Is “self-plagiarism” the same as “shingling”?

One of the sins of scientific publication is passing off as new results that you already published.  This is often called shingling.  Being caught doing this will usually result in a paper being rejected.  It can lead to accusations of academic fraud. Being known for doing it can result in being a suspect no matter what you do.

And yet there is a fine line between shingling and the “least publishable unit.”  Too many academics, grant agencies, and administrators demonstrate a mastery of first grade math in focusing on counting the numbers of papers published rather than the non-numerical but more relevant evaluation of the significance of a research program overall.  For many scientists, sensitive to accusations of a lack of productivity, finding the minimum thing you can get in a journal seems to be an exercise in survival.

Now, least publishable unit or not, a scientist’s work will often build on her previous work. And so there are going to be common elements. Perhaps the papers are all using seismic receiver functions; thus all the papers are likely to have a description of how this technique works for those readers who came to the party late. Or maybe the scientist works in the same area and the description of the regional context is always the same.  Now note that none of this is particular to the results. If GG directly stole text, say, describing receiver functions from a paper written by John Smith, it would certainly be plagiarism if not in quotes with a citation.  What if GG simply retained the old description from a previous paper?  Is that not then self-plagiarism?

If it is, who exactly is hurt? It is not that the author misrepresented who authored the words.  It is not that the scientific insights particular to the paper were already presented elsewhere. This would seem a victimless crime, and yet the term “self-plagiarism” is showing up more and more with the clear connotation that it is equivalent to plagiarism.

If this example is not self-plagiarism, is self-plagiarism simply the new term for what we called shingling?  Hopefully that is the case, though GG feels the term is misleading. Synonyms for plagiarism are things like piracy and theft, but repeating the reporting of your own work is neither of those, it is instead fraud.

Look, shingling might be too innocuous a term, but self-plagiarism feels too misleading. Maybe we should call it scientific two-timing or adultery…those at least give the sense of deceiving others while gratifying yourself.

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