For The Third or Fourth Time

From today’s IHE,
a piece on
double-dipping conference presentations
. This is a practice that has been on
my mind somewhat during this, the most conference-intensive stretch of my
current program of study. Of course, the very idea of "double-dipping"
resonates with the bucket (or well) model of invention that, at its best, smacks
of individualism and zero-sum economics and, at its worst, echoes of such
horrifying social
(and professional) improprieties as standing over a vegetable tray at a faculty
gathering and using, re-using, and re-re-using the same celery stalk as a salivated
dipping stick for that zesty ("Maybe dill?") salad dressing. The views included
in the short article range from the cynical to the more generous-spirited.
From the cynical camp, a shot about dumbfounded graduate students who are
oblivious to the ethics of reperforming (revising, retooling, redelivering,
etc.) one’s work:

As Nelson C. Dometrius, a professor of political science at Texas Tech
University, writes in his introduction to [the debate featured in PS:
Political Science and Politics
], when he raised the question with senior
faculty members, he received mixed reactions, with people quickly outlining
special cases where they viewed such "double dipping" as justified. When he
posed the same question to graduate students, Dometrius relates, "the modal
reply was a blank stare — a lack of comprehension that presenting the same
paper as many times as you wished would be viewed by anyone as an unusual or
questionable practice."

I don’t know whether this says more about Dometrius, about the graduate
students at Texas Tech (less likely), or about advanced graduate study in
political science (even less likely), but it’s a take that doesn’t carry all
that well over into my own experience developing and giving conference talks in
recent years. If we are not to be flavor-of-the-week-ademics, isn’t some
return inevitable? What’s implied here is that carry-over is suspicious, an
indication that someone is slacking off or falsifying a work record.

On a more nuanced note, the exec. director of MLA–who was quoted in the
article–suggests that re-use is smart and appropriate, especially when you take
audience into account. If the audience is not the same from conference to
conference, the matter of "double-dipping" becomes less a question of
conferencing ethics and more a question of growing one’s vita by dubious means
(i.e., double-dipping as the HGH of higher ed). I would guess this works
very differently when, for a dissertating graduate student, the list of life’s
work is fairly short and centered on a small number of projects than it would
around year six or seven of an assistant professorship, after the chance to give
the dissertation a rest, pour your heart into a couple of different projects,
and perhaps even land a book contract. Artificial vita cultivation and re-tread
scholarship: who really believes there will not come a day of reckoning for
these practices?

One of the messages I return to from early in coursework: you can write
insightfully and meaningfully about your work from any point in it, whether you are just beginning
to find a research question, whether you have written full articles on the
matter, or whether you have dedicated twenty years to this or that interest.
Could this be construed as a kind of one-trick-ponyism? Perhaps. But
it is not easy to decide without knowing better the work in question. Of
course it’s possible to re-use one’s own stuff lazily, but all re-use, all
"self-plagiarism," need not fall into that category of suspicion.

I am tempted to leap to personal anecdotes as a way to wander through this
question a bit more. Those (i.e., the three of you) who have heard more
than one of my conference papers in recent years will recognize overlaps,
recurring interests, and ideas that re-appear because they click. But I am not
giving the same paper in any two cases. Not exactly. Neither am I
writing what I think of as purely original conference papers, since they all
rise from an accumulating slosh of ideas and clusters of interests (providing
copies of them is one measure of verification, but what about those
extemporaneous talks?). The conferencing record is like a listing of
cousins, not strangers, not siblings (most certainly not twins, which seem to be
the concern of the article). But then again,
perhaps I am merely invoking (to the point of abusing?) that graduate student
exemption that grants greater leniency to experimentation, to trying ideas and
presentational styles on for size, while trudging through all of those
pre-professional uncertainties.

I have to stop here, but there are a couple of other matters of interest
touched off by the piece:

  • Self-plagiarism as a concept (closely related: self-citation).
    Also as a hypocritical practice (i.e., teachers forbid undergraduates from
    re-using papers across the curriculum, but themselves–allegedly–do it).
    The article does not provide examples, and the only ones I can think of
    (aside from the obvious sharing of curricular materials, syllabi, etc.) are
    where an article evolves into a book chapter, but this practice is, as far
    as I know, widely accepted.
  • Whether publishing formalities apply to the conferencing circuits.
    If published articles have much greater purchase for tenure, wouldn’t
    self-duplication in formal publications reflect the lackadaisical attitudes
    toward re-used conference materials? Some of this goes back to acceptance
    systems, double-blind peer review, etc.
  • What of the practice of re-using conference proposals? Some lore
    about this circulates–the conference-goer who got in [to XYZ national
    conference] using the exact same proposal. Ethically objectionable? Change
    the title, re-submit the proposal. Does it matter whether the
    conference presentation was "original" if the proposal was a duplicate?
  • Do political scientists study Bakhtin?
  • The table, "Duplicate Presentations, by Year Doctorate Received," is
    fascinating in the trend it projects: by the year 3,000–for better or
    worse–all conference
    presentations will be double-dipped.