Plagiarizing from yourself

As the college semester winds to a close, faculty will be faced with mounds of final papers to grade. Some students will cheat, buying papers to submit; others will find material on the Internet and pass it off as their own. Both these forms of cheating are relatively easy to detect. Universities subscribe to Turnitin, a service that matches a student’s submission with millions of online sources. Turnitin reports inform teachers what percent of a student’s paper has been copied.

More difficult are papers that haven’t been cadged from the Internet but may have been written by someone else as a one-off. Turnitin can’t catch this kind of cheating.

A friend asked me last week about whether a student can plagiarize from herself. Plagiarism is taking another’s work and passing it off as your own. It is a form of theft. But is it possible to steal from yourself? I don’t know how this is possible. Stealing is taking from another what isn’t legitimately your own. If you already own it, then it belongs to you.

Here is the situation my friend presented: “A couple of my students used portions of earlier essays in their final papers. I mean directly lifted entire paragraph, quotes, etc. without noting that the information appeared previously. Rather, it was supposed to appear like original work.” She continues, “Every student is required to sign an academic integrity agreement which includes direct and inadvertent plagiarism definitions; lifting someone else’s work is specifically discussed, reusing one’s own work verbatim is not.”

I’ve often re-used my own work. For example, Teaching Right from Wrong is a popular re-working of the more academic Ethical People and How They Got to Be That Way (both of which can be downloaded from this blog under the Publications tab). There are entire pages that are lifted verbatim. The citations included in Teaching Right from Wrong point back to the sources used in Ethical People and How They Got to Be That Way, not to my book.

In my mind, citations serve two purposes: they help the reader who wants to either check the source or to read further in the area and to ensure that credit goes where credit is due. So it seemed pointless to me to cite myself or to re-write what had already been written to the best of my ability.

What and when to cite is murky. I was roundly criticized by at least one reviewer of my children’s book Love Your Neighbor because several of the fables were my renditions of traditional tales. I didn’t alert the reader to this fact, but I thought that the stories were in the public domain and had already been re-told and re-fashioned countless times. It seemed a little pedantic to say that this one was originally a Hindu tale and this one a Jewish story, for example.

Even reputable scholars can get into trouble over plagiarism and improper citation. Ivy League historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin’s books contained unattributed quotations. Goodwin cited the work but she didn’t use quotation marks when she didn’t paraphrase. She said this was unintentional. Besides she did cite; she just didn’t use quote marks. (see If heavy hitters like Goodwin doesn’t always get it right, consider the poor student who walks into these muddy waters.

It is the lack of proper citations that my friend’s students had neglected. She says that her college’s guidelines state that students “are not supposed to re-use any work that has been submitted for a grade previously, regardless of whether it’s their own or not – unless they include a citation and then it should be handled like any other piece of research material.”

In this case, it isn’t plagiarism that the students engaged in but misrepresentation. Each paper is supposed to be original for the class. By submitting previously graded papers students short-circuit their own education. Unlike other forms of cheating, which affect other students, this one is shortchanges the student’s learning.

So while it isn’t possible to steal from yourself, it is possible to harm yourself. With this distinction in mind, the penalty attached to using your own material that has previously been graded should be less strict than that for plagiarism.


2 thoughts on “Plagiarizing from yourself

  1. a less strict penalty seems appropriate, as the situation is more about laziness than deliberate plagiarism. The student is certainly hurting herself — by not doing additional research she diminishes the ability to increase her knowledge about the subject.

    The student ultimately received a “C”.

  2. I’ve never heard such a question as whether or not one can plagiarize from oneself…seems a tad ridiculous and I agree that there should be a much lesser penalty for reusing material if that is forbidden, although frankly I find that rule to be excessive. Isn’t that what most academic careers are like? If only students would merely rip off of previous essays and papers!

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