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Conference versioning: self-plagiarism or workshopping?

In Jamaican musical parlance the noun "version" was gradually transformed into a verb; that is, "to version." [...] "Versioning" [is] a method of serially recycling recorded material. (Veal 54-55)

In a blog comment this spring, a colleague wrote:

I know some people consider it plagiarism when a person presents similar information at more than one conference. Yet most presenters do that--they have different audiences and they put a different spin on a presentation.

I still find myself thinking about this from time to time, since I haven't encountered such allegations of self-plagiarism in conference work, but I have presented similar work at different conferences. This is no confession; it's all on my public CV (flagged as revisions). In the talk itself I always mention whether and where I've given a version of it before. In fact I was going to version my 2009 MLA talk on DJ culture for two associations at Congress this year, but they didn't happen (for unrelated reasons).

Multiple, simultaneous submissions of the same article to different publishers is a major no-no, of course; but I haven't seen any guideline barring multiple conference-talk variants for multiple associations. Maybe norms and standards differ from association to association. In any case, I agree with my colleague's qualified riposte to the notion that reworking similar material for different conferences is self-plagiarism. Here's why:

  1. It's not the same as trying to pass off old work as new work for a mark; you're not hiding anything if you acknowledge, up front, where and when you've presented a prior version.
  2. It's testing an idea with different audiences, for different kinds of feedback, which is actually more valuable as university culture gets more "interdisciplinary." It's not presenting the same paper to the same people again, so what's wrong with seeing what different people think? Had my DJ talks happened, it would have fielded feedback from US literary and cultural studies scholars, and from Canadian literary, cultural studies, and communication studies scholars.
  3. The first presentation will -- or should -- prompt substantial revisions. Testing and exploring new ideas is a core mission of any academic conference; fielding questions and criticisms, then reworking a thesis accordingly, is a valuable "workshopping" process, and can be particularly helpful to grad students trying to build a CV or practice for a defence.

So that's my thinking on this question. I've posted it here to invite questions, counter-arguments, and discussion, since surely there are considerations I've neglected.

 

Work Cited

Veal, Michael E. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2007.

Comments

  • To be honest, I wouldn't have thought of conference presentations as skirting close to plagiarism, though I suppose I could see how the argument could be made for it. But it does seem like research evolves and changes even when the same material is presented - going back and forth with you on my paper, for example, has resulted in some pretty major revisions being made. Do I need to reference that? I don't think so, but...?

    Interesting that simultaneous submissions in the academic world are discouraged so strongly. In the fiction world, sim-subs are similarly discouraged, but it's an accepted practice among writers. Most of us - I won't say if I do or not, and most writers would follow the same practice - do submit to multiple markets even when guidelines state that you can't, and the rationale writers give each other is that editorial decisions can take months (sometimes several years). If you do it, you have to keep very careful records and pull pieces from consideration as soon as an acceptance is received. Some markets allow sim-subs but with the stipulation that you'll notify them if the material is accepted elsewhere. I'm a slush reader for a literary magazine, and though very few of the submissions are marked as a sim-sub, I'd be willing to lay good money on virtually all of them being out at other markets.

    The academic market must be different, I imagine - peer-review probably takes longer and more resources and there are probably more fiction slush readers than there are for, say, Wiley's. But if it takes just as long to get a decision, it wouldn't surprise me if articles start to 'accidentally' be sent out to more than one market.

    Heather Clitheroe June 10, 2011 - 10:51am

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