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Explainer: Self-plagiarism or recycling?

Bridget Rollason explains the ethical issues involved with the controversial concept of self-plagiarism.

Time and time again journalists are caught plagiarising other people’s work, but is it still considered plagiarism if you reuse your own work?

Self-plagiarism is just one component of the reputation damaging practice of plagiarism. Academics, institutions and journalists hold differing views over whether this concept is feasible or merely unavoidable. Self-plagiarism is confusing and often controversial to many journalists and students who fail to understand the ethics behind ‘recycling’ previous work.

What defines self-plagiarism?

Most definitions of plagiarism generally do not account for self-plagiarism. The Oxford dictionary defines plagiarism as the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

Self-plagiarism alone is defined as a type of plagiarism in which the writer republishes a work in its entirety or reuses portions of a previously written text while authoring new work.

Writers often claim that because they are the authors of their work they can use it again as they wish. Some argue that it is impossible to plagiarise themselves because they are not taking any words or ideas from someone else, but this is inaccurate.

Turnitin, the plagiarism prevention program used by universities and schools to detect plagiarism defines self-plagiarism as unacceptable. This is because submitting work more than once means you have already received a grade for the work completed. Submitting the same work again means you would get credit twice or more for a single piece of work. In other words it can be defined as ‘double dipping,’ which devalues your degree.

Is self-plagiarism possible?

Many journalists suggest that self-plagiarism is unavoidable and referring to this behaviour as plagiarism is unnecessarily negative. Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple, suggests this act should merely be referred to as recycling arguing, ‘recycling previously published material, without letting readers or editors know, may be bad, it may be lazy, and in many cases it may be unacceptable. But it ain’t plagiarism.’

As well as differing views, there are different levels of severity with the recycling of material that varies between institutions. Punishments are not uniform as there are no specific laws relating to self-plagiarism. One key element of the severity of self-plagiarism however, is whether the act was done deceptively or coincidently and whether it has been done repeatedly.

Former New Yorker journalist Jonah Lehrer recently resigned due to a self-plagiarism scandal. It was discovered that he had reused words from his previous articles in thirteen different instances. Initially he received little punishment from The New Yorker, which agreed to keep his employment as long as the error was not repeated. However after many more instances of self-plagiarism were found, his behaviour was deemed a habit and Lehrer resigned.

This example raises problems about the collective view of self-plagiarism. One can only assume that if this case involved the stealing of another person’s work rather than Lehrer’s reuse of his own, the punishment may have been more severe than a warning.

Why is self-plagiarism an ethical issue?

The biggest ethical issue concerning self-plagiarism is dishonesty. If the writer fails to inform the audience or editor that it is the reuse of previous ideas, the writer is able to get credit or receive payment multiple times for the same piece of work.

The American Psychological Association suggests that while plagiarism refers to the practice of claiming credit for another person’s language, ideas or concepts; self-plagiarism is the practice of presenting one’s own previously published work as though it is new without letting the reader know that the material has appeared elsewhere.

The audience and editor expect originality in journalism and it is deceptive to present recycled work as new and original without notifying the audience. The main dispute to avoid is a breaching of trust between the employee, employer and consumer.

Are there any factors that justify reuse?

As long as you cite yourself accurately when using your previous work, it justifies reuse. But also in cases where the audience or editor do not expect new or unique work, such as in legal and scientific writing, self-plagiarism is generally seen as not only acceptable but essential for the context of the written work.

What are the rules for attribution and reuse of one’s previous work?

Plagiarism is a serious breach of journalistic rule and can lead to severe penalties. While there are no specific self-plagiarism laws in Australia, the issue of copyright associated with self-plagiarism, can lead to legal complications.

If someone is found to have committed plagiarism, the owner or original writer of the content can take legal action.

As of yet, no self-plagiarism cases have been heard before the courts as it’s obviously impossible for a self-plagiarist to sue themselves. However it is possible for institutions to take individuals to court for economic interests regarding dual publication.

It can be illegal if copyright of previous work has been submitted to another institution. Journalists are warned not to send their articles to multiple publishers at a time to prevent dual publication and copyright issues.

How do I avoid self-plagiarism?

Clearly indicate and acknowledge the previous article or educational essay that your ideas or quotes were used from, or find a different way of explaining what you are trying to say rather than lazily copying and pasting.

Regardless of differing opinions, self-plagiarism does exist and to avoid legal or ethical complications you must adhere to the rules and regulations regarding copyright and plagiarism of different institutions.

Bridget Rollason is a second-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University.



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