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. I use my own content and recycle it in another paper I produce. This might involve using text blocks from an older paper in the new paper without referencing the text as such. Or it might involve the rewriting of text from an older paper in a new manuscript.
Now, because there is no theft of intellectual property involved, calling this plagiarism seems wrong to me. It also seems to me as if such behavior is not necessarily wrong. Let me give you a couple of examples. Say I invent a new method in genetics research and I re-use it time and again. Is it really wrong to copy-paste the description of my method in the method section of paper I produce? I doubt it. Equally, thinking about my own field. Say I got famous for having said something remarkable about the ethics of human enhancement. Obviously, I will be invited by textbook authors, journal editors, encyclopedia producers and whatnot to write my argument afresh for them. Is acceding to those requests really wrong? I doubt it. I might also be asked to reproduce my argument/analysis for a different audience (say a different language journal or a different audience comprised of readers of a specialist journal etc). Would it really be wrong to re-use content from an older paper I wrote without diligently referencing every single line of my own analysis? I doubt it. I also think that if you believe you have a really good idea, you'd aim to promote it, instead of burying it in one paper that might be missed by the community you hope to reach with your analysis.
Where what is called mistakenly self-plagiarism is wrong is:
1) when students are required to write an original piece for a seminar and it is made explicit by the teacher that they must not use content they produced earlier. The 'crime' here would lie in the violation of the rule though, and not in the renewed use of one's own intellectual material.
2) 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).
3) more difficult is it when people re-use their content in multiple papers and then add it to their CVs. This is so, because these CVs are used to attract research funding (ie impress review committees), get promotions and stuff like that. I see this as more difficult, because more often than not, only bits and pieces of content are recycled. It's rarely the whole shebang published earlier. My view would be that the onus should be on the reviewers to ascertain the originality or lack thereof of papers listed on CVs. Alternatively, academics could be required to state per paper/book listed on their CVs to what extent the individual publications constitute original contributions. In any case, the violation here is not related to the integrity of the academic content but to do with other matters altogether.
My view would be that we should do away with the general term of 'self-plagiarism', because it is a misnomer, and that instead we should describe more carefully under what circumstances the recycling of one's own intellectual content is ethically problematic. I hope to have shown that what is called today self-plagiarism is not at all always wrong, but that it can be wrong under certain circumstances.
I should stress what is true for everything posted on this blog, this is my personal view on this matter, no more, no less.