Do you really have to rewrite your Methods for every new paper?

Image: Recycling logo by gustavorezende, released to public domain

Warning: long post.  There’s a TL;DR in the Summary at the end.

Is recycling Methods text from an old paper, to use in a new paper that applies the same techniques, efficient writing – or self-plagiarism?

We’ve all had the dilemma.  You write two papers that use (at least some of) the same methods.  For the first paper, you craft a lovely, succinct, clear explanation of those methods.  For the second paper, you’d like to just cut-and-paste the Methods text from the first one.  Can you?  And should you?

I’m sorry, but I think the answer is usually “no”*.

It’s an old, old question, but it still gets asked.  A quick googling (try “self plagiarism methods”) will find you lots of material to read.  The problem is, I’ve seen few answers that seem convincingly complete.  Even more unhelpfully, many seem to be written by folks who have very strong opinions in one direction or the other.  Often, a promising answer will turn into an indignant insistence that of course you can reuse your own words, and that the term “self-plagiarism” is nonsensical because plagiarism is intellectual theft, and you can’t steal from yourself.   I certainly understand where this indignation is coming from, but I don’t think it holds up to careful examination.  We’re going to try some of that (careful examination, not indignation, I mean), below.

I think there are three major pieces to any careful argument about reusing Methods text.  You have to consider all three before coming to a decision about whether reusing Methods text is a good idea.  Roughly, #1 and #2 determine whether you can reuse text, while #3 is about whether you should.  Here they are:

1. Copyright

This is the most obvious point and the one most online arguments turn on.  Important note: I am not a copyright lawyer, and none of this constitutes legal advice.

For many published papers, copyright is not held by the authors; rather, it’s assigned to the journal (or its publisher)**.  If your paper falls into this category, then no, you can’t reuse “your own words” in another paper; in a sense, they aren’t “your own” words any more.  Reusing text that’s under someone else’s copyright is surely plagiarism, even if you are the original writer of that text!

Of course, for other published papers the authors retain copyright.  If your paper is one of these, can you reuse the Methods text?  Sometimes, to be sure.  But you might have retained copyright but executed a license with the journal that would be violated by reusing text.  More interestingly, what if you had co-authors?  In the U.S., at least, coauthors would be joint holders of copyright, and it seems that one coauthor can probably reuse the material as long as any commercial proceeds (ha!) are shared. Whether this is true worldwide, I don’t know.  And what if that reuse involves assigning copyright to the publisher of the second paper?  Would all coauthors of the first paper have to assent?  I don’t know that either, but the important point is probably just that the legal weeds have the potential to grow thick.

2. Journal policies

Having the legal right to reuse text isn’t the end of the story.  Journal policies may preclude reuse of Methods text even when the author has clear control over the copyright.  For example, here’s a statement from the journal Applications in Plant Sciences, which prohibits reuse of text (outside some narrow and limited circumstances) even if such reuse is legal.  Now, you might well insist that if you own the copyright, you’re legally entitled to reuse your text – but even if that’s true, you aren’t legally entitled to have your paper accepted by Applications in Plant Sciences (or by any other journal holding a similar policy).  Journals are free to hold any number of editorial policies (they can prohibit use of the letter “w” if they like); you are equally free not to submit to them.

While it isn’t a journal policy, the guidelines on text recycling from the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) are worth reading.  These guidelines are essentially advice offered to journals.  Here’s the core of COPE’s advice:

“Use of similar or identical phrases in methods sections where there are limited ways to describe a method is not unusual; in fact text recycling may be unavoidable when using a technique that the author has described before and it may actually be of value when a technique that is common to a number of papers is described. Editors should use their discretion and knowledge of the field when deciding how much text overlap is acceptable in the methods section.”

and

“The reuse of a few sentences is clearly different to the verbatim reuse of several paragraphs of text…” (COPE 2016)

This is more permissive than some journal policies, but how much is not terribly clear cut.  It defers to editorial discretion on “how much text overlap is acceptable” (and suggests that this will vary across manuscript sections and across fields).  One thing does seem clear: it’s not a license to reuse long blocks of text – notice in the first quotation reference to “similar or identical phrases” (emphasis mine), and in the second to “a few sentences”.

