On the ethics of self-plagiarism (how to roll your stone)
Imagine that you would be copy-editing a volume or a thematic issue of a journal. Imagine that there would be somewhere an incomplete footnote, a missing bibliographical element, and you would google the quote to get the exact reference. Imagine that you would then see that the paper you are copy-editing is a series of copy-pasted passages of papers or books that the author has already published, some of them years ago. What would you do? And what would you think?
I suppose that if you, the copy-editor, are in a stable institutional position and the author is in a hierarchically equal or inferior one, you can explain to the author that you can’t decently print something that is, in its exact formulation and punctuation, printed elsewhere. But my guess is that, more often than it should be the case, the opposite happens. Because odds are that it is the PhD candidates who get to do this kind of tedious copy-editing, it is them who take on the burden of conference proceedings and thematic issues with which they try to build up their profile.
In any hierarchically uneven context, I can only think of two options when confronted with such a situation: proceed as if you hadn’t seen a thing or go tell the boss in the hope that (s)he will side with you. But when shock and psychodrama have come to rest, you are still there with all the questions. How is it only possible to make any kind of sense out of that? It is wrong to find it wrong?
For one thing, it is incredibly easy to notice plagiarism in any form nowadays. We use google to control our students’ honesty, so why not use it to control our colleagues’ publications? Is it too naive to simply wonder about the changes in the referencing system, in the fonts, in the course of a paper, and not look deeper into it? Certainly. We have to be suspicious, always. Or refuse to be suspicious, and accept papers as the authors submit them. Which comes down to saying that the problem lies mostly in the conception of those conference proceedings themselves, which don’t involve peer-review. Anonymous (blind) peer-review makes it possible to disclose these kind of ethical issues without engaging in hierarchical, institutional conflicts.
Alternatively, you could argue that self-plagiarism is fine. For two reasons, a bad one and a good one. The bad one: it is hardly possible to produce as many new ideas and papers as the publication system or your grant agency would like you to. It is impossible to survive, as a normal human being, in the academic jungle, without self-plagiarism. The more honorable reason would be that ideas build up on one another, that you need your last papers to conceive the new one. Any scholarly construction is a long-time story in which you roll the stones of your ideas in all possible directions, until two fit together, add to a third one, etc., until, in the end, if you are lucky, it somehow makes sense in the bigger picture.
Then there is the “how” of self-plagiarism. To me, self-plagiarism seems somewhat acceptable if you do something different with the idea, roll your stone more to the left, or to the right.
Mostly, this made me realize one more time how relative scholarly work ethics really are and how difficult it is to accept that it is so, instead of having the same criteria for everyone. Those who publish more are not necessarily those who write more or have more of the new ideas that will really foster science. The ethics of scholarly reputation follow their own logic.