Self-Plagiarism

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By Carolyn Penfold

Self-plagiarism is a thorny issue. On the one hand I sympathise with students who say ‘but it’s not dishonest, it’s my own work, why can’t I hand it in again?’ This view seems borne out by the University’s website where in answer to the question ‘what is plagiarism?’ the following response is given:

Plagiarism … is using the words or ideas of others and passing them off as your own. Plagiarism is a type of intellectual theft.

It is not until we follow the link to ‘common forms of plagiarism’ that we come across the following (as the very last example):

‘Self-plagiarism’ occurs where an author republishes their own previously written work and presents it as new without referencing the earlier work, either in its entirety or partially.   Self-plagiarism is also referred to as ‘recycling’, ‘duplication’, or ‘multiple submissions of research findings’ without disclosure.   In the student context, self-plagiarism includes re-using parts of, or all of, a body of work that has already been submitted for assessment without proper citation.

At my university students attach a cover sheet to their submissions acknowledging ‘that this work has not been submitted for credit elsewhere.’  We may think that as law students they should be aware of the need to READ declarations before signing them! On the other hand, it is understandable that students might attach and sign the cover sheet without taking too much notice, treating it as a record of their name, student number, word count and date of submission.

Nonetheless, I would have thought it obvious that when we’re assessing students we want to know what they’ve learned and how they’ve developed their understanding during the particular course in which they’re being assessed. However, I have to wonder how obvious this really is in relation to self plagiarism. My brother, a teacher, says ‘it’s their own work, it’s not dishonest to re-submit it.’ My son, a university student, says ‘but that’s what academics do all the time…’

Perhaps we would do better not to call this self plagiarism at all. Let’s separate it from the copying / theft concept and simply call it what it is: recycling or resubmitting. Students know why ‘plagiarism’ is prohibited, now let’s teach them why ‘recycling / resubmitting’ are prohibited, and see if that gets the message across.

Any thoughts?

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4 thoughts on “Self-Plagiarism

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  1. Thanks for your comments. I think the most important thing is to ensure students understand the points and distinctions. Ie it’s okay for people developing the same ideas further to rehearse the prior work – WITH ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – as Prue says. Sometimes this is okay for students also, for example if moving from an essay to a thesis, or from a small thesis to a larger thesis.
    But it is never okay simply to hand in the same or similar thing twice, and it’s never okay to hand in work for one course which you have not done for that course, unless you are clearly building on / developing / furthering previous work, and it is acknowledged. I really think the latter is a situation where students should be speaking to teachers who can guide them with this.

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  2. I think this is not such a difficult issue as all that. When academics self-plagiarise without referring to previous work that is dishonest too. I think there is often a difficulty and I am guilty of this myself when you want to go on from something you have been saying but you feel you need to establish the old ground in the new publication, but that is where you need to say ‘I have argued this before ‘ or I have argued this elsewhere’. Some academics have based a career on rewriting the same article over and over but I don’t think that is acceptable. We need to be clear about it. Students know that the essay is being submitted for the particular subject and that it is dishonest to submit the same essay for another subject. I don’t think it is particularly hard to see that this is a problem.

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  3. We had the same problem under our Honor Code here at the University of North Carolina, in the U.S. A dozen years ago, students resisted covering such conduct within the Honor Code and Honor Sysem (in which they play a very substantial role). Three years ago the students asked that it be covered. That then put the onus on professors to be clear about ground rules. I have been very actively involved in the Honor System over the years, and think of plagiarism involving all three of the following actions at once: lying (claiming that work was done under recofniEd ground rules), cheating (taking unfair advantage that disadvantages others, contrary to ground rules), and stealing (taking others’ work as one’s own). Does this conceptualizer ion have a bearing in Australia? Put into that framework generally, it is possible to see how conventions regarding faculty citations of one’s own work may differ. In our recent discussion regarding changes in the Honor Code, we had valuable debates about how faculty supervisors treat the work of graduate students in the arts and sciences, who are often expected to show that they can build upon their own work as well as that of others when completing dissertations. Judith Welch Wegner, University of North Carolina School of Law, USA

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  4. I am with the “but that is what academics do all the time” critique. The publishing pressure tends to lead to rehashing of ideas, and I have seen this myself (to varying degrees) in different contexts. Sometimes it is honest (eg an edited collection of published journal articles with appropriate thanks/citation, a few paragraphs redeployed as context for a new article) but often the author’s own work (being rehashed) isn’t even cited, or isn’t cited in all areas where it is (re)used. That doesn’t mean that students should self-plagiarise, only that academics should be clearer on where the line is professionally between self-plagiarism and appropriate minor/peripheral rehashing of material. Then we can set a better example.

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