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Can I publish a conference paper in a journal?

Yesterday, I was approached by a student who had recently presented at a conference, and -having received positive feedback- was considering whether to submit her paper to a journal. She felt 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 wanted my advice as to whether to submit.

Man typing on computer keyboard.
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The short answer to this question is ‘yes’. It is, in fact common for many journal articles to begin their life as conference presentations. However, prospective authors need to be conscious of the following three questions.

Does the paper infringe copyright?

Most academic conferences nowadays have their proceedings published, even if the ‘proceedings’ only exist as a .pdf file sent to the conference participants. 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, authors tacitly waive copyright when they submit a paper of publication paper (although local law may allow the author to reserve some rights).

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 -in theory- have legal ramifications. In practice, conference organisers are usually happy to grant permission to re-use material, 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 decline. It is also possible that conference organisers prove hard to reach after the end of the conference, or maybe they neglect to respond to one’s queries; in such cases, too, the text cannot be re-used verbatim.

It is possible to rephrase the content of a conference contribution in such ways as to avoid copyright infringement. The rule of thumb is that there should be no more than 10% textual overlap, but common sense should be used in interpreting this guideline: For instance, overlap caused by shared quotations or data extracts is not usually regarded as a problem; identical paragraphs, on the other hand, might be problematic even if they accounted 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 would be considered ‘fair use’.

Am I deceiving readers?

The second issue to bear in mind is academic honesty. One particular concern is self-plagiarism, i.e., re-publishing a previously-written text and passing it off as something new. Self-plagiarism does not involve ‘stealing’ words or ideas, as is the case in actual plagiarism, 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?).

In addition, a ‘duplicate’ publication might distort the academic record by making it unclear that two or more papers 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 reported 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 the Humanities and Social Sciences implications are rarely as dire, but distorting the academic record is still something to be taken seriously.

To deal with these risks, prospective authors would have to make it clear that their article has been derived from a previous conference contribution. A common way to do this is by inserting a footnote in the article (e.g., “The findings reported in this article were originally presented at….”). It is also good practice to draw the attention of the journal editor to the previous publication, and explain what -if any- changes have been made, so that they may make their own decision as to whether the paper merits further consideration.

Am I adding value to the academic record?

A final consideration is whether the new publication adds to the body of scholarly knowledge. On some occasions, it may actually be beneficial to re-publish a conference paper as a journal article with no changes at all, as that would make findings available to a wider readership. This may be the case with obscure or regional conferences, or conferences that only publish their proceedings in a limited number of print volumes – although institutional and disciplinary repositories are usually a better alternative.

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. In addition, conference papers tend to be shorter and more focused than journal articles: for instance, one may avoid lengthy literature reviews, assuming that the audience will be familiar with the field; or one may have to be selective with the presentation of data in order to keep within the time limit. A journal article could address these shortcomings by presenting a fuller argument in proper context. Finally, it is quite common for an author’s 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, there is no reason why a conference paper should not be made into an article.

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