Plagiarism—The scourge of the writer… Part 2: Self-Plagiarism

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.[1]

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!

Plagiarism: The scourge of the writer, part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about plagiarism lately as I make my way through another fall semester at the university – my excuse for neglecting my blog. My undergraduate ethics students have discussed it, as have my grad students (although I hope that since most of them are experienced public relations professionals they have a good handle on it — but I’ll get to that), and yet the topic keeps rearing its ugly head.  If I may — a couple of anecdotes…

A couple of years ago, just as IPads made their first appearance on campus, a new wrinkle was added to the increasingly complex topic of how to avoid plagiarism, given the plethora of new and juicy sources for information just begging to be ‘stolen.’  I was conducting that one task dreaded by every single university professor I know: I was marking.  I had just read one student’s submission, thinking that it had some unusual phrasing when I picked up the very next one on the pile.  I was then treated to precisely the same wording in at least two paragraphs of the next submission.  So, I did what all good university Profs do these days: I plugged the offending phrase into Google.  Then, as if by magic, its source appeared before my eyes on the screen.  No wonder it had looked familiar, it was from a document whose URL I had provided to students as a resource.

I emailed the offending students immediately, telling them that we needed to talk about this problem.  Within hours, one of them sent a sobbing email to me ensuring me that whatever happened had not been her fault, not intentional, not like her, blah, blah, blah. And then she cried in the office.  And I believed her insofar as it had not been her intention, it was not like her…but it had been her ‘fault.’  The other student had not yet contacted me at that point thinking that it was a trivial matter.

Here’s what had happened: The student with her shiny new IPad had taken notes during class that day.  She had been so taken with the subject, she immediately surfed over to the site during class and copied and pasted a bit into her notes.  Without referencing the source.  Then she lent her offending notes to her friend who had missed class (another lesson here, perhaps?).  In any event, they both used the material in their submissions thinking it was their own work.  Now, of course the second student was then doubly at fault since she used the other student’s notes verbatim without referencing it, adding insult to injury.

More recently, I marked a feature article a student had written when it occurred to me that not only had he referenced too few, weak sources, they were both on the internet and were both from the same online publication.  I surfed over to the site and found that much of the piece had been plagiarized (oh, it is so easy to copy and paste, isn’t it?).  I was then curious about the rest of the piece, so I again plugged a few sentences into Google and presto!  I came up with the sources — the same online publication, but this one he had hidden from me.  Busted.

When confronted, he freely, if not happily, admitted to doing it.  He had been busy; he knew it was wrong; he almost reconsidered, blah, blah, blah.  This instance particularly angered me because he had to have thought one of two things: Either he thought that he could get away with it (or he would not have done it and risked his complete degree), or he thought I was an idiot (which was probably the part that made me especially angry), both of which I shared with him.  In any case, he said that just before he clicked ‘send,’ he did have second thoughts.  But he did it anyway.

Both of these situations are slightly differently ethically, since in one situation there was no intention to deceive, whereas in the second, there was clear intention to pass off someone else’s work as his own.  Although I don’t believe these two are ethically equivalent, they are both academic offences.   The result was that there had to be consequences for both.  Those among us who plagiarize inadvertently might be ethically less treacherous than those who do it with intention to deceive, but it’s a practice that has to be curtailed – or they might end up with a copyright infringement charge at some point in their lives.

The first two nitwits lost a considerable number of marks, but there was no permanent scar on their academic record.  The second required a bit more thought and more than a passing glance at the university regulations on plagiarism and cheating.  I had to fill out forms and lodge a formal complaint against the student, including a recommendation for penalty.  I had the option of either giving him a failing grade with a notation of an academic offence on his permanent record, or asking that he be summarily dismissed from his degree program.  I took the former route, and he did not lose his place in the program.  This decision did not come without considerable thought and later reflection on whether I had done a good thing for the greater good or not.

This student was studying to be a public relations practitioner.  Should I have had him kicked out of our field?  Or at least the program: he could still have worked in the field if he could find someone to hire him.  Should people in public communication fields be held to a higher standard?  I sometimes think that we should.  Research indicates that those who will lie and cheat in their student days are more likely to lie and cheat in their professional careers.

So, I’m going to consider plagiarism I public communication fields the next time I get around to blogging – that’s after I finish marking the next batch of papers.  Wish me luck!