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Posted by on Jun 7, 2013

Self-plagiarism and self-publishing: my take

No relevance to this post; just a nice picture of the Thames taken from Shadwell the other day.

I am in the finishing stages of editing my ebook and working with my sister to produce relevant illustrations to convey some of the meaning. I will do one more editing pass, will format it towards Kindle specifications, will generate high-res versions of the illustrations, and eventually load the entire work to Amazon (as a Doc, EPUB, or PDF). Amazon has very clear, concise directions on how to self-publish via their Kindle Direct Publishing service. During that process, I am able to set the price point to something reasonable that will keep my intended audience, mostly teachers, in mind.

I met with my supervisors the other day and mentioned the publication of this book and we proceeded to have a good discussion on what effects this ebook could have on my thesis defense (circa 2015, in the best case scenario). We discussed how this ebook relates to my thesis, where there are similarities and where those similarities might leave me open to charges of self-plagiarism. Ultimately, they suggested I shelve it for two years until after my thesis.

This was relatively new to me, that this ebook could be damaging to my thesis defense. So I thought this might be useful to others who are struggling with the same thing. I welcome (honestly) your opinions on the subject and will keep my comments as brief as possible. These are just my initial thoughts so they are very likely to evolve over time, but this is where I stand now as I consider whether or not to publish this ebook.

Question #1: How similar are they, this ebook and your thesis?

They do overlap. Both are about mobile learning and both look at the Humanities. The ebook is designed for teachers wanting to enact their own field activities (ie, out in the field or urban spaces with their students); my thesis is focused on how graduate students in the Humanities in Korean universities use mobile technology to participate or compose in their disciplinary environments (formal spaces). My ebook is geared towards teachers in informal spaces. My thesis focuses on Korean universities; my ebook on whomever might find these activities useful.

There is overlap in some theory, although ebook brings up the theory merely to establish a different way to look at composition in the field. The thesis focuses heavily on meaning making in disciplinary communities through Community of Practice and Multimodality; the ebook mentions Multimodality, but doesn’t go into community-driven theories. The ebook brings up the theory to set the stage for the subsequent activities (written as a How-To Guide); the thesis brings up the theory to make sense of the disciplinary activity it is observing.

So overlap, yes. I cannot deny it. But the goals are different, the target audiences are different, the processes are all different. The things that are the same are mobile learning and the Humanities. So I ask myself here: is this self-plagiarism?

Questions #2: Does this ebook damage or destroy my original contribution to the field?

Truth be told, I think this is the real crux of the issue here. Does writing and publishing this ebook now somehow detract from whatever original contribution to the field I would be making with my thesis? I think another way to think of this would be to consider whether the points I am making in this ebook about compositions and meaning making (which are admittedly presented not as a theoretical analysis, but more as a How-To) somehow are the same points I am trying to make about compositions and meaning making in the context of my thesis itself. This I will only know after conducting my actual qualitative data collection and analysis in Korean universities. They could indeed be the exact same conclusions from the ebook and the thesis, although I doubt it. They could prove to negate what I present in the context of this ebook (which then removes the possibility of self-plagiarism?) in the context of Korean graduate students.

For this, I should turn to the source, namely the regulations for the PhD from the University of London itself, of which the Institute of Education is a member. So what should a thesis actually be? According to the University of London: Regulations for the Degrees of MPhil and PhD:

The thesis shall:

  1. consist of the candidate’s own account of his/her investigations, the greater proportion of which shall have been undertaken during the period of registration under  supervision for the degree; [The part played by the candidate in any work done jointly with the supervisor(s) and/or fellow research workers must be clearly stated by the candidate and certified by the supervisor.]
  2. and form a distinct contribution to the knowledge of the subject and afford evidence of originality by the discovery of new facts and/or by the exercise of independent critical power;
  3. and be an integrated whole and present a coherent argument;  [A series of papers, whether published or otherwise, is not acceptable for submission as a thesis].

Research work already published, or submitted for publication, at the time of submission of the thesis, either by the candidate alone or jointly with others, may be included in the thesis. The published papers themselves may not be included in the body of the thesis, but may be adapted to form an integral part of the thesis and thereby make a relevant contribution to the main theme of the thesis. Publications derived from the work in the thesis may be bound as supplementary material at the back of the thesis.]

So it all seems to sit there, with point #2. Does this ebook somehow remove that ‘distinct contribution to the knowledge of the subject’? Does it remove the ‘evidence of originality by the discovery of new facts’? I think this is where I also see the greatest separation from my ebook and my thesis; these differences are most visible through context. The context of the ebook is teachers; for the thesis, students. For the ebook, the context is general, all teachers at all age ranges. For the thesis, we are specifically focusing on the Korean university context. One is more a logistical/process-oriented exploration (ebook); the other, a classic observation and analysis of a particular community.

