When the Roman poet Martial accused rival poet Fidentinus of copying some of his verses, he called him a “plagiarius,” Latin for kidnapper.*  But until the early 1700’s, stealing ideas or written content wasn’t a crime—in fact, it was encouraged.  Writers were supposed to imitate the masters and the classics, and anyone who was brazen enough to try an original plot was mocked and ridiculed.

Plagiarism and copyrights emerged in the 18th century when people began to idealize originality, and we’ve been tiptoeing around each other’s writing ever since.  It’s probably fair to say that not one of us would argue that promoting innovation is a bad thing. Copyright law is confusing at best—at worst it’s a nightmare—but it is in place to protect intangible creation as property, and most writers value their work and have no problem respecting the rules against plagiarism.

Recently however, we at Phreelance Writers have come across the idea of “self-plagiarism,” essentially, the re-using of one’s work without acknowledging that re-use.  We’ve thought about it some, and we’ll share those thoughts with you here. But we’d also like to know your thoughts on the subject.  Can you steal from yourself?  Is self-plagiarism wrong?  If so, should it be associated with and punishable to the same degree as real plagiarism?  Hit us with some comments.

*In the interest of academic good form, I should let it be known that I’ve taken this fact and sentence style from a published document.

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Barbara Ohrstrom

To a certain degree, I agree with the idea of imitating the masters and the classics; in fact, I once assigned a student to copy, by hand, the first chapter of Another Country by James Baldwin because she admired his style!  The best way to internalize that style was to copy, by hand, his text.  Why?  This is one of the mysteries of learning and of learning writing:  we do not understand this process, but the brain learns what the body does in a way that listening or reading does not impart.  To truly integrate his style, she needed to feel it!  And certainly teaching rhetorical forms is a kind of imitation since the forms themselves create the structure of the essay.
Having said that, I can well understand Fidentinus’ ire although I also think his ire is due–at least in part–to ego.  In a perfect world, what does it matter whether our names are attached to our work?  Must we receive credit and the ego boost that goes with it?  Perhaps writing a story and not receiving credit might be a good exercise in modesty!  However, the name also lends credibility and responsibility; if I write something that is controversial, I certainly expect that I will have the courage to place my name and my honor upon my words.
This is a little far afield from self-plagiarism.  This used to be labeled academic dishonesty; it meant a student had turned in the same essay to two professors or more without informing them.  This is dishonest because the professor, in a perfect world, assigns work she believes will benefit the student, and if the student does the same work twice, is he not missing out on the opportunity to learn anew?  With writing, even the same assignment can generate additional benefits if done twice, provided, of course, it is literally done twice.  Most professors frown on that sort of thing, but more significantly, academic dishonesty creates a sense of betrayal.  Although professors expect plagiarism, in the writing classroom, trust is essential.  When that trust is broken by a student or professor, hurt ensues.  So on that note, I would say, tell your professors!  Stating one wants to submit the same paper twice is the beginning of a discussion, not an end.  It indicates a problem to be solved–perhaps one professor can change the assignment for that student, or perhaps the new version of the essay can use a different rhetorical form so that learning can occur.
Outside of academia, however, the rules change yet again.  Publishers are very possessive of what they publish and some would blacklist a writer who sold the same story to two different publishers.  At the very least, in their contracts, they state they want to know.  But in this case, who does this benefit?  Well, the publisher, of course!  Since writers, particularly freelance writers, are fighting to earn their daily bread, I say let writers “self-plagiarize!”

Ori

As someone who dedicated 7 years to the study of writing I have had many opportunities to consider, and sometimes roundly ignore my schools’ policy on self-plagiarism.  I did, in multiple classes, turn in creative writing I had done in other classes.  I didn’t plan on writing fiction, so why should I have to produce two short stories?  Or, I had made some changes.  Or I simply wanted new people to workshop it.

The temptation to recycle can be quite strong, and in fact could be justified as a necessary job skill.  Few writing projects in the office are developed in a vacuum.  When I was writing grants at my last job, I often used past grants as my starting point.  However, self-plagiarism is still considered a violation of the plagiarism policy of most schools.

Administrators tend to focus on plagiarism as a moral and legal issue in regards to misappropriating someone else’ work, while self-plagiarism is usually an issue of “academic dishonesty,” that is, a student presenting old work as new.  You can usually avoid being reprimanded by acknowledging that you’re incorporating old work, but I’m most concerned by self-plagiarism because of 1) the laziness of the student, and 2) the lack of imagination.

I don’t believe that this should be treated with the same severity as appropriating another author’s work, but whether you substitute old work as new or incorporate old work, self-plagiarism is a violation of the spirit of learning. Reinventing an old piece of writing is acceptable, but reusing is a thoughtless shortcut and amounts to cheating.  My decision to reuse my writing didn’t hurt anyone other than myself. True, I gained a little bit of free time, or what felt like a few precious hours of sleep, however, I missed opportunities to push myself to new levels as a thinker and scholar.

Dash

Ori mentioned that administrators focus on plagiarism as a moral and legal issue, while self-plagiarism is considered more of an issue of “academic dishonesty.” I think this simple explanation doesn’t cover the problem of self-plagiarism. As educators, we are tasked with teaching students not only how to do a certain skill, like write, we are also charged with teaching them how to think about these skills we teach such that they are able to increase their ability. Presenting old work as new is wrong.

Assignments are given to challenge students and help them expand their abilities. The inherent understanding is that students create original work (insofar as there is originality). By re-appropriating used work, the student misses the point of the assignment. There is no way a student has challenged themselves if they simply hand in previously completed work.

Furthermore, the level of damage a student inflicts on themself when they engage in self-plagiarism cannot be trivialized. I have substituted work from one class in another class. That was detrimental to me because I did not fully fulfill the requirements of the assignment. The work I submitted fit closely but was not a perfect fit, and because of that I lost points that I could have earned had I done original work.

I recognize that sometimes, students don’t have enough time to complete all assignments in a timely fashion and that the temptation to re-use work is high. However, I maintain that the negative academic affects of doing that are far worse than any amount of time saved.

Nick

A few years back, I was writing my senior thesis on dystopian literature. I lived in the library as I wrote. I came in one night—I was about eight pages in—and wrote five of the best pages I’d written all semester in dozens of papers. In the fever of writing, I neglected to periodically save. Naturally, my library computer chose that night to spontaneously shut down. No auto-recovery. I restrained myself from smashing the computer with my left foot and stormed out. The next night, I rewrote. I remembered all the main points, metaphors, and complexities of my argument, but the writing couldn’t match the perfect wording of the night before. I remember thinking then that I could never produce the same thing twice.

At the essential moment of creativity, self-plagiarism doesn’t exist. As writers, we come to each blank page informed by different experiences and different moods, different thoughts and urgings. These aspects of our being are merely shifting manifestations of an essential, single self. If I write this again tomorrow, I might draw ideas from that same essence and shade them with another day’s memories. I might express those ideas in a different style, different language, but they come from the same source. Each moment of creativity is like another tributary sprung from that source, and it therefore travels through different personal territory and has a unique destination that the same idea written in a different moment will never see. The result is a unique creation from a single self. So there is no true plagiarism there.

A couple of years ago, Peter Matthiessen reworked a well-respected trilogy into a single book and called it Shadow Country. It won the National Book Award. The work is a new expression of old ideas and characters, and even the judges recognized its separate worth. We are always our own masters; we can’t kidnap ourselves or past expressions that won’t repeat themselves.

(Note: selling an exact replica of previously published writing without acknowledgement violates copyright, so don’t do it. It’s called integrity.)

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