Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle: The Problem of Self-Plagiarism

When people think “plagiarism”, they invariably think of the process of ripping off someone else’s words without attribution to that person. Easy enough to grasp in concept, but not always easy to assess in practice, absent an exact, word-for-word quote. But there is more to the concept of plagiarism than ripping someone else off. How about ripping yourself off? That too would constitute unethical plagiarism  – and the proper term for such repurposing is “self-plagiarism.”

Self-plagiarism, also known as “recycling fraud”, is a problem often found in academic circles. It arises when an author republishes an entire work, or reuses significant portions in a new work, without referencing the earlier work. It is more insidious because most people wouldn’t consider taking from oneself to be stealing. Nonetheless, self-plagiarism is an issue, particularly for publishers with interests in the original work. Additionally, to the extent it is passed off as new material, the self-plagiarism purports to be something it is not – virgin territory.

Traditional concepts of plagiarism do not easily encompass self-plagiarism. For example, the definition of plagiarism from the 1995 Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary provides:

use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work 

My emphasis. And, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

the wrongful appropriation or purloining and publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas … of another

Again, my emphasis. Self-plagiarism, however, does not benefit from such solid agreement in definition – misuse of another’s work. Self-plagiarism involves re-use of identical or nearly identical portions of an author’s own writings, without acknowledging that the author is copying from his or her prior work and without citing the prior work. Thus, it differs significantly from the definition of plagiarism tied to the concept of intellectual theft from another, making self-plagiarism susceptible to significant dispute. Unlike plagiarism, there is nothing illegal about self-plagiarism, although it could subject one to civil liability to a copyright holder. And it certainly smacks of unethical behavior.

To the extent you are interested in learning more about self-plagiarism and its pitfalls, the fine folks at Paradigms LLC, the makers of iThenticate Software, have prepared a white paper explaining its intricacies. You can download the white paper here.

Practicing attorneys are encouraged to “self plagiarize” in creating legal documents – why reinvent the wheel when you already filed a brief on the same legal points last month or draft a contract without reference to language you employed in the standard terms in your prior contracts?  However, lawyers who moonlight as authors of legal treatises, periodicals, handbooks or other more commercially viable publications should at least confront the concept and understand the consequences. If you really find yourself troubled by the possibilities, you can always look into the iThenticate  software product – it compares manuscripts against more than 14 billion web pages, more than 30 million published research articles from 150 leading science, technical and medical publishers, and over 80,000 major newspapers, magazines and scholarly journals.

So, next time you want to use that gem you previously employed in a prior work, make sure you cite the source – you. Remember the four R’s: reduce; re-use; recycle; and, re-attribute.