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Self-Plagiarism in Grant Writing

When I began my service on the GPA Ethics Committee, a quick refresher on the Code of Ethics was in order. A particular concept jumped off the page at me: self-plagiarism.  I had a vague notion of its meaning, but struggled to wrap my head around how it might apply to my work. If I had this question after working in grant development for over twelve years, I figured others might benefit from further discussion on the topic as well.

Of course, most of us have a general understanding of plagiarism. According to Merriam-Webster, to plagiarize is to steal and pass off the ideas or words of another as one's own, or to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source. If we extend this definition to self-plagiarism, the second definition is most appropriate, since an individual cannot steal his or her own ideas.
The American Psychological Association Manual (Sixth Edition, 2010) provides this clarification: “Whereas plagiarism refers to the practice of claiming credit for the words, ideas, and concepts of others, self-plagiarism refers to the practice of presenting one's own previously published work as though it were new.”
Further research revealed most applications of self-plagiarism occur in the context of scholarly research and academic publishing, where there is significant pressure to “publish or perish.” Possible ethical breaches in this context include breaking a single large study into multiple smaller studies in order to generate more publishing credits, or publishing substantial portions of a previously published study in a new publication without citing the original publication.
Beyond undermining the underlying intent of scholarly research – to contribute new knowledge to the field – self-plagiarism in academic publications presents copyright concerns, which would not apply to most grant proposals since they are not typically published. So, how does the prohibition against self-plagiarism apply to grant writing? I cannot provide a definitive answer to this question, but I have identified a couple of scenarios in which self-plagiarism could present an ethical concern for grant professionals.
Boilerplate Language
To increase efficiency, grant professionals commonly use boilerplate language in responding to frequently asked application questions, often relative to organizational history, mission, administrative capacity, etc. This approach would not typically present an ethical concern, and I am certainly not arguing we must cite prior grant applications when we recycle language. However, it is worth considering possible ethical considerations when we fail to review and revise boilerplate language on a regular basis or to verify its appropriateness to specific applications. Grant professionals must recognize boilerplate language can become inaccurate over time, be irrelevant to a particular grant, or gloss over critical institutional weaknesses and weaken transparency.
Recycling Language for Multiple Clients
In the case of grant professionals who develop proposals for multiple clients, there might also be a need to recycle language for efficiency's sake. However, the ethical concern arises if a client is billed for time spent developing language, when another client has already compensated the consultant for their time.
In either of these scenarios, the underlying principles involve ensuring you, the grant professional, are operating in good faith when it comes to billing practices and crafting relevant and responsive language to proposal guidelines.
What other scenarios can you imagine in which self-plagiarism might present an ethical concern in grant writing?
Nikki Morrison, GPC, is the Grant Researcher/Writer at Northeast State Community College in Blountville, TN.  She has worked in grant development for community colleges for more than 12 years.