A Word on Self-Plagiarism

Udo Schüklenk (an academic ethicist) recently wrote a blog post on the idea of self-plagiarism. For anyone who teaches, whether at the elementary, high-school, post-secondary (university) or graduate level, the post will be of value to you. There is a lot of confusion about plagiarism out there today, and Udo helps to clear up at least one aspect of it: the idea that you might be able to plagiarize yourself!

Here’s an excerpt from his post (not plagiarism, by the way), and feel free to follow the link to read more on the topic:

If you browse documents on academic misconduct you’ll bump sooner or later into the term ‘self-plagiarism’. Students in many universities are threatened with sanctions if they submit plagiarized as well as self-plagiarized content in seminar papers.

I take issue with this. There is no such thing as self-plagiarism. It’s a misnomer. Plagiarism’s defining feature is that it involves the theft of someone else’s intellectual content and the attempt to pass off this intellectual content as one’s own. So, I steal someone else’s content and claim it is my own intellectual, creative contribution in a paper or some other medium.

What goes for self-plagiarism is nothing of that sort…[read more…]

Personally, when I teach a university course in philosophy I have at least two goals in mind: a) get the students to read the material and demonstrate an understanding of it, b) give the students an opportunity to develop good academic writing skills.

Accomplishing (a) is the harder of the two goals, and I won’t go into it here. But I find that (b) can be accomplished by allowing students to develop an idea throughout the course, through an iterative writing process. Allowing students to import work they have already done, assuming they make it clear where it is coming from, then developing it further in my class while incorporating new material from the course reading list, is an excellent way to mirror the real-world activity of writing.

The alternative, and the technique that I encountered more often than not in my undergraduate work, is to get students to produce several completely novel pieces of writing throughout the course. Unfortunately that kind of approach makes it easier for students to plagiarize (ironically), because they can grab half-baked canned essays from random sources on the internet, and it results in having students repeat the very first step of writing ad nauseam, that is, producing poorly developed bits of arguments that are of little use to anyone (including the students). An iterative writing process also has the benefit of complicating (actual) plagiarism by forcing the student to produce multiple drafts towards producing a final piece of work.

Within an iterative writing process students are forced to build on their drafts throughout the course to produce something that is much more polished and intellectually rewarding. Of course, I’m assuming that intellectual rewards are valuable in and of themselves.

Great post, Udo!

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3 thoughts on “A Word on Self-Plagiarism

  1. I'm not sure I understand your point or what you're getting on. My understanding on the subject is the following.

    1. Any piece of information (data, idea, any piece of knowledge) that is not yours and not original must be referenced to its source.
    2. Once you've published some sort of information (data, idea, any piece of knowledge) it belongs to the public domain and cannot be re-used by yourself or any other person without proper referencing.
    3. From this point of view, self-plagiarism does exist and this is why many scientific journals take a very dim view of it. Indeed, they make you sign a declaration to the effect that no part of what you submit for publication has been previously published.
    4. That's why most scientific journals refer to the submitted material as "original research" and do not accept anything that has been previously published.

    Example: I gather some data, write a paper using these data, and publish them in journal A. Then, a few years later, I re-use the same data in another paper and submit to journal B. I'll get slammed by journal B for plagiarism.

    Developing an idea or a text over the course of a semester is a valuable exercise, but self-plagiarism does exist.

    Paul.

    1. Hi Paul,
      Published work is generally not a part of the public domain. It is copyrighted (possibly under a creative commons license, but usually not) and belongs to the copyright holder. Reprinting significant portions of previously published work verbatim could result in a copyright infringement. But what is at issue in Udo's argument, as I understand it, is the more nuanced kind of "plagiarism" that occurs when original ideas/arguments are reused in multiple publications by the author who "owns" them.

      Udo addresses this problem as occurring "when the same argument is published in different journals with similar target audiences. Doing this gives the mistaken impression that there's a deluge of interest in your particular analysis, while other content is prevented from getting published. Current guidelines tend to see this as a breach of etiquette rather than a capital crime (in publishing ethics terms)."

      His point (and he also makes it earlier in his piece) is that it is quite common to reuse one's own arguments, often without referencing them. This is common, and accepted practise. Things get worse if you simply rewrite an argument and pass it off as an original article (without adding to it significantly). However, Udo is claiming that that is merely bad etiquette, but certainly not plagiarism. I think he's right.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. And so we don't agree. Firstly, I don't think it ever is question of merely etiquette, and secondly, where I come from (natural and exact sciences), this is certainly a capital crime. By the way, I do not own my data or iseas once they are published: they belong to everyone, otherwise how would scientific progress proceed? You might be surprised, but there are specific laws in Canada about sharing data, in some cases quite restrictive. For instance, a private company X goes and collects a whack of new data on a particular subject, often at a very significant cost. In some cases, the data must become public domain within a year!

        P.

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