The subsequent ‘evidence of originality’ and ‘distinct contribution’ to the field will be expressed in very different terms. My findings for my thesis will have applicability to formal higher education in the Humanities, possibly, and Korean universities, particularly. It will have applicability to mobile learning, broadly, but more than likely only in formal learning. My ebook assumes no particular audience and therefore the originality and distinct contributions to the field are also assumed. I won’t know if teachers get value from the ebook until they actually get value from the ebook. So I think those contributions are distinct enough to not have my ebook undercut the originality of my thesis. I think.

For further evidence, I turn to the Code on Citing Sources and Avoidance of Plagiarism for Students Registered at the Institute of Education, namely the following passage:

4. Citing your own earlier work
You also need to ensure you do not plagiarise your own work. For example, if you
include in your thesis or other coursework material that you have written and
submitted for assessment for a different programme or part of a programme, you
must indicate clearly the status of that material, i.e. you must reference it properly.

A little lacking in detail to my particular example, but still instructive. I won’t attempt to pawn the ebook off as the thesis and vice versa; I will make reference to both whenever and wherever they appear.

Point #1: How is blogging different than self-publishing?

This one is especially pertinent to the discussion as I have been blogging about my experiences with the PhD (including the structure, initial observations, methodology, etc.) since I even had the idea of doing a PhD. Thus, my thesis is technically drawing from material found on my blog, thus technically guilty of self-plagiarism as it is drawing from work that diminishes its affordance of originality. My thoughts about the thesis, my conclusions drawn from the data, how I am positioning my research and how that might be useful to others is all being circulated in the community through this blog. All of this is happening well before the publication and defense of my thesis.

With Kindle self-publishing, it is much the same. I will release it as I would a blog post, just with a bit more editing, polish, and coherence. I edit and disseminate my work myself. My only question is does this reduce the claim of originality or reduce my capacity for demonstrating an original contribution to the field? Presumably that originality was here on this blog or in this ebook first and the thesis is drawing from that.

In reality, though, this blog (not so for the ebook) is being generated from the thesis. It is emerging after the thesis but being published before the thesis. The blog is the progeny of the thesis in reality, but the progenitor of the thesis legally (and perhaps academically?). So we have a bit of a paradox here.

Question #3: Is there more ‘cover’ in traditional academic publishing?

Additionally, there is an interesting wrinkle of my choosing not to pursue a traditional publication route. I am very intimate with the additional costs of choosing a traditional academic publisher; generally (not always), there is significant cost added to the price of the book. Anyone who has attempted to purchase an academic work will know what I am talking about. This also assumes that this book would even be considered by a traditional publisher, which is quite confident of me.

I wanted to keep my price points low, low enough to make sure teachers can access it without too much concern. So I am selling it for a price (I am not currently employed, people), but encouraging reuse of it by giving it a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial CC BY-NC. I am not sure I would have that level of freedom if I were to go the traditional publishing route.

However, the traditional route might have given me more ‘cover’ in terms of originality and contribution to the field; by being vetted, does a traditional publishing process demonstrate that the subject is valuable to the larger community, thereby justifying the eventual thesis? I don’t believe in my case the thesis and ebook overlap too much, so perhaps not, but it is an interesting question of authority and review. My work is my own and very few have seen any of it; what is eventually released will be my own, warts and all. What I gained there was greater freedom to control the price point and the distribution and reuse. What I lost there was some ‘cover’ from the eventual scrutiny of a non-reviewed work.

Point #2: Change begins in gray areas

And so I will leave you with where I stand in my decision making process now. I am incredibly grateful for the words of caution expressed by my supervisors and the wonderful advice given to me by a few close colleagues. Opinions vary considerably. I have taken and am still taking their advice to heart and reflecting often about this process and where my work stands in it. I will continue to be as transparent as possible about this process and what effect my decisions have on my capacity to navigate this PhD. I will be open and transparent about what effect this ebook might have for some teachers (if it does at all).

And so I sit here thinking carefully about whether or not to release this book. I sit here thinking about what matters most to me and what I hope to accomplish as a writer, as an academic, a researcher. I knew I was going to release the ebook regardless. I knew I would let it (if it wants to) evolve my thesis if necessary. I will be open and honest about this process (and the pitfalls I will surely encounter). But ultimately, I weighed the concerns and went to my people for advice and processed that and made a decision. I will publish the ebook on the same timeline as I had originally developed (in the next two months). I will see how that effects my thesis and my original contribution to the field. I will remember that I wrote the book for teachers. I will be a teacher again soon (recently accepted a position at  Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul as a professor) and I would want to do some of these activities with my students. I probably will. So there is a need, however limited.

That is all. Happy to hear if anyone else has opinions on this. Interesting, eye-opening discussion I think.


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  1. Amazing! Will ponder. Can tell you’ve been thinking a lot about all this!

    • Thanks, Deborah! It proved to be an interesting exercise to consider, this whole notion of self-plagiarism and the undercutting of originality for the thesis. I find it useful to think it through here and thought that least someone else might find the discussion useful as well.

      Hope all is well!

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