Posted in Plagiarism, Writing, Writing Nonfiction

Self-plagiarism: A writer’s guide

Some years ago, I wrote a blog piece on self-plagiarism, a concept that seems to be largely unknown in circles of wannabe writers these days.

It seemed important at that time because I was still teaching full-time at a university, and a former student contacted me to ask for advice. She had been taught over and over again while she was student about the perils of plagiarism. According to how she told it, now that she was out in the work world, she was routinely asked to do what she believed to be plagiarizing. I wondered whether or not she was really defining plagiarism accurately, or perhaps there was a different crime that needed consideration. It turned out that it was a situation more akin to “self-plagiarism.”

Just to back up a bit: I was an accidental academic. I never intended to have a 26-year career that took me all the way up the academic ladder to full Professor. I was hired part-time while I was still mostly a writer as an instructor assigned to teach news and feature writing to undergraduates in a corporate communication program. Part of my mantra at the time – and one that continues in my world even today – is this: Recycle your research.

I have always held the belief that you never know when you’ll be able to re-package material for a different audience, in a different genre, with a different purpose. Why reinvent the wheel each time for each project? Is this plagiarism? Self-plagiarism? Does it even matter? In a word, yes. But let’s start with the basics.

Oxford University provides one of the most unambiguous definitions of plagiarism in general. This is what they say:

Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement. All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition. Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional.”

Note the essential characteristic of plagiarism:

  • It is presenting as if it were your own, work created by someone else.
  • It might be with or without their consent. (If you have consent, you have to say so.)
  • You fail to acknowledge the work as not your own.
  • It might come from published work, but it could also be from unpublished work. It is still not yours.
  • It doesn’t matter if the work is in print or electronic form.
  • Even if you do it unknowingly, it’s still plagiarism.

So, you, the writer, look at this and say, “I never do this. I would never do this.” Then you turn around and recycle a piece you wrote on a blog somewhere and provide it to another blogger who believes it’s original. Or you lift a passage you particularly like from one of your books and put it into a new book.

“Well, I wrote it,” you say. That doesn’t matter. If the blog (or the reader) expects previously unpublished work, if you provide previously published material without telling them, you are still plagiarising. It’s just that this kind of plagiarism is self-plagiarism.

Dr. Ben Mudrak, writing in American Journal Experts Scholar, defines self-plagiarism this way:

“…any attempt to take any of your own previously published text, papers, or research results and make it appear brand new…”[1]

So, does this mean that my mantra about recycling your research to use in new and fresh ways, results in self-plagiarism? Not exactly, but it could.

To avoid self-plagiarism on my part, here’s what I said on that original blog post all those years ago:

“… 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…[this] 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…”

These days, writers who are trying to make a name for themselves look for opportunities to write for online magazines, book blogs or other kinds of platforms. It’s tempting to try to use the same piece for a variety of platforms, but it does constitute self-plagiarism unless you acknowledge its provenance.

Worse still, though, is the practice of newbie writers reusing old passages from their previously self-published work as if it were something new and fresh. Traditional publishers are likely to find these transgressions. Self-published authors have no third-party plagiarism checker. But beware. Readers these days are likely to find you out anyway…and tell the rest of the world in a review. You might want to avoid that.

And it’s just wrong, anyway.

[1] B. Mudrak. Self-Plagiarism: How to Define it and Why You Should Avoid It. AJE Scholar.

Posted in Co-authors, Writing Nonfiction

Collaborative writing: Advice for when a writing partner makes sense

I can hardly believe that it’s been eight years since I first wrote about my adventures in writing with a partner. As I said at the time, “I don’t play well with others.” And that has not changed. That being said, I have, indeed, collaborated on four books in my distant past, and I’m doing it once more. Recently someone asked us (my writing partner and me) how our system works. So, how does writing with a partner work? I don’t know how it is for others, but here’s what I know about it from my own experience.

First a bit of backstory.

I have always considered writing to be a solitary activity. In fact, that’s the way I like it. Perhaps it’s even clearer to say that it’s one of the things that I like most about writing. Through all of those years when I was a university professor, I observed with growing horror, the number of academics, whose very livelihood depended on their ability to publish (or perish – it’s true), who were singularly unable to pen anything on their own. In fact, it occurred to me on more than one occasion when I sat on peer review committees, reviewing others’ work, that we had already promoted someone else based on the exact same publications since both names appeared on all of them. And sometimes there was a lengthy list of authors. What this really means is that many of them wrote not a single word. They may have contributed something to the data collection, but there was certainly no writing involved. Remember publish or perish? There is nothing there that says “write or perish.” There’s a difference. Then I came along.

At this point in my writing life – post-academic career – I am proud to say that every single article and book that formed part of my upward academic ladder has only one author – me. That is, except for those four books I mentioned (which my peers at the university probably largely ignored anyway) that I wrote with one other author. That author happens to be my husband. Which is probably why that person asked us about our writing process. In fact, I believe he might have added, somewhat incredulously, “And you’re still married?” Well, yes, and very happily, I might add.

Back in 2011 when I first wrote about our collaborations, I said this: “…There are good reasons to collaborate and publish a co-authored book – such as when the knowledge and skills of more than just you are needed…” And this reason still holds true. But now I have another reason.

I’m currently collaborating on a book with my same co-writer (my husband) because there was a book he wanted to write, and he spent 45 years working as a physician while I wrote to my heart’s content. This means that his expertise in medicine coupled with my “expertise” as a writer would be the combination needed for him to write the book he has always wanted to do. Am I ghosting it for him? Not really, but I have decided that there is no need for my name to be on this cover. It’s his book.

Because it’s his book and not our book, I have had to take a slightly different approach to the process. I have been his mentor and editor, but I have to try to ensure that the ideas that are finally on the page are his, not mine. That might be easy for some people who have not written in this area before, but once upon a time, I earned some of my income as a medical writer (I have a graduate degree in a medical-communication-related discipline). So, we had come up with a process.

Like puzzle pieces, each co-author’s contribution has to fit the other co-author’s contribution to the process and content.

We began with a very detailed book proposal. I’ve been selling non-fiction based solely on proposal ever since I’ve been writing (my fiction is another story all together). This means that before we even started, we had worked through what would be in the book, how it would be organized, what approach we would take and what he wanted the style and voice to sound like. This was my blueprint.

Then, as we moved into the writing process, I fleshed out the chapters, he reviewed each one as we went along, then I took that review back and reworked each chapter. We moved through the whole book this way, with me conducting mini-interviews with him along the way to capture his experiences in specific areas, and so that it would have his voice. Once this first draft was completed, we started the whole process again. After the third iteration, we were ready for external copy-edit. And that’s where the book is now.

What would my advice be for collaborative writing? Here it is.

  1. Choose your writing partner carefully. It needs to be someone you respect and are compatible with.
  2. Ensure that you are prepared to take criticism as you move through the process.
  3. Don’t be afraid of giving constructive criticism.
  4. Be prepared to disagree.
  5. Be prepared to compromise.
  6. Be prepared to commit to clearing up each disagreement as you work. Don’t let those disagreements pile up.
  7. Write from a collaborative outline.
  8. Find a rhythm of writing/reviewing/editing that you can both agree on up front.
  9. Use this process to learn something about your own writing habits.
  10. Have a drink together on a regular basis to chew over aspects of the book that you can’t always figure out while sitting in an office in front of a computer.

I am currently being accused by my co-writer of pushing hard at this stage as we approach the end of the process so that I can return to my novel. I can’t argue with that!

The book is being copy-edited as we speak and has a September pub date.  We’ll be having a glass of our favourite champagne on that day!