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Question 162: May scholars republish the same material?

Certain practices of some academics engaged in research and publication seem to me worth discussing.

Some publish the same article twice under different titles, often at more or less the same time, simply to lengthen their list of publications. This seems intentionally deceptive, both with regard to those who will use publications lists in professional evaluations and in regard to journals that ask for assurance that a manuscript has not been published and is not under consideration for publication elsewhere. Then again, some academics, especially in the social sciences, talk about “idioplagiarism” (that is, self-plagiarism), which means publishing the same research data in two or more places—for example, the results of a sociological survey or psychological study might be used in several articles. A rank-and-tenure committee sometimes detects this and reacts negatively.

A related practice is using one’s own previously published material in a new work. Sometimes, one has written something well enough that there is little point in rephrasing it. Should one seek permission of the copyright holder? What about reusing in an article the same passages from other scholars’ writings that one previously used in a book?

Another problem that often comes up involves making copies of copyrighted books and articles. People say: “I wouldn’t have bought the book anyway, so I photocopied it”; “The book is out of print, so I photocopied it.” In this case, do law and Christian morality coincide?


This question calls for the derivation of norms regarding scholarly publication and for application of norms regarding theft to use of material under copyright. Duplicate publishing of the various sorts described is not wrong in itself. Often it serves good purposes and is morally acceptable or even obligatory. But it also often is vitiated by bad intentions and/or injustices. Merely emotional motives sometimes lead to publication that serves no intelligible good. Duplicate publishing sometimes involves deception, unfair competition with colleagues, a waste of publishing capacity, and/or cheating buyers of journals and books. Copyright law is complex; scholars should know it insofar as it is relevant to their work and should presume it just. Still, like other just laws, under certain conditions copyright law can be violated without moral wrong.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In dealing with this question, I shall take for granted that the common norms for scholarly writing and publication are known and followed. One must clearly identify whatever one draws from others’ work and give them due credit for it; one must adhere to accepted practices in many fields that forbid simultaneously submitting the same manuscript to two or more potential publishers without telling them; when one submits to an editor a work substantially the same as something one published previously, one must make its status clear; a reprinting or revision of a previous publication, whether under the same title or a different one, should be identified as such in any list of publications likely to be used for professional evaluation; except when the principle of fair use allows copyrighted material to be used without permission, one must obtain permission to use it.

Similar moral issues are raised by all the various sorts of duplicate publishing you mention in your question: publishing the same article in various places, republishing in a new form material one previously published, publishing the same research data in different places, and using the same quotations or citations in various publications.

Until modern times, not only duplicate publishing but what we would regard as plagiarism were quite common and seldom or never questioned. To some extent, I think, that was because people regarded truth and literary expressions of it as goods to be shared freely rather than as property. But to some extent it was because authors and copiers of works in former times seldom needed to recover costs and obtain fair compensation as modern writers and publishers generally do. Hence, today there often are good reasons for constraints on duplicate publishing.

Still, looking into the publications of most leading twentieth century scholars, one finds a great deal of duplicate publishing; while this does not demonstrate that the practices you mention are morally acceptable—perhaps corruption is pervasive in the scholarly community!—it does require that anyone who claims they are always wrong should show why. Considering the matter, I see no reason why any of the things you mention would be wrong in itself; none of them need violate truth, justice, or any other good. Thus, the moral issues seem to concern injustices and bad intentions.

One can imagine all sorts of possible bad intentions. For example, a greedy person might publish many books solely to make money; a status seeker might publish solely to make a name; someone might get psychological satisfaction out of having publications appear, and so publish solely for the enjoyable feeling. Such intentions could motivate, and so morally vitiate, any act of publishing, and they and other nonrational motives can lead to publishing that serves no intelligible good. Thus, they very likely account for some duplicate publishing. But that does not have to be so in any particular case, so duplicate publishing is not always wrong on this score.

It likewise is easy to imagine a variety of injustices. If duplicate publishing is a device to build up one’s list of publications in order to gain academic advancement, it will not work except by deliberate deception in grave matter. It very likely also will be unfair to competitors, who will appear less productive by comparison. Moreover, unless there is some good reason for it, by filling up available space in journals and other media, duplicate publishing unfairly impedes others who have good reasons for wishing to use that space. Again, it can cheat people who buy books and subscribe to journals by delivering the same old thing when the circumstances of a publication and/or the methods of promoting it promise something new. Then too, if editors are not given fair warning that a proffered work will be a republication, they may be deceived, and the publisher may suffer a financial loss and/or injury to its reputation.

Nevertheless, the legitimate point of publishing is to communicate something one thinks worth communicating to a particular audience, in order to bring about some genuine benefit, usually including a benefit to those who will receive the communication; and duplicate publishing often serves that legitimate point. For example, the same article published in different places can reach (perhaps with very little overlap) and benefit two different audiences. Scholars often test their work by publishing it first in journals read mainly by fellow scholars, then revise it in view of criticism and republish it for a wider audience in books or other media. Again, republishing the same material in a new form not only can make it more widely available but put it into a new context, so that the message is developed, refined, corrected. As for research data, the same material can be used over and over to make different points as well as in presentations at diverse levels of sophistication suited to different audiences. And when one has a good reason to publish something and quotations or citations that have been used before will be helpful to its audience, using them again surely is appropriate; indeed, I do not understand why anyone would think it problematic.

In short, I think there can be good reasons for various sorts of duplicate publishing, and then, absent any bad intention or injustice, I do not see why it would be wrong. Indeed, I think it often is obligatory in order to fulfill one’s responsibilities as a scholar and teacher.

Copyright law is complex, and this is not the place to summarize it.363 Every academic has an obligation to try to understand it insofar as it applies to his or her teaching and research (see q. 138, above). I cannot think of any use of material permitted by copyright law that would itself be unjust, although, of course, there are many ways of treating other scholars unfairly without violating any copyright. In general, there is a presumption in favor of obeying laws, and so in general copyright law should be obeyed. That one would not buy a particular book does not excuse making an unauthorized copy: doing so makes unauthorized, uncompensated use of another’s property.

In some cases, however, there can be a moral justification for making use of materials without the copyright holder’s permission. For example, I think that copying for personal use out-of-print materials, including whole books needed for one’s work, can sometimes meet the test of the Golden Rule and other relevant moral norms, as well as the legal principle of fair use.364 Also, even if making a copy is not permitted by the principle of fair use, it sometimes really is reasonable to presume permission, and then one can proceed without actually obtaining it. For example, if the textbook a professor adopts for a course fails to arrive on time, he or she might reasonably supply students with copies of a section to get the class under way, provided they will be required to purchase books when they arrive. Finally, the poor who need some copyrighted work but cannot obtain it without violating the copyright can be justified in doing so.

363. Helpful summaries of the law: Ellen M. Kozak, Every Writer’s Guide to Copyright and Publishing Law, 2nd ed. (New York: Henry Holt, 1996); Stephen Fishman, The Copyright Handbook: How to Protect and Use Written Works, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, Calif.: Nolo Press, 1996).

364. For an explanation of this important limit on copyright, see L. Ray Patterson and Stanley W. Lindberg, The Nature of Copyright: A Law of Users’ Rights (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 190–218.