Writing your thesis (and using your publications)

So, you’re finally writing your thesis, and hey you were one of those great students who published as you went along – Congratulations! But how do you deal with incorporating that published work into your thesis? Did you write all the best stuff already, and how you have to struggle away to find something original to say (or, an original way to say the something you already published)?

Self plagiarism is when folks: “reuse their own previously written work or data in a ‘new’ written product without letting the reader know that this material has appeared elsewhere.” (Roig, 2003), and it’s a fair problem to raise (remember Žižek) with scholarly interest growing in the subject. But, as Roig notes “According to Hexam, ‘… the essence of self-plagiarism is [that] the author attempts to deceive the reader‘”.

So you just acknowledge the reuse, and it’s fine right? …Well, unfortunately things seem to lack clarity on that front. This is a thorny issue (it would be less thorny if I were less keen to be in the rose garden), and relates to:

  1. Who owns the copyright to the work and will they give you appropriate permissions? (Likely the publisher and any co-authors)
  2. Is the work your own, solely, or did you co-author? (In which case you need permissions, and potentially some indication of what ideas were yours)
  3. What kind of use are you look at and how will that gel with submitting a PhD mongraph? (e.g. reuse, adaptation, and simple quotation; Perhaps this is an argument for the death of the thesis).

Self Plagiarism and the Thesis

One of the things that surprised me when I was writing my thesis was the extent to which a lot of guidance available was down to disciplinary differences and tradition – making it very hard to know exactly what ‘hard and fast’ rules to follow (especially in interdiscplinary work). A simple google search indicates this is not an uncommon concern among PhD candidates. Basically, candidates should try to understand the situation, and I would advise not solely relying on supervisors or others to tell you what to do, instead use the legal and disciplinary context to have an informed conversation and negotiate what’s appropriate to your particular context. I’ve tried to collect together some resources people might find useful here:

  1. Materials from the OU
    1. Useful OU resources on writing your thesis – useful general guidance
    2. Candidate declaration form – which explicitly asks to note where material is drawn from (i.e., an implicit acceptance of drawing on published material)
    3. Examination guidance – gives guidance per 2, but with little else noted – this absence of guidance seems very common to me
  2. Stefan Rüger (from KMi) discusses thesis completion including various issues of “reuse” and self-plagiarism in this guide
  3. INFORMS [publisher] Guidelines for Copyright & Plagiarism
    • 3) More extensive word-for-word copying of one’s own work is permitted (with permission from the holder of any copyright), but this must be clearly indicated in the article. This does not apply to previous documents such as working papers and theses which were written as part of the research. If an entire section is copied from another source (coauthored by at least one author of the submitted paper), it should contain words to the effect “This section is taken from section x.x of Roberts and Smith (1994)” (where Roberts and/or Smith are coauthors of the submitted paper). If the results of a section are based in large part on material presented in another paper (without significant copying), the section should contain words to the effect “This section is based on section x.x of Roberts and Smith (1994).” Alternatively, a paper might include an opening footnote with a statement such as:An earlier version of this paper was presented at the […] conference on (date). [reference to the original paper in the list of references]. The sections on […] and […] originally appeared in the conference paper. This paper adds results [ideas, analysis, improvements, ….] in sections […].”
  4. Edinburgh University form for declaring publications in thesis
  5. Edinburgh University geosciences dept guidance
    • “The thesis can therefore contain chapters which are based on one or more papers submitted, accepted or published before submission of the thesis itself. However a collection of publications bound together is not an acceptable form of submission for a PhD thesis. The thesis must read as a coherent whole and the examiners need to be able to clearly identify the work directly attributable to the student. The College has issued guidelines for the inclusion of research publications in a postgraduate research thesis. You should discuss the structure and content of your thesis with your supervisors and be attentive that your submitted thesis adheres to the College guidelines.”
  6. University of Tulsa says this:
    • “4.5 Inclusion of Text from a Student’s Previously Published Papers
      A student may use text from his/her own previously published papers for portions of his/her thesis or dissertation.  The use of this material is at the discretion of the student’s advisor.  In certain situations, authors and coauthors for faculty-led labs freely share copyright permissions within the group for joint publications. However, other faculty may only recognize work contributed directly by the student for inclusion in a thesis or dissertation.  Final decision regarding the use of previously published material is at the discretion of the student’s thesis/dissertation committee chair and members. If a student is given permission to use previously published materials in their thesis/dissertation, affected text must be cited in accordance with the appropriate discipline-specific style guide and these Guidelines.  This includes providing the source document for the original text and obtaining releases for use of copyrighted material when necessary.”
  7. MIT has a list of journal publisher policies on authors including work they have published, in their theses
  8. Good general guidance from Glasgow University on plagiarism and copyright
  9. Interesting minutes from a group discussion (I think) with iThenticate (plagiarism detection), specifically:
    • “Audience Question:  ‘Is it legitimate to reuse previously published information in a Ph.D thesis with a reference to the publication?’ – Rachel said, flatly, that this is acceptable, so long as the reference is appropriate. However, she added that you need to be careful as many journals will demand the copyright in work they published though they will very rarely have any issue with it being reused in a noncommercial manner, such as a thesis. Still, it’s important to read the journal’s copyright policy before doing that. Rachel also added that publishers generally look favorably on other reuses of work that point to or link back to the original article as that it is a “key part” of how research works, the citing and referencing of previous works in a noncommercial way.”
  10. This is clearly a problem many people encounter, generally inconclusively, generally the answer is “what do your advisers say?” or “it depends on your department” (and by extension, sometimes it depends on your discipline:

Copyright and the Thesis

Be aware you will also encounter copyright issues:

  1. This guide on Copyright and the Thesis from Leicester is excellent (I think the OU now links to this) – basically, get permission for everything. One place I sought permission from wanted $1800 for a figure to go into my thesis, I removed it. Most others were free (so fine), but permission is still needed.
    • Reuse of short excerpts (often cited as <5% or <200 words of the total publication, although that’s not hard and fast) is fine, but Figures, Tables, and other ‘substantial part[s]’ of © material (e.g. a psychometric) requires permissions.
    • ‘academic review’ (‘criticism or review’/’research purposes’ in copyright terms) might cover it, but it is definitely best practice to get permissions (and those purposes don’t cover many things, e.g. psychometrics). There is an Examination exemption, so you can use whatever (except music) in examinations, but because the OU publishes theses the ‘examination’ copyright exemption does not hold (see e.g. https://www.reading.ac.uk/internal/imps/Copyright/imps-copyrightfaqs.aspx#exams, and from Sheffield)
  2. MIT has a list of journal publisher policies on authors including work they have published, in their theses

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