Bottom line: journal policies will vary, but may well be more restrictive than copyright considerations alone.  (Even if not more restrictive, of course, neither COPE’s advice nor a journal policy can trump copyright.)

3. Readers’ needs

Even if both copyright law and journal policy will allow you to reuse Methods text, should you? Few pieces about text reuse consider the reader’s perspective on the issue.  And the reader’s perspective, I think, provides another reason not to reuse text even when you can.  Sure, two papers may use the same study system, or some of the same methods.  But unless you’re salami-slicing rather finely, it seems unlikely that the reader needs exactly the same description of exactly the same details with exactly the same emphasis in exactly the same order.  It’s easier to write that way, sure; but so what?  Each paper should tell its own story to its own readers, and I think that will usually mean custom rewriting even of shared methods.

As an example: imagine a bird mistnetting study in which the first paper reports species densities and diversity, while the second reports on post-capture behaviour and blood cortisol levels.  Details about the duration and conditions under which birds were held after capture but before processing wouldn’t help the reader of the first paper, but would be critical for readers of the second.  The same mistnetting Methods repeated would serve neither reader well.  (There may, of course, be exceptions to this.  I suspect they will mostly involve completely standardized methods like PCR amplification.  I wonder how often these will be longer than a paragraph or so, and whether they couldn’t be easily addressed in other ways than verbatim repetition.)

So if you can’t reuse text, what do you do instead?

Fortunately, it isn’t very difficult to avoid reusing the same Methods text.  There are at least five options:

  • English is a rich language, and there’s never just one good way to say anything***.  I’ve written the same description of my goldenrods-and-gallmakers study system at least 8 times and I’m not running out of ways yet.  Of the five options, this is my default and I think it’s usually the best – especially because it dovetails so nicely with the reader’s need for different details and different emphasis each time.  UPDATE: following some pushback against this option, I expand on it here.
  • Cite your first paper in your second. If the methods really were identical, offer a “Briefly we…” followed by “For full details, see Lee et al. 1982”.  If they weren’t identical, try “We did X following methods in Lee et al. 1982, except that…”.  Note that serves readers best if (1) they don’t need every detail to understand the current paper; (2) the cited paper is easy to find; and (3) the cited paper doesn’t pull the same trick, starting a long chain of citation-tracking back through the literature.
  • Cite a standard methods paper. Usually this will involve “methods as in… except”, and it’s subject to the same qualifications as when you cite your own older paper.
  • Deposit the full Methods detail elsewhere, and cite that with each new paper. That’s a role that can be played by io, for example, although there are other options.  This neatly avoids the chain-of-citations problem.  (Note that this practice may or may not pass muster with the publishing journal.)
  • Quote the older paper directly. We don’t use direct quotation much in the sciences, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this done, but in principle it ought to work.  Directly quoting the Methods from the older paper (with appropriate citation, of course) should overcome the copyright problem, so long as the quoted material is of a quantity that makes it fair dealing (that’s the Canadian term; it differs in other jurisdictions).  Would science journals go for this?  I don’t know.

 

 Summary

I’m afraid this got pretty long, so here’s the TL;DR.  Often, copyright considerations mean you can’t reuse Methods text from previous papers.  Even when it’s copyright-appropriate, journal policy may not allow it.  And even when copyright and journal permit, reusing text may not serve your readers well.  I know that means a little (but only a little) extra work in writing.  Sorry about that.

What angles on this have I missed? Fill us in, please, in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard  April 3, 2018

This post is based on, but significantly expanded from, my treatment of the issue in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (my guidebook for scientific writers).

There’s a lot of material on self-plagiarism out there.  Here are some other links – some complementary, some as counterpoint. Please leave further suggestions in the Replies and I’ll add relevant ones to this list.

