I heard recently that some reviewers for journals and conferences have started using plagiarism-prevention tools such as turnitin.com when reviewing submitted manuscripts. I think it’s kind of sad that these reviewers think this is necessary, though I suppose it’s worse if it actually is necessary. But the issue of plagiarism aside, what I’m wondering about is this: scholarly publications are supposed to be original contributions to the scholarly literature. But how original is original?

Here are 2 copyright statements from the author instructions for 2 of the major journals in LIS:

“Only original papers will be accepted…”
“Submission of an article implies that the work described has not been published previously…”

I’ve always thought that you can’t plagiarize your own writing, but now I’m not so sure. I’ll fess up: I’ve been known to reuse sentences or even entire paragraphs from one paper to another. For example, for a project like the NCknows evaluation, the background of the project doesn’t change. The project involved 18 libraries, it was coordinated by the SLNC, etc. The specifics of the part of the evaluation I’m writing about will change. But the background remains consistent. Maybe I’m lazy, but I don’t completely rewrite that background material every time, from scratch. I’ll tweak a word here or there, alter sentence structure maybe, if I decide I don’t like how I wrote something the first time. But if I could have written it much better the first time, I would have. Am I violating either the spirit or the letter of “no prior publication”?

Here’s the thing that bothers me: the intellectual content of a paper is in the conceptualization, methodology, results, analysis, & interpretation. Background material is just context, more or less intellectually content-free. Am I running the risk of being penalized by some overzealous reviewer for reusing this trivial material? Ideally, I’d like to not even have to include that material in a paper. Especially not for conference papers & journals with word limits; that’s 500 or so words right there that I’d get back. I’d like to be able to just link to it or something: “For background on this project, click here. Now, moving on to the interesting stuff…” Modular scholarly writing.

Of course, if I were to reuse material from the conceptualization, methodology, results, analysis, or interpretation, that’s different. That would be presenting the same ideas more than once as an original contribution. So that’s off-limits. But even there, I can see a situation where it might make sense. What about a paragraph in the discussion section, say, where I write about implications for library work. Maybe two different studies that I do have the same implications: comments made by both users and librarians point to a need for better marketing of the service, for example. Do I write up thse implications from scratch in each case? This is an even bigger issue for Big Science than it is for my own personal work, I’d think. In an interdisciplinary project where publications are being sent to journals in multiple fields, all writing needs to be original, even if you want to say the same things to different audiences?

Which brings me to my point here. Are these reviewers just being overzealous? Or are we entering an era of scholarship where it will be so easy to detect plagiarized or recycled material that all scholarship will have to be really an original contribution? And I mean 100% original, every word. This would probably cut down on a lot of scholarly publishing, which heavens knows would be a good thing. But it would considerably raise the bar for writing & publishing. And there’s an end to the Least Publishable Unit. And how do you evaluate the originality of a contribution? Will authors be held to fair use standards for reusing their own work?