the original publication.

Duplicate/Redundant Publications
Duplicate/redundant publications are republications of one’s previous work with little to no modifications for a similar audience/discipline. This is rarely acceptable given that the original publication is undisclosed, thus editors and readers are deceived into believing that the author’s new work is original. Additionally, duplicate/redundant publications likely breach author-publisher agreements or violate copyright agreements.


A Case for Text Recycling

Reputable scientific publishers are committed to maintaining the scientific record and ensuring that readers have access to accurate, representative data. Publishers like the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) develop and provide robust resources for authors that address common unethical issues in publishing. For example, ASM Journals Publishing Ethics Checklist dedicates an entire section to how to “avoid plagiarism, including self-plagiarism/text recycling.” The inclusion of text recycling as a practice to avoid on publishing ethics checklists reveals that despite the efforts of groups like TRRP, the stigma associated with text recycling persists.

However, even the ASM Journals Publishing Ethics Checklist states that “verbatim text is allowed in the Materials and Methods section, provided the information is cited appropriately.” This is a form of generative recycling. ASM also allows developmental recycling since the reuse of text from conference materials, like abstracts/poster presentations and preprints with appropriate citations is permitted. These allowances suggest that authors can recycle text in new submissions within strict, specified parameters.

It is important to acknowledge how rare it is to find a manuscript without some recycled text. A 2020 publication on text recycling in STEM evaluated 400 published papers and found approximately 3 recycled sentences per article, with only 15% of research groups engaging in significant text recycling. This suggests that researchers regularly reuse text from their previous work and are more likely to alter recycled text rather than reuse large portions of verbatim language.

There are multiple reasons why an author recycles text. For example, it may be efficient for an author to recycle text that describes a model organism, signaling pathway or summarizing results from their previous work in a new submission if it expands upon the same subject matter. Text recycling is more common in STEM than other disciplines because researchers generally study closely related topics where one study builds upon their previously published work. The results and/or conclusion of an author’s published work often informs their future studies. This kind of incremental knowledge building requires appropriate context, including a rehashing/restating of published research.

To some extent, the nature of how scientific research is conducted makes the practice of text recycling hard to avoid. Prior to submitting a manuscript for publication, researchers have likely produced multiple documents outlining their study, from an Institutional Review Board protocol, grant proposal/report, to conference posters/talks, that are publicly available. The information in these documents is often integral to an author’s study and should be incorporated into their manuscript.

A request by an editor to rework recycled text for further consideration by a journal mainly results in authors making superficial revisions by using synonyms or changing syntax. An author may even remove pertinent information to reduce the amount of recycled text in their manuscript to address editor concerns. Superficial changes such as these can impact the overall quality of the author’s work, the text may become less engaging and harder to understand, particularly if text was removed. In fact, TRRP argues that text recycling may be a more ethical option than superficial or cosmetic rewording, since the purpose of reworking recycled language is to conceal the reused text from the reader. Additionally, text recycling may be preferable since using consistent language in documents/publications regarding an author’s area of research ensures accuracy and broadens understanding of the work.

Guidelines on Text Recycling in Scientific Writing

TRRP conducted interviews with editors and editorial boards in STEM disciplines on the ethics of text recycling and concluded that transparency is paramount when authors decide to reuse language from their previous publications. Ethical concerns around text recycling (developmental and generative recycling) mainly arise when authors fail to cite or disclose that text in the manuscript has been previously published. As the landscape on the ethics of text recycling changes it is important that consensus is reached on appropriate text recycling. TRRP has outlined some best practices for text recycling in scientific writing. Using that framework along with the recommendations for editors and publishers by COPE in collaboration with BioMed Central, researchers can more confidently navigate text recycling ethics in scientific writing (see below). These guidelines can orient authors; however, it is important that authors work with publishers to ensure that valuable research is available to the scientific community in a manner that is ethical and accurate.

Researcher Guidelines on Text Recycling.
Researcher Guidelines on Text Recycling.
Source: Hendia Edmund