Another fine can of worms

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In my last post, I reflected on text-recycling. This is the practice of re-using one’s own work without acknowledgement. While (I think) most academics frown on the practice and call it self-plagiarism, it seems to be accepted and possibly widely practiced by academics and their professional bodies – in very limited circumstances – in a number of disciplines.

In those fields which do accept text-recycling – or at least turn a blind eye to the practice – it is claimed to be a useful device for speeding the writing process and for ensuring consistency of language when compiling, for instance, a review of the literature, or when describing methods and methodologies. It is not seen as acceptable to copy-paste someone else’s literature review, but it is acceptable (in those fields in which the practice is accepted) to copy-paste one’s own previously published literature review, as long as, for instance, material which is irrelevant for the current study is deleted.

I am not sure that I accept the argument, but, as Cary Moskovitz has argued in Self-Plagiarism, Text Recycling, and Science Education, that is probably because of my background and training. Those trained in the writing of those disciplines which accept text-recycling are taught that it is acceptable practice. This, then, would be an aspect of disciplinary literacy, just as much as referencing styles or the use (or non-use) of direct quotation are aspects of disciplinary literacy. That we do things “my way” in my discipline does not make it the “right” way to do things in all other disciplines.

These notions got me thinking about my own practice and practices.

When writing an academic paper, I do self-reference when I re-use ideas and words I have used in earlier papers. It strikes me as good practice. It may be thought of as vanity or self-publicity, but it also serves to establish a degree of expertise. I paraphrase often, and I will occasionally use a direct quotation from my earlier work when I think I cannot say it any better than I did in that earlier work. I do make it clear, either by in-text citation or from the context, that these are not the first time these words or thoughts have been aired.

But not always! If I use a notion or line of thought that I have used in an earlier work but I do not need to look at it, refer to it, but write it fresh – then surely this is me, now, original work of this moment based on what I already know or understand. There is (surely?) no need to double back and self-reference – unless I want to make the point that this is not a new thought?

Perhaps it depends on the actual circumstance, one cannot generalize but consider only on an actual instance-by-instance basis? Else we’d all have to (self-) reference everything we say and do and write?

That is for use in academic papers. Not everything I write – that we write – is academic. I try to set good example, in speech, in writing, even casually as in email, by giving credit when it is due to someone else. It may not be academic referencing, but it is referencing. “I saw this on a website (so it is not mine),” or “Somebody said on television last night …”. Not academic, but honest. If I can be more precise, then I will be, as the situation requires, and certainly if I think my correspondent/s or listener/s might want to look it up for themselves.

Good example. I do hold with role-modelling. Many librarians remark (in conversation, in workshops, on listservs) that teachers are often poor role-models. They expect students to cite and reference their sources, but often they do not do this themselves. They make wall-displays, for instance, or produce PowerPoint sequences, with nary citation or reference.

It isn’t just teachers. In workshops, I sometimes (have to) remark to librarians that it would be good role-modelling to add citations or references to their slides. Sometimes I am asked if one should place a citation on each individual slide or if it is enough to produce a list of references at the end, or in a separate handout. Just last week I was asked if one could produce a numbered bibliography at the end, each number referring to a slide, endnote style; it would keep the slides “clean” and not detract from the main message or image.

Indeed it would, I replied, and such practice is not dishonest. But it might not be helpful. Just as endnotes in academic papers can be irritating – and in long papers or in books they thoroughly irritate, having to keep one finger in the page to turn to the end of the paper or book – they do not help the reader at time-of-slideshow. Honest, but not as helpful as it might be.

What is worse in this situation is when one wants to re-use a slide in another compilation… You need to find the reference (at the back or in the handout file) and make sure that it is duplicated at the same time as the slide is duplicated. It is much easier if a citation is included on each slide, or even the full reference. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, but it strikes me as a useful tip, good practical practice. My slides might not have perfectly formatted references and I know there are inconsistently formatted references, but viewers can instantly see that the slide or a portion of it is not mine and they can find the material for themselves.

So. I can claim to be meticulous when using other people’s work in my slides. I always cite the source/s, on each slide in turn. But I realize I am less careful with my own slides. I often re-use my earlier work, transfer slides directly from one presentation or workshop to another. And I don’t always self-cite my own work.

Should I?

Perhaps I should. I was particularly stung by a remark on the evaluation returns of one of my recent IB workshops: “Does not always reference his slides.” I was horrified. As noted, my referencing might not be to the standards of an academic paper and it might not be consistent through the workshop, but it is always there. Always there when using other people’s words and work.

So either my critic has found coincidental use of words or ideas, or has perhaps seen somewhere else one of my slides being used by somebody else, without attribution. Or perhaps that somebody else did include a reference, at the end of the sequence, but it was not taken in – the bibliography might not have been projected long enough, or there were so many entries on the one slide that the font was too small to read.

Should I reference my own slides when I recycle them – or the thoughts thereon?

I think I shall compromise. If there is anything special in the design of a slide, a graphic or diagram or maybe just the layout of the text, I will add at the least a copyright symbol © and my name – and, depending on the context, a full reference. If it’s ideas, especially well-established ideas, I still might not.

I would welcome other thoughts. What do you do?

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