“Self-Plagiarism”? You gotta be kidding

I’ve been having a private note discussion with The Buckley Club on medium.com. They published a story announcing they had suspended one of their writers because some of his articles “. . . were later submitted to other sources without our knowledge and without attribution to the source. We do not permit that under our standards and have therefore severed ties with the writer in question and removed his articles from the publication.”

I commented that their submission page doesn’t say anything about this. They answered, in a private note, “We had thought it didn’t need saying, self plagiarism is journalistic malpractice.”

This was news to me, though I have been involved in academic and other publishing for most of my life and have done a fair bit of work in ethics. So I checked around a bit on Google. There is no agreement about the appropriateness of the concept.

Where might moral dereliction lie? The only case seems to be in academic settings, where one is playing a publish-or-perish game. Here the moral problem involves padding one’s publications list to mislead, e.g., a tenure or promotion review. Or leading an academic journal to think they’re getting original material. Otherwise, unless some other entity (journal, research colleague, data source) has some explicit claim on the material, failure to indicate a previous publication of the material would seem at worst to be a discourtesy.

What might that previous claim be? A research colleague or data source might have a proprietary interest in the material. Fine. Or one might have granted certain of one’s rights as copyright holder to the publisher. Fine. Or the publication might have a specific requirement that re-use of the material require acknowledgment of the original publication. The Association for Computing Machinery makes this kind of demand. Fine.

But barring these specific exceptions, there seems no warrant for calling such re-publication a case of “journalistic malpractice.” (Most “journalistic” writing is “work for hire,” anyway, so the question of the author’s right to use the material without permission doesn’t arise.) I have to agree with those who say “self-plagiarism” is an oxymoron. It certainly does not deserve the ethical opprobrium that the term “self-plagiarism” suggests.

Certainly the idea does not apply in general to a platform like Medium. This is only one of the platforms where one would want to publish one’s work. And surely there is no presumption that a Medium publication has an right to notification of a re-publication of material. The burden is on them to say so in their policies.

Am I missing something here?