 From Michele Garfinkel

 Published paper by Samuel Bruton


*^Experience suggests that this will make some people very angry.  Many of those people will have already stopped reading, having their minds made up and being uninterested in thinking about the issue further.  At least one of them will make some incandescent comments, probably on Twitter, about how stupid this post is.  If I’m lucky, they’ll do it as a subtweet and I won’t see it.  (To be clear: thoughtful disagreement is both possible and welcome!  It’s the other kind of disagreement this footnote is about…)  UPDATE: it took less than 90 minutes for this to happen.  People are sometimes quite predictable!

**^Note that whether or not it should be this way is a totally different argument, and one that I’m not tackling today. As an interesting complication, in some cases copyright never belongs to the author to assign.  In Canada, papers by employees of the federal government are always copyright “Her Majesty the Queen in right of Canada” (more or less, copyright belongs to the government, not the author, likely because the paper is considered a work for hire).  This raises the somewhat delicious possibility that in a later publication one could be plagiarizing the Queen.

***^Writers who don’t understand this sometimes find themselves struggling with writer’s block, because they believe there’s a single best way to say Thing X, and they haven’t found it, and they won’t go on until they do.

Advertisements

28 thoughts on “Do you really have to rewrite your Methods for every new paper?

  1. amlees

    A number of journals for which I edit specify that the methods section should not include previously published methods, but be written along the lines of ‘according to previously published method (citation). Therefore, I think that this is a good policy to adopt (saves rewriting if you have to change journal). Also, don’t forget that standard tests should probably be described as ‘according to the manufacturer’s instructions’.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. Catherine Scott

    I was once shocked to notice that several paragraphs of the introduction(!) of two papers by the same authors (in the same journal, so copyright issues dealt with) were identical.

    For what its worth (not very much at all) I agree with your take on this! It’s annoying to rewrite methods, but it probably makes things better for the reader.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. JONATHAN BARKER LOSOS

    One slight addition: most papers these days have multiple authors. Unless the author list is the same for the second paper, then it’s not self-plagiarism. Arguably, you’d be plagiarizing whichever authors are on the first paper and not the second.

    Like

    Reply
  4. sleather2012

    As a journal editor I do ask authors to rewrite as much as possible, both due to copyright problems that the publishing software picks up and because I think you should 🙂

    Like

    Reply
  5. Michael Kokkinn

    I don’t think you should feel uncomfortable about discussing this issue. It helped me muse more generally on the problem of self-plagiarism. I liked your listing of the possible solutions. Back in the day, I would have advised my students to make sure they wrote their methods in a way that they would be repeatable in every detail (journal space!). There comes a time where, inevitably, phrases or sentences will have to be repeated from previous publications in the methods. So, to draw the distinction is tricky. HOWEVER, as a grumpy old retired man, I look back at a system dominated by publishers, who produce for profit, an item which is frequently never read by any apart from those involved in the production, in order to serve Academic (usually not Scientific) progress. Publish or Perish has been the most corrupting force in Science since the days of The Lunar Men.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  6. Steffen

    “Treatment was as described in (citation). Briefly, fixation was with 10 mM reagent B for 10 min. After washing in PBS, the sample was permeabilized in 0.1% Triton-X-100 for 2 min.”

    I still don’t see what is (morally) wrong with using a statement like this in the second, third, and all following papers that use the method. Legally, at least around here (Germany) I am pretty sure that a short, factual itemization like this is considered to lack creativity and thus copyright does not apply.

    Also, If we look at a sentence like “Treatment was as described in (citation)”, I don’t think I could come up with “at least 8” ways to describe it. Two or three, fine. But not eight. At least not without going into a poetic style which is usually considered non-scientific. Maybe that’s because as a non-native speaker I don’t have access to the said full richness of the English language, but I doubt that there are that many. Plus, as explained above, I don’t see the need to come up with alternatives.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I would probably agree with you – that single sentence repeated wouldn’t set off any alarm bells with me as an editor, and I think it’s consistent with the COPE guidelines. On the copyright-law issue I will of course just admit my non-expertise. (Note that it may not matter what German copyright law says, depending where the journal is based).

      Like

      Reply
      1. Ivan

        I guess the issue is where do you stop?

