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Advanced Writing Tips

Text Recycling Basics


Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Senior Associate Editor

March 2023

What is text recycling?

Text recycling is the reuse of text that an author had previously written for one manuscript in another one. This practice is more common in STEM disciplines than in the social sciences and humanities, as scholars are more closely building on the same conceptual and methodological foundations. In particular, text recycling is fairly common in the methods sections of many STEM papers.

There are two types of text recycling: developmental recycling and generative recycling. Developmental text recycling refers to text recycled from unpublished work that had been previously presented, such as from a poster, conference talk, or grant proposal, so long as the material had not been published or widely disseminated. This practice is generally considered acceptable.

The other type of text recycling is generative recycling, which involves reusing text from a previously published manuscript to explain the methods or research background of a new study. The acceptability of this practice is somewhat controversial and depends on if the recycled text was disclosed and how much of the source text was reused.

Why does text recycling matter?

The term “self-plagiarism” is sometimes used to refer to text recycling, and some researchers object to it because they view reusing text as an ethical concern in that this text is being presented as new when it is not. Many journals also use plagiarism detection software, such as iThenticate, to flag text similar to or identical to previously published text, and will not publish papers that have too much flagged text, even if the text is from a paper written by the submitting authors. For these reasons, it is important to minimize text recycling whenever possible.

However, there are only so many different ways to describe a set of common methods or to list the findings of previous studies. In these cases, text recycling is not only a more efficient use of time, but it can also ensure that ideas are presented in the most consistent and clear way possible. Thus, it sometimes makes sense to recycle text, but it should be done responsibly.

When and how to recycle text

It goes without saying that the text you recycle should only be from work that you yourself wrote; if you did not write the text yourself, then using it is not recycling, but plagiarism. If you are going to reuse text you have previously written, it is best to first use text from unpublished work or from work that has not been widely disseminated (developmental recycling). If someone else in your research group wrote the text you wish to recycle, then you must obtain their permission to recycle the text, and likely include them as an author on your paper.

It is also best to only recycle text in the background, literature review, and materials and methods sections of the paper. The information presented in these sections is not generally considered or expected to be novel, so text recycling is more acceptable in these sections.

Data must be stored in a reliable database, on a reliable platform that can be accessed long after it has been collected.

Furthermore, you should only recycle text when you are certain that the recycled text is presented in the clearest and most concise way possible. Even when this is the case, it is still helpful to make some modifications to the text to ensure that it fits in with the rest of the paper, and that the text is not missing important details or adding unnecessary information. If your recycled text is flagged as plagiarism by a journal, or if you want to minimize the actual repetition in the text, be sure to read LetPub’s article on reducing text repetition.

You should also consider disclosing recycled text to the journal editor in your cover letter. Recycled text can also be disclosed to readers in the form of a footnote; this is a common practice in the social sciences and humanities when articles are expanded into books.

When to avoid recycling text

If your recycled text was previously published in a journal, then you may not hold the copyright to that text; the journal does. If you plan to recycle text of this nature, it is important that you check the journal copyright notice and any contract you may have signed regarding who has permission to reprint your work. If the journal holds the copyright to the text, then you may not be able to recycle it, and will need to rewrite it.

You should also avoid presenting recycled text as novel; recycled text should never be emphasized as a new contribution of your paper. This means that recycled text should never appear in your introduction, results, discussion, or conclusion.

Recycling text responsibly can improve your manuscript’s readability while also reducing the time it takes to write. For more information about the ethics and practice of text recycling, visit the Text Recycling Research Project.

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