Authors reuse their own work in many contexts, from reusing a figure from their own article to illustrate the same data or concept in a lecture, to republishing an entire article in a collected volume. These issues can be especially pressing for graduate students seeking to incorporate previously published journal articles in their dissertations, or to publish their dissertations as journal articles.
Copyright law can affect your right to reuse your work, especially once that work is published. Below is some information about the legal factors that may impact your ability to reuse your work. These resources assume that your use may require permission, but remember that fair use is also available when you use your own work, if your use satisfies a fair use analysis.
It is also important to be aware that some academic fields have norms against “self-plagiarism,” which vary widely. These are ethical/normative rules, not legal ones. Mentors and colleagues in your field are your best source of information on plagiarism issues.
Losing control of your copyright is the primary barrier to lawful reuse of your own work. The best way to maintain control of your own work is to retain or reclaim your rights. If your copyright belongs to you, or your work is published under an open license, you will have a much easier time reusing it than if you surrender your rights to a publisher.
Check, ask, cite.
In its excellent guide for graduate students preparing to submit their dissertations, the Library at George Washington University helpfully suggests authors follow a three-step process to use their own previously published work in their dissertation – “Check, Ask, Cite.” All authors can follow these basic steps whenever they use their previously published work, whether in a dissertation, a lecture, a volume of collected works, or otherwise.
If you’d like to reuse work that’s been published previously, you need to know what rights you may have transferred to the publisher, and what rights you retained. One of the most important things academic authors need to understand about copyright is that they routinely surrender their rights to publishers as part of the publishing process. (Not every publisher or platform requires copyright transfer, however. For example, LibraETD and LibraOpen and Aperio allow authors to retain their copyrights and reuse their works in any way they like.)
If you are among that elite (mythical?) cadre of authors who keeps copies of your agreements (kudos to you!), you can check your own files to see what rights you transferred and what you retained. If you don’t have a copy of your publishing agreement in your files, you can learn more about how to research your publisher’s polices on our Publisher Sharing Policies page.
Graduate students can also check the Thesis Content and Article Publishing page maintained by MIT to find publisher policies specific to dissertations and theses.
If you are reusing content from an academic journal article for a new journal article, you could also check the STM Permissions Guidelines, a set of voluntary policies that signatory publishers have agreed to follow to permit reuse of “limited amounts” of previously published work in new works. Note that these guidelines are voluntary and reciprocal, meaning they only apply when the publishers of both the source and the destination works are signatories.
In general, if you transferred your copyright to a publisher and your use is not permitted by the contract or the publisher’s policies, then you will need to ask permission.
If your work had a co-author or co-authors, or if it was previously published and you don’t have the right to reuse it, then you will need to ask permission. In seeking permission, be clear about how and where you intend to reuse the work, and get a response in writing for your records.
It’s good scholarly practice to acknowledge the source of any material you reuse, and this applies to your own work, too. This may also be a requirement of your publisher’s policy or grant of permission to you, in which case they typically also specify a citation format, which you should follow carefully.