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 All published and unpublished material, whether in manuscript, printed or electronic form, is covered under this definition.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.”

https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/academic/guidance/skills/plagiarism?wssl=1

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  • It might come from published work, but it could also be from unpublished work.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. https://www.aje.com/arc/self-plagiarism-how-to-define-it-and-why-to-avoid-it/

Posted in Writing

When words lose their meaning: Everything is awesome

I really hate it when perfectly good words are stripped of their meaning as a result of inappropriate and over use. Here’s what I wrote about this on the Moonlight Press blog…

Moonlight Press

Have you noticed something? Everything these days is awesome.
Your coffee order at Starbucks is, “Awesome!” or so says the barista. You’ve just
told the drycleaner that you’re dropping off two suit jackets. That, too, is “Awesome.”
The sad truth is that when everything is awesome, nothing is awesome.

When did those of us who publish books get so crabby? But we
are crabby about this kind of devaluation of formerly useful words.

Many years ago, we were the ones who cringed every time
someone said that something was “groovy.” We just gritted our teeth and hoped
that the day would come when it would die out. It did.

But now we have a bigger problem because the word we are
having a problem with is a real word that has a specific definition that dates
to the sixteenth century. “Groovy” on
the other hand, has a somewhat looser…

View original post 305 more words

Posted in Backstory, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing books

Reviving old manuscripts: 5 things a writer might consider

life without endMany years ago – in a former lifetime even before my academic career – I worked in the field of organ transplantation. I was called an “organ procurement officer.” An odd title, you say? Yes, odd indeed. My responsibilities included overseeing the transplant coordinators who were tasked with ensuring donor organs made it to appropriate recipients (kidneys and livers mostly in those days), and the public education programming for increasing organ donations. This latter responsibility involved developing strategic promotion plans, writing about organ donation and making copious numbers of public presentations. All in a day’s work.

While I was working in the field I became fascinated with the myriad ethical dilemmas posed by the transplantation process itself, but more so by the way the health professionals involved in transplantation demonstrated a kind of fervour, often bordering on the religious, about their chosen medical field. It was this fascination that led me to research and write my very first non-fiction book many years ago.

Life Without End: The Transplant Story was my take on the ethics and politics of organ transplantation in Canada at the time, and I think it’s fair to say that not all of what I wrote made the folks I had worked with happy. Some of them were very unhappy indeed.

That was my last job in the real world before I started my academic career, but stories about organ transplantation never really left my monkey mind. So, not long after that first book was published I started writing a novel about what might happen if that kind of religious fervour about transplantation got out of hand. When I finished the manuscript I shopped it around to agents which resulted in finding one who actually loved the story and decided to take it on. She did her job (or at least I guess she did – we never did meet only talked on the phone), sending me detailed lists of where she had sent the manuscript and what the results were. She never did sell it, so I filed it away in the depths of my electronic writing files and almost, but not quite, forgot about it.

With the advent of electronic publishing the idea of reviving old manuscripts in my files began to take shape. I’m a firm believer, though, that not everything we write needs to be published, or even should it be published. Sometimes our writing is either for our eyes only (or ought to be) or it is our writing practice. I had never thought of this novel as being practice, though; rather I had believed it was ready to make its way out into the world. So I finally decided that The Body Traders would see the light of day.THE Body Traders cover FINAL for print front

First I reread it and found that I still loved the story. Then I spent a lot of time over the past year rewriting and updating it. You can well imagine that a book written more than a decade ago would need a tweak or two: for example, back when I worked in transplantation we carried pagers – no one even had a cell phone! Updating was indeed required!

I considered shopping it again, but in the end decided to self-publish. So, what did I learn from this process? I learned that there are several things you need to consider when deciding to revive an old manuscript.

  1. Ask yourself why you want to publish it now. Do you just want to see it in print (electronic or otherwise)? If the answer is yes, I suggest you need a better reason. There are a lot of books out there these days that no one will ever read. If you really don’t care if anyone else reads it, perhaps you need to put it away. “Publication” and “publish” both refer to “public” meaning that the work should be for the public.
  2. Reread it to see if you still feel as enthusiastic about it now as you did when you finished it. If you don’t, put it back in the electronic drawer and step away.
  3. Analyse it for it currency. Are the ideas still resonant? Will current readers appreciate the themes? If you aren’t sure, ask someone whose opinion you value to read it. Perhaps even consider beta readers.
  4. Edit the manuscript for specifics that will bring the details up to date. For example, if the protagonist still uses payphone, unless it’s part of a quirky character trait, you need to do a bit of updating.
  5. When you have finished the rewrite based on your own analysis, feedback from others’ and your update, read it again to see if you still feel enthusiastic. If the answer is yes, you’re ready to press the publish button!