My foray into academia began when I was hired almost 25 years ago to teach a writing course to undergraduates in public relations & corporate communication in a 4-year degree program (at the university where I still teach). The mantra that I taught – and that I continue to believe in – recycle your research. You never know when you’ll be able to re-package material for a different audience, in a different genre, with a different purpose. Is that self-plagiarism? Well, let’s examine it.
After my first post on plagiarism, one of my former students posted on my Facebook page that she had been taught in university the perils of plagiarism, and now that she was out in the work world, she suggested that she was expected do so on a relatively regular basis. I wondered whether or not she was really defining plagiarism accurately, or perhaps there was a different crime that needed consideration (the notion of making up quotes in media releases is a topic for another time). Indeed, we consider it plagiarism at the university when a student recycles a paper from one course with a few changes into another.
Last month, a University of Toronto researcher made news when he was censured for self-plagiarizing passages of text from his previously published work. The retraction notice published on the journal’s web site says the following about the paper:
One of the conditions of submission of a paper for publication is that authors declare explicitly that their work is original and has not appeared in a publication elsewhere. Re-use of any material should be appropriately cited and quoted. As such this article represents a severe abuse of the scientific publishing system.
So the lesson here is that if you are going to use verbatim passages from previous work they should be appropriately attributed just as you would attribute material from sources that you did not produce yourself. Whew! I’m glad to have that out of the way. From time to time I have referred to my previous work, but always with a citation. I always thought I was just being egotistical. Evidently I was being ethical.
So, once we have that approach to self-plagiarism out of the way – where it is clear that material is directly removed from one piece into another – is there, in fact, a grey area through which we must draw a black line? Precisely when are we wading into the quagmire of moral turpitude?
Jonathan Bailey writing online in Plagiarism Today calls it ‘double-dipping’ and offers five scenarios where we might consider the concept of self-plagiarism and its ethics. He offers the scenarios for consideration and asks the question of where to draw the boundaries.
One of the commenters on his site suggests that self-plagiarism is an oxymoron. This is a perspective that needs consideration since by definition, plagiarism usually refers taking material or ideas that belong to someone else and passing them off as your own. If it’s your own to begin with, then can it be plagiarism?
Well, strictly speaking, self-plagiarism is different from plagiarism by definition. Self-plagiarism in practice means passing off your own previous work as if it were new and original to the situation. So, if we accept this as the definition of self-plagiarism, then we have to accept that when new and original work is expected, it is not okay to use what you’ve written previously. But in my mind that doesn’t preclude you from reusing your research. And ethically, I believe that this is where that black line has to be drawn.
Reusing research that you’ve used before – even using your own writing as a reference – seems to be completely acceptable. However, writing what is supposed to be – and is understood by your readers to be – an original piece (whether it’s for a magazine, a newspaper, a blog, an academic journal or a book) without referencing material that was actually written previously is in my view lying. You are essentially passing it off as original when it clearly isn’t. If someone is paying you for original work (payment might not be in money as in the case of academic writing – rather it is for recognition of a sort), then original work he or she should have.
But what about when you’re not being paid? Like right now – I’m writing this but no one is paying me to do so. Do you, as the reader care? Do you expect it to be new and original? If I write a post about self-plagiarism for someone else’s blog, the owner of that blog will tell me if he or she wants original work. If I reuse something I’ve blogged before, I would be lying. It would also be lying if I wrote it somewhere else before – like a magazine article – and passed it off as original material for the host blog.
It seems to me that the bottom line is to do what you say you’ll do: if you say you’ll produce original material, then original it ought to be. If the journal expects original material, then original material they ought to receive. If you need to reuse some of your old writing, then cite it!
But of course, that’s just me!