Monday, July 15, 2013

Another Early Thirsty - Because Even Though I Saw We Already Had One Today, I Said, "Ruby, Don't Let That Stop You. Don't Let the World Get In Your Way, You Magnificent Creature." This One Is On Everyone's Favorite Topic, Plagiarism

Have I already
said this?
I wish I had a fun story about a stupid plagiarizing student, but alas, I have a serious question for which I'm seeking thoughtful answers.  Sorry if I came to the wrong blog.

In a few weeks, I need to give advice to a crop of incoming grad students about plagiarism.  It's a talk I've given before, and I feel pretty confident about most of it, but there's one part that's always made me a little uneasy.

I tell them--primarily to shock them with how vigilant one really needs to be--that it's technically possible to plagiarize yourself.  After watching their scared faces for a moment, I explain that this can happen when:

  1. you reuse an assignment for multiple classes without explicit consent from both professors, or
  2. you publish something using material you previously wrote without properly attributing that material, or, most likely,
  3. you write your dissertation using the text of papers you've already published--but you fail to get permission from the journals in which they've been published.

I reassure them that (3) isn't as scary as it sounds--most journals will happily grant permission for you to use your own papers as part of your dissertation, and indeed in some fields a dissertation is barely more than a collection of papers you've already published, strung together nicely and narratively.  But you do need that explicit, written authorization from the journals.

More than any other part of the presentation, though, this is the slide that makes me nervous.  At least half of the questions I tend to get afterwards are about plagiarizing one's own writing, and I never feel equipped to answer them.  Usually I do my best, then say something like, "Uh, if you're unsure about specific things, preemptively ask your professor or adviser what's allowed."  Then I thank them and run out of the auditorium to beat them to the free coffee and bagels, which are the primary reason I give this talk.

Q: This semester, I want to be prepared.  What are the nuances of self-plagiarism that I haven't thought of?  Do you have anecdotes about self-plagiarism?  What valid, tough questions can I expect from first-year grad students, and how would you answer those questions?  Thanks in advance for the help.


  1. In my understanding, plagiarism is primarily about attribution. Re-using published papers (properly cited) in a dissertation without permission isn't plagiarism. It is an issue of copy-right and legal things, for lawyers to ponder and companies to sue over, and certainly something for budding academics to be aware of. I apologize if I am being overly analytical (or anal, as the case may be).

    My school has some specific vocabulary about re-using work, how one can do it, and when it is not permissible (primarily having to do with permission). This falls under the academic dishonesty and cheating sections, though, not the plagiarism sections. I'm familiar with this because I've had a student break all of these rules simultaneously, turning in work previously submitted (without permission) while both not citing work previously done, and blatantly plagiarising others. This is self-plagiarising by not indicating where you did the work originally, cheating because using the same work twice is specifically prohibited, and plagiarising others for not citing their work.

    1. I hadn't thought about this aspect before but I think you are correct. Plagiarism and copyright infringement of journal articles are part of academic dishonesty. Copying articles with attribution but without permission is not plagiarism.

  2. For #2, I explain to students that when a journal publishes your article, they require you to transfer copyrights to them. They own that article, not you. This is similar to the situation that exists when you write a report for a company you work for. The company owns the writing (and intellectual property), not you. If you republish text, data tables or figures in a different journal or as part of another company's report, you are committing fraud on the holder of the copyright (journal or original company). Given those examples, students tend to understand better.

    It happens periodically that a scientist publishes large portions of his previous articles in the form of a review article. It's embarrassing for him (at least he should be embarrassed) and the journals occasionally get involved. Here's one story. There are other articles you might find on the web.

    #1 is more tricky. We hold a reasonable assumption that students must perform work just for our class. Students reasonably assume that their work is their work and if you require the same assignment that they wrote last semester then that's what you get. This is an issue of academic dishonesty but not copyright infringement since they own the intellectual property rights to their work after they turn it in. When I explain how it is (too bad, we make the rules), they accept it but don't like it. You need to explicitly state that reusing old assignments is not allowed since it is not obvious to them.

    1. Beaker Ben wrote:

      "It happens periodically that a scientist publishes large portions of his previous articles in the form of a review article. It's embarrassing for him (at least he should be embarrassed) and the journals occasionally get involved. Here's one story. There are other articles you might find on the web."

