Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Self-Plagiarism - a misnomer if there ever was one

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. 

Any comments?


  1. Glenn McGeeJune 01, 2011

    You make a very persuasive case for abandoning the term, at least within the language games of publishing, on grounds of its incoherence and/or lack of utility.

  2. Keymanthri MoodleyJune 02, 2011

    Udo I agree. Terms like self-plagiarism cause reputational harm to the discipline of ethics. I believe that one must exercise care in referencing - I personally reference my own work that was previously published if I am reusing parts thereof. Multiple publications of the same material is problematic except if the publication is in different journals or media addressing completely different audiences and if the necessary adaptations have been made.This is a personal opinion.

    Keymanthri Moodley
    Bioethics Unit-Tygerberg Division
    Faculty of Health Sciences
    Univ of Stellenbosch
    South Africa

  3. AnonymousJune 19, 2011

    I have been researching the term self-plagiarism because I have been informed that an entire term paper was of my original works from the same class. Yes, I took information from different papers that I had already written and put them together to complete my final. My instructor has informed me that she has contacted the school board and I receieved a zero on my final because of self-plagiarism. I am sure this was noted somewhere in my class policy but had no idea that I could self-plagiarize with my own work. Also I have done this in many other classes in the same school and was never advised that I had done anything wrong. I had never heard of self-plagiarism until now and I am wondering if there is anything I can do or say when the school contacts me??? If anyone can help I would really appreciate the advice, tnaks!!!

  4. AnonymousJune 19, 2011

    The only thing that I have found in my student code of conduct is that if I Duplicate any information from a previous class it is considered self-plagiarism. However, the information that was duplicated is from the same class. Is this still considered self-plagiarism???

  5. Well, the obvious answer is that if there is a policy that were were made aware of, and that prohibits you from reusing for term papers content you have already submitted for grades, you're in trouble. Surely you would have understand the spirit of this policy, namely to force students to produce original instance each time they submit a paper for the purpose of getting a grade. As is said, to my mind there is no such a thing as self-plagiarism, for the reasons outlined in my blog post, but that does not mean that you have not violated university policies on the recycling of already submitted material.

  6. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011


    I think your three reasons persausively identify what is wrong with what is often called self-plagiarism. I can't think now of further cases where it is wrong.

    But I don't see why this makes the term self-plagiarism inappropriate. I think there is a strong rationale for referring to "self-plagiarism" in the student context so that students know this is a possibility. What other word would you suggest. After all, see your commenter on this thread above.

    -Tim W.

  7. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    You seem to have a content-based criterion of plagiarism. But it is probably better to speak about claiming credit for another's WORK. That is one of things bad with standard student plagiarism of other's work: he claims credit for this, and says grade me this way. That is while (1) on your list is at least analogous to plagiarism (and seems to be appropriately called "self-plagiarism) because it claims you have done original work here. You have not: the original work was done on another occasion. True it was done by you, but for another course. (By the way, I doubt there is any objection to using a paper you wrote for private use only five years earlier but never turned in - it is that you got credit for it.) This is not just a violation of a rule, as you say, but the rule is there to preserve a standard that reflects the standard of plagiarism (or an analogous standard).

    I suppose if you see plagiarism as just about "intellectual content", your view makes sense. Maybe you're even correct linguistically, I don't know. But I think this is an argument for the standard and even the linguistic term as better being seen in the light of producing work and claiming it as original when the context says you are supposed to do original work.

    -Tim W


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