This post discusses whether it is is appropriate to publish a conference paper as a journal article or book chapter.
The post was prompted by a discussion I had with one of my brightest students, which might resonate with your experience. She had recently presented at a conference, and —having received positive feedback— was considering submitting her paper to a journal. She felt, rightly, that this would be beneficial to her career, because journal articles tend to be more highly-regarded than conference contributions, and because she felt that having more publications in her CV would add to her credibility as a fledgling scholar. However, she was conscious that using the same research twice felt like gaming the system, and she wanted to know if it is really OK to submit.
The short answer to this question is ‘yes’. In language education, and in many other disciplines, it is quite common for journal articles to begin their life as conference presentations (and if you scroll all the way to the bottom of this post, you can find out more about how to expand a conference paper to a journal article). But before you do any of that, there are three things that you should consider.
Does the new paper infringe copyright?
Many academic conferences nowadays have their proceedings published, even if the ‘proceedings’ only exist as a .pdf file that lives briefly online at the conference website. When this happens, copyright of the papers that are included in the proceedings normally passes from the author(s) to the conference organisers. Sometimes, transfer of copyright is formally acknowledged in a signed document, but even if that is not the case, copyright is tacitly transferred when you agree to have a paper published (in some cases, local law may allow the author to reserve some rights, but let’s not get into any of that).
Reproducing material that has already been published (again, this includes electronic and non-commercial publications) would be a violation of the publishers’ copyright, and could —at least in theory— have legal consequences. In practice, conference organisers are usually happy to grant you permission to re-use your content, in exchange for an acknowledgement by the author that the paper was first presented at their conference. However, permission must be requested, rather than assumed, and organisers are well within their rights to refuse. Another thing to consider is that conference organisers are often hard to reach after the end of the conference, and responding to your queries might not be an immediate priority for them. In such cases, too, the text cannot be re-used verbatim.
It is possible to rephrase the content of a conference presentation in a way that would avoid copyright infringement. Different disciplines and different countries have different rules about this. Some of the rules-of-thumb I have come across while researching this post range from having less than 10% textual overlap to having at least 30% new content. But really, what you should be doing is exercising common sense in interpreting whatever guideline applies. For instance, overlap caused by shared quotations or data extracts is less of a problem; multiple identical paragraphs, on the other hand, might be problematic, even if they account for less than 10% of the total text. Schematics and tables cannot be paraphrased, and may therefore prove somewhat challenging, but re-using them judiciously and with appropriate citation might be considered ‘fair use’ depending on local law.
Does the new paper deceive readers?
The second issue to consider is academic honesty. The main problem here is self-plagiarism, i.e., re-publishing a text you wrote in the past, and passing it off as something new. Unlike actual plagiarism, self-plagiarism does not involve ‘stealing’ words or ideas, but it is still an act of academic deception. Readers, who may spend money and time to access an author’s work, do so because they implicitly expect that they have never read this work before, and self-plagiarism violates their trust (How would you feel if you bought a detective novel, only to find that it had the same plot as the author’s previous work, along with identical chunks of text?).
Another reason why so-called ‘duplicate’ publications are problematic is that they can distort the scholarly record. This is because they make it unclear that two or more papers (i.e., the conference presentation and the subsequent paper) refer to the same study. Readers might be left with the impression that the findings of the journal article confirm those reported in the conference, when in fact it is the same dataset that is being described twice. In some disciplines, most notably medicine, such distortion could have serious consequences if, for example, the same dataset were to be included several times in a meta-analysis that draws on multiple articles. In language education, and probably most of the Humanities and Social Sciences as well, implications are usually not quite so dire. Still, distorting the scholarly record is taken seriously, and it leads to article retractions, which are very public and very embarrassing for everyone involved.
To deal with these risks, what you need to do is to be very clear that the article stems from a previous conference contribution, and do this consistently in all the stages of the publication process. A common way to show the origin of the article is by inserting a footnote or endnote somewhere in the text (e.g., “The findings reported in this article were originally presented at….”). It is also good practice to draw the journal editor’s attention to the previous publication, and explain what —if any— changes have been made. This allows them to make their own decision about whether the paper merits further consideration, plus they can often offer helpful suggestions about how to deal with the situation.
Does the new paper add value to the scholarly record?
A final thing to consider when thinking about publishing a presentation as a journal article is whether the new publication adds to the body of scholarly knowledge. Sometimes (but not very often), it may actually be useful to re-publish a conference paper as a journal article with no changes at all. This may be the case with obscure or regional conferences, or conferences that only publish their proceedings in a limited number of print volumes. In such a case, an argument could be made that the new publication helps to make the findings available to a wider readership, although institutional and disciplinary repositories are usually a better alternative (Here’s a list of such repositories, in case you’re interested).
A far more compelling argument in favour of a new publication can be made when the journal article is an expanded, more fully developed, or more refined version of the conference paper. At minimum, the text will have to be adjusted to meet the needs of the journal’s readership, and any changes that highlight different aspects of the study may be of scholarly value. Another thing to remember is that conference papers tend to be shorter and more focused than journal articles. For instance, when presenting at a conference, we sometimes avoid lengthy literature reviews, assuming that the audience will be familiar with the state-of-the-art. Also, the time limit of a conference presentation means that we we often have to be selective about how much data we can present. A journal article could address these shortcomings by presenting a fuller argument in proper context. Finally, it is quite common for our thinking to develop in response to the discussion that the conference paper generated. Journal articles that grow out of conference presentations (rather than merely repeat the same content) are a welcome addition to the literature.
Coming back to the original question: Provided the new submission passes the tests of legality, ethics and value, it is perfectly fine to publish a conference presentation as an article.
Before you go: If you landed on this page because you’re planning to write an article, I hope that you found this post helpful and I wish you all the best with your publishing endeavours.
For some ideas about preparing a conference paper for publication, you may want to take a look at this editorial, by Jeff Offutt, the editor of the Journal of Software Testing, Verification and Reliability.
If you have more questions, feel free to drop a line in the comments below, or ask me using this contact form. There’s also a range of social sharing buttons below, in case you feel like sharing this information with anyone else who might find it useful.