        There are parts of methods in some disciplines that are basically standard disclosures, like paragraphs on animals. The standard disclosures from a lab are going to be virtually identical within a lab but between papers. Then if they do a surgery, the protocol they use is going to be the same, so the text they will use will be virtually identical. It’s very easy to go from a couple of sentences of overlap to a few paragraphs. But provided the text is adapted for the new paper and there are no copyright issues (e.g. recycled from your own open access paper), COPE doesn’t recommend journals do very much about text recycling in methods. The COPE guidelines only recommend retraction in rare cases where there is “significant overlap in the text, generally excluding methods”.

        Like

        Reply
        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          This may be a bit field dependent. For me, the “paragraphs on animals” aren’t standard between papers. Yes, they are the same study species; but the things my readers need to know about them shift from paper to paper. That’s one reason I can rewrite my “Study System” section just about endlessly – and not only that, but a reason why I should!

          Like

          Reply
  7. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    Lovely post that summarize a long standing question! I guess the only thing left is tips to avoid self-plagiarism. Personally, I try to write the methods without looking at the previous article. It turns out that, naturally, I don’t use the same sentence all the time, even if I’m not a native English speaker.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  8. Ewen @ ewensommerville

    Great post! I had the same problem when writing methods section for molecular and genetic techniques – for example, western blots, real-time PCR, long-range PCR. In my experience, I either (1) cited my earlier papers if I could, or (2) if I had made a sufficient number changes to the technique I would simply re-write the section. I agree that re-writing is the best option where possible though.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Weekend reads: Brazen plagiarism; why animal studies don’t hold up in humans; motherhood citation penalty – Retraction Watch

  10. Lee Rudolph

    Reusing text that’s under someone else’s copyright is surely plagiarism

    Your use of “surely” surely begs the question! “Reusing text that’s under someone else’s copyright is surely” copyright infringement, and that’s all that it surely is, until a valid argument that it is more (namely, “plagiarism”), has been provided.

    Like

    Reply
      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Wait – I think I understand now. Your point, I believe, is that while reusing your Methods section might be copyright infringement, that doesn’t mean that “plagiarism” is the correct word to describe the infraction. You might be right – although ultimately I’m less interested in the word we choose to represent the infraction than in the issue of whether or not one should commit it.

        Like

        Reply
  11. Joel David Hamkins

    Your first footnote suggests that you feel that people who disagree strongly upon first hearing your conclusion have not thought deeply about these issues. But I believe this is incorrect. On the contrary, many researchers are thinking quite deeply about current practices in scientific publishing, and they are generally coming to the conclusion that those practices are deeply flawed and that radical change is needed in how we publish our findings, particularly with respect to the issue of copyright that underlies the main part of your argument. Indeed, my personal view is that the main conclusion to take away from your argument, that concerns about self-plagiarism and copyright might prevent one from rightfully reusing one’s own words, is that we all should immediately stop signing away copyright in the first place and we should seek out other more open avenues of publication. So I am one who tweeted upon finding your article (see https://twitter.com/JDHamkins/status/983022710904250368), but I do not take myself to be one who is not thoughtful about this issue. Rather, the situation is that I find the world you describe to be Kafkaesque.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hadn’t seen your tweet, actually, and I think you’re overreading my first footnote. Thoughtful disagreement is absolutely OK. The tweet referenced in bold read, in its entirely “this is bull****”. That’s not thoughtful. Your position is, and I have considerable sympathy for it. (I would, however, object at least a bit to the notion that people who think deeply “generally” come to the conclusion that publishing is deeply flawed. That seems like exactly the same kind of sweeping statement you open by objecting to!)

      But note that we’re talking in two somewhat different ways about copyright. My post is descriptive – it talks about the issues that exist. Your comment is prescriptive, arguing that copyright ought not to be that way. Both those things can be true at the same time! Where I am more prescriptive is in my argument that very often, simply reusing text serves the author well, but the reader poorly.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Like

      Reply
      1. Joel David Hamkins

        Yes, indeed. Directly after posting, I had noticed the same thing in what I had written and thought that I should have liked to edit my post to say something like, “…and many of them are coming to the general conclusion that those practices are deeply flawed…”, or something like that.

        Thanks for the chance to comment here. I hope that someday soon we will have a different, better system in place for publishing and communicating our research discoveries.

