I’m a new assistant professor, and I’m happy to say that I’m getting ready to submit the first papers from my independent lab. The papers use methods I developed and published as a postdoc, and also include work from a really productive collaboration with a colleague in my new department. But I’d like your advice about a problem that has come up as we put the finishing touches to the manuscript. In the methods section, I want to include descriptions of methods that were published in the papers from my postdoc. Since we did not change the methods, the description will be substantially the same as the methods in the published paper. My collaborator ran the manuscript through plagiarism detection software, which, of course, shows a high degree of similarity for the methods section. She says this is self-plagiarism and wants me to completely rewrite the methods or just cite the original paper. I disagree. What does Labby think about this issue?
Thank you for raising this important issue. Labby has encountered a great deal of confusion over this topic, and there are differing opinions, as you have discovered.
Labby believes that accurate and easily accessible methods and protocols are vital to advancing the field and to the integrity of the scientific literature. When methods are not easily accessible to some scientists it holds their research back, such as when the methods were published behind a paywall in a journal that’s not open access.
Your colleague has raised the issue of self-plagiarism. The problem with self-plagiarism occurs when you represent something that you’ve copied from previous work as something new and novel, in a way that gives people the idea that you’ve been more productive than you actually have been. However, when you use the same methods in several publications, you’re not necessarily claiming that those methods are new; you may be including them for the convenience of the reader, who will be able to see what you’ve done without having to dig back into previous publications. If you rewrite the methods, as your colleague has suggested, it may actually be misleading to readers, making it look like you’ve used different methods in the papers, whereas they are, in fact, identical.
Labby would like to suggest some approaches you could discuss with your colleague. First, check the journal where you’re planning to submit the manuscript. It may have clear guidelines on this issue, and you will want to follow them if it does. Second, you will need to check whether there are any copyright terms that might be violated if you use the text from the original publication. Third, are the methods from the previous paper open access and available in a way that would make it easy for readers of the new paper to quickly access them?
If you feel that using the same description of the methods in the new paper is the best, most accurate way to describe what was done (and you really haven’t changed anything), be transparent about what you are doing. Labby considers it acceptable to reproduce the description from the earlier paper, but to state explicitly that this is what you are doing (in addition, of course, to citing the original paper). That way, there is no question of you appearing to pass off the text as something new or claiming novelty for the method. The reviewers, editors, and readers will know exactly what is going on, and the scientific literature will be an accurate and transparent representation of the work. There are some good resources online that discuss the issues with “text recycling,” including the National Science Foundation–funded Text Recycling Research Project (https://textrecycling.org).
If the original methods are not open access, Labby believes you should strongly consider making them accessible with this new publication. Does the journal you intend to submit to make the methods section freely accessible from the start? Should you consider writing a methods paper including these methods for an open access outlet, such as BioRxiv or one of the open access methods journals (although you will have to pay a fee to publish)?
Labby hopes you are able to come to an agreement with your colleague, and that your lab will continue to flourish.