      I'm a little confused. You seem to be implying that the subject of your linked article plagiarized himself, but the main thrust of the article is that he plagiarized other people. He quoted their words verbatim and failed to use quotation marks, and in some cases failed to make any attribution whatsoever. The article does not appear to have anything to do with self-plagiarism.

  3. My department just kicked a grad student out of the program for submitting the same essay to not two, but three separate classes.

  4. Aargh! Blogger ate my comment. Reconstructing:

    I agree with Alan that careful use of vocabulary is key here. While I understand the usefulness of the term “self-plagiarism” in some contexts (mostly to scare people -- i.e. students -- who know that Plagiarism Is Bad And Has Dire Consequences), I think that proper attribution/citation/avoiding plagiarism and when and how it’s appropriate to re-use one’s own prose and/or ideas are two different topics. At least in the humanities, there’s a good deal of debate about when and whether it’s possible or appropriate to reuse one’s own prose (usually in revised form). For instance, some journals and publishers won’t publish work that appeared in raw form on a blog, while others think that’s fine (and good advance publicity for the article/book). Grad faculty are scrambling to figure out how to advise their Ph.D. candidates about whether to allow immediate digital distribution of their dissertations (either by the grad institution, or by UMI/digital dissertations). Some presses don’t want to publish books that have already been distributed, in earlier form, as digitized dissertations; some don’t have a problem with that as long as there’s substantial revision during the dissertation to book process (which there almost always is; presses that publish unrevised dissertations have never been held in high regard).

    It seems to me that the issue of submitting the same paper to different classes is better framed in terms of academic honesty, or, more important, understanding the purpose of writing a paper. I dislike the fact that sports metaphors are often the most successful in helping students understand classroom-based learning, but they are, so: you don’t tell your coach this year that you already practiced a given move/skill last year, and don’t need to do so again. The key to mastery of any skill is repeated practice. Since I’m in favor of grad students moving expeditiously through grad programs, I’m also in favor of seminar papers that become diss chapters (and perhaps journal articles), and suspect that one way of achieving that end is to write a series of overlapping and/or interconnected seminar papers. But that’s not the same thing as turning in the same unrevised (or even revised) paper to several professors. Presumably, a student would want to be discussing hir developing interests, and how they might be integrated into a dissertation, with seminar professors (who are also potential advisors/diss directors) anyway.

    1. A couple of useful tools:

      The University of Colorado's "Publish not Perish" tutorial (not about plagiarism per se, but about academic publishing, and I think the key here is students' need to start understanding how texts circulate and re-circulate in their fields, and how their classwork might begin to participate in that process, as soon as possible): (don't be put off by the log in; the tutorial has been well-received, and I suspect they're just trying to demonstrate its usage to interested parties. I just put in my institutional address and institution name -- and had my students do the same -- and I haven't received even a "please rate our tutorial" email).

      This is pretty basic for grad students, but there's something to be said for guaranteeing that everyone has the same baseline knowledge: .

  5. Community standards matter. A lot. And it's harder now to know one's audience than it used to be. Community boundaries are critical.

    Long story short, I wouldn't find any of the three situations to be plagiarism--unless (in the third case) editors had added something of value to the work. Good editors can be more valuable than authors realize.

    That said, I can also imagine a math PhD candidate today being afraid to assert that 2 + 2 = 4 unless s/he provides attribution.

    Community standards matter, and yet our community boundaries can be quite ephemeral, non-discrete, and non-obvious. Indeed, isn't a huge part of our job to define boundaries?

  6. 1) is fraud but not self-plagiarism, as you wrote the paper only once but are claiming to have generated it in response to more than once class.

    2) if the written material you are recycling isn't previously published, you can borrow away from yourself for published work. Can you imagine publishing papers that cited every previous draft? We build on our previous work -- conference papers, shitty first drafts, invited lectures, workshop versions, etc.

    3) is a grey area. If you publish a seminar paper and then revise it into a dissertation chapter, yeah, I guess permission from the journals is a good idea, but it didn't used to be that filing your dissertation with UMI counted as "publishing" it in quite the same way.

    So, wow, what is self-plagiarism anyway? I am more confused than ever.