        Liked by 1 person

        Reply
  12. Paul A Thompson

    I have great problems with calling a duplicated methods section self-plagarism.
    1) When you write a methods of Procedure A, you write it the best way possible. So, when you write a second time on Procedure A again, it is either that the first was the best and the second less good, or the other way around.
    2) While the use of the English language does grant considerable latitude and flexibility, it is not infinite in technical language. There are only so many ways of saying “I added 1 kilo of NaCl to sterile water” without adding a lot of crap in.

    I think methods should be exempt from plagarism. Science is about ACCURACY and CORRECTNESS. This manic fetish of novel terminology is NOT SCIENCE. It is worship at the altar of novelty.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Miguel

      I agree with Paul’s comment, at least in principle. Out of the many sentences that are contained within a typical Methods section of a paper that constitutes a 2nd or 3rd (or nth) piece of work from the same system or even the very same experiment, there will be many that in reality do not need rewriting if its purpose is stylistic improvement, new/better angle, revised information etc. Researchers already have too much on their plate, and I’d rather see the extra 30 minutes or an hour or two be invested in efforts such as making sure the new analyses are well explained, the figures are informative, etc., even if it means some degree of self-plagiarism of the methods. Surely self-plagiarism is orders of magnitude better than plagiarising someone else’s text/ideas. 🙂

      I also wonder if one solution to this could be direct citation of the parts of the methods previously published, placed in the supplement. That way it could avoid the copyright infringement (I think..), still be available within the same new publication (so the reader doesn’t have to look for it in a different volume/journal), and require fewer changes in the writing.
      Of course, that would require that the reader downloads/prints the supplementary materials, and I think there ought to be either a default or an option that this can happen automatically when the paper is downloaded (this is another topic altogether, but one that seems very practical! – so often I download the paper, even print it, only to find days/weeks/years later that some information I need from it is in the supplement I never bothered getting in the first place…)

      Like

      Reply
      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        Miguel – in your second paragraph, do you mean “direct quotation” (with citation, I’m sure) rather than “direct citation”? That’s an interesting idea although I don’t think it would skirt the copyright issue – but I’m not a lawyer. It would certainly serve the reader’s interests, it just might not be possible. Thanks for commenting!

        Like

        Reply
      2. Paul Thompson

        I agree with that somewhat. However, this would have one pernicious effect – it would elevate the citation count of procedures. And who is the originator of “add 1 K NaCl to 1 L sterile water”? Are basic scientists required to find the first person to ever do a common thing, and cite that? THis would potentially add hundreds of useless citations to a document.

        The purpose of science is to test hypotheses, not have this fetish for originality. When you write a discussion, the words should be your own. But the methods are not the same as the conclusion. When a cook makes coq au vin, they make the same dish that has been made by hundreds, thousands before. It is what they do with the chicken that is unique.

        Like

        Reply
  13. Doug Cromey

    Sadly, I have seen on a few occasions a “daisy chain” of an author citing their methods as described in an earlier publication. I once went back four different publications and almost 10 years. When I doggedly followed the method all the way back to the original I was not enthused or amused, as it appeared that the original method had been tweaked along the way, while using different brands and types of high-end microscopes and frankly I felt misled. In this instance I would have almost preferred a copy/paste of the original methods text, hopefully then the authors and the reviewers might have made sure that it was correct…

    If one reuses methods text (even several paragraphs), and clearly cites the source, I would think that would not constitute plagiarism (although some might then see that as the author trying to boost their citations…)

    Like

    Reply
  14. level1postdoc

    PSA: When writing, if you opt to cite a previous publication to avoid plagiarizing your methods, please, please, PLEASE do not send your readers on a quest spanning multiple papers that each reference other previous publications in a disturbingly long chain that ultimately ends in an obscure science communication from the 1960’s. This happens all too often and -though comical- is a constant source of hair-pulling frustration. Use your powers of citation wisely and carefully. Thank you.

    Like

    Reply
  15. Pingback: Are there really “only so many ways to write the Methods”? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  16. Pingback: Making people angry | Scientist Sees Squirrel

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.