[Viewpoint]Stealing from yourself

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[Viewpoint]Stealing from yourself

With news reports about plagiarism in research papers recently appearing almost every day, the term has grown familiar to Koreans outside of academia. Since 2005, research ethics have become a subject that anyone can voice an opinion on, and plagiarism in research papers has also become a common topic of conversation.

It appears that Korean society has finally succeeded in creating an atmosphere where stealing someone’s research without proper attribution is considered extremely unethical.

But at the same time, another issue has arisen, one in need of serious discussion in academia ? self-plagiarism, or the multiple publication of one’s own works without citation.

Professor Paul Brians of the University of Montreal argued in 1992 on “The Humanist Forum” Web site that self-plagiarism “is also a theft since the author leads the book-buyer to think that there is a new book of his on the market. ... The author is misleading his/her readers: to me, it is just the same thing as to sell a secondhand car while claiming it’s a brand new one.”

In today’s Korea, regulations and guidelines from research integrity committees of many universities and research institutes define plagiarism as the act of stealing other people’s ideas, research or other work without proper approval or attribution. However, only three universities mention self-plagiarism in their regulations.

Most universities’ rules were established in 2006 and 2007, based on official order 236 of the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Article 4 of the order, however, does not cover self-plagiarism, and this may be the reason why many institutes’ regulations do not deal with the matter. The nation’s academia probably did not have the time to discuss this issue yet.

In fact, self-plagiarism only became an issue to scholars relatively recently. The term has not been formally defined in academia, but self-plagiarism or multiple publication is understood as being a dishonest act in the publishing field.

An academic group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which has 350,000 members from 150 countries, only defined the recycling of one’s own work a form of plagiarism in 2002, deciding that self-plagiarism is unacceptable.

When a case of self-plagiarism is reported, different academic societies are having a difficult time deciding how far is too far. A scholar who has worked on a single subject for decades may reuse a sentence that has already been published. Therefore, the science magazine Nature said in 2005 that some academic journals have set the limit of recycled material from his or her own work at 30 percent.

As these examples show, the issue of self-plagiarism still needs further consideration before an agreement can be reached based on the special nature of each academic field.

When a news media outlet reports about self-plagiarism, refutations are made asking why and on what grounds a case can be accused of being plagiarism. Some may say that the government must present guidelines and then judgments should be made based on them.

This would be, however, an extremely ineffectual and dangerous preventive measure. In 2007, a research report was published on plagiarism guidelines for humanities and social sciences under an initiative of the Korea Research Foundation, but it is still a subject of dispute.

The guidelines defined reuse of more than six consecutive words in a sentence as an act of plagiarism. But at the same time, there was a precedent where use of less than six words was found to be plagiarism. Each academic journal has its own guidelines and regulations regarding publication ethics, and they make judgments on plagiarism based on the subject’s special nature.

However, subjects linked to science and engineering cannot be expected to come up with plagiarism guidelines. For example, the guidelines of the renowned American Medical Editors’ Association was received negatively by many scientists and engineers, as they argue that it is unreasonable to actually use the parameters in reality.

Furthermore, an academic journal contributed to by mathematicians and theoretical physicists also publishes the names of authors in alphabetical order.

Taking into account such academic trends, the best way to approach this thorny issue is not via the government-written guideline route. The most appropriate way to resolve the issue of self-plagiarism is for academic societies in similar fields to establish guidelines that take into account the special nature of each area of study, along with the conscience of scholars.

by Kim Hyung-sun

*The writer is a professor of materials engineering at Inha University.
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