Can you plagiarise yourself?
March 30, 2009 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Plagiarism?Filter: I consider myself to be scrupulous about attributing the ideas of OTHERS in my academic writing. But what about recycling MY OWN writing - e.g. using, word for word, my own phrases or paragraphs from a previous presentation for a new one aimed at a different audience? Is this standard practice, or frowned upon?

(I am referring to unpublished work only here - proposals, informal seminar presentations etc - I would probably avoid this if both pieces were to be published.)

Any thoughts or ideas?
posted by Weng to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This is widely considered a type of academic dishonesty at most institutions.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:10 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe it would be OK if you acknowledged it. For instance "In a previous essay, I wrote..."
posted by Effigy2000 at 4:13 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

You have to cite, even if it's yourself. Copying anyone's work, including your own, is plagiarism.
posted by Dr. Send at 4:14 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think it's fine, given that you're basically just tailoring your presentation to meet the needs of a different audience. If this is an academic research kind of situation then I say it's ok.

If you're doing it for a class for marks and then you copy the exact same presentation and use it for another class (for marks), then that's when it's cheating as per PBWK's opinion. But again, if the majority of the presentation is different and just a few points in there are absolutely relevant for both presentations, then that shouldn't be an issue.
posted by lizbunny at 4:20 PM on March 30, 2009

Most academics I know are relaxed about this. Many articles and books recycle bits of old material, especially expository stuff. You should acknowledge the original source, and you need to get permission from the copyright holder if it's not yourself, but the practice itself is not dishonest. You can't plagiarize yourself.
posted by kitfreeman at 4:20 PM on March 30, 2009

In reference to presentations, specifically: I have frequently seen professors recycle large parts of Powerpoint presentations into new presentations - this goes not only for classes, but for research presentations or guest lectures and so forth. (There are, after all, only so many ways to recreate a short presentation.)

When it comes to papers (and written work in general), I would be more careful - quote yourself or cite yourself, but don't reuse whole pieces of a previously written paper.
posted by pemberkins at 4:29 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thirding that for PowerPoint presentations, this is entirely normal, and I don't know anyone who considers it problematic in the slightest. (I work with a lot of academics who give a lot of presentations.)
posted by desuetude at 4:32 PM on March 30, 2009

Response by poster: All points/advice taken... but don't the grad students among you find that there is only so many ways you can re-state the key research questions of your dissertation?! Perhaps I need to invest in a quality thesaurus : )
posted by Weng at 4:36 PM on March 30, 2009

I think it's fine to recycle material if it's essentially the same presentation, just tailored at a different audience.

Like, if you've got a paper on Topic X, and you produce a presentation geared towards the nifty discoveries you've made to present to some academics ... then tweak the presentation so it includes more illustrations when talking to students ... then tweak it to emphasise marketability for some company people ... that, IMO, is fine.

I've also read papers by the same authors that have the exact same introduction and background material. "In this paper we talk about the use of computer vision in black-and white. Here is what's been done before [...]" "In this paper we talk about the use of computer vision in colour. Here is what's been done before [same next few paragraphs] and oh by the way we've built a system that uses black-and-white and we're building on that now." But I don't know how kosher this is; I remember reading both these papers and thinking that the authors were lazy at best.
posted by Xany at 4:37 PM on March 30, 2009

Just reading a book by Stephen Pinker, who is a good example of a writer who has to do just what you're talking about. His early research and writing forms the foundation of many of his new ideas, so he paraphrases, references, or quotes as necessary and throws in a (Pinker, 2002/whatever) endnote.
posted by nímwunnan at 4:39 PM on March 30, 2009

Best answer: Wow, a lot of sloppy thinking here.

Clearly, if you are assigned to write a paper for a specific course, then copying a paper you wrote for another course is not okay, because your assignment is to write a paper for the current course.

On the other hand, if you were to give a volunteer lecture on Topic X, and you had previously written a paper on Topic X for some past course, then no, it is not plagiarism to use verbatim chunks of your earlier paper (or the whole damned thing) in your volunteer lecture. Nor do you have to cite your earlier paper in the presentation; to do so would be absurd, because, since those are your words, you have no obligation to "credit" yourself.

For example, let's say I am asked to give a lecture on the history of my college for the benefit of prospective students, as part of an orientation session. Failing to cite an earlier paper that you wrote and researched, which forms the basis for your lecture, is not a breach of the norms of academic honesty. Your audience doesn't care whether you did the research and writing of the presentation two years ago, of twenty minutes before the presentation. Therefore, there is no obligation.

The only time you could run into colorable claims of dishonesty is when you are specifically assigned to create something new, for this specific assignment --- when the assignment is to do the research and writing itself --- but you draw on some past thing you did.
posted by jayder at 4:40 PM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Best answer: This is standard practice for real research.

About the only circumstance where professional academic self-plagiarism would happen would be if you write one paper with a discussion of Blah's theory of whatever, and then write a different paper -- NOT a different revision of the same project, but a paper that's part of a fundamentally different project -- in which you use the same couple of paragraphs. In that circumstance, you should just write a new discussion of Blah's theory of whatever.

But in most fields, presentations aren't scholarly product. The underlying papers are. So in papers, you can in most fields feel free to recycle presentation content as much as you want and as directly as you want.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:42 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

The term you want to be searching for on this is "self-plagiarism." You'll find plenty of articles on the subject. Academics have varying views on this, from "it's as horrible as any other kind of plagiarism" to "there's no such thing as self-plagiarism." Personally, I fall more towards the latter camp: if you keep saying the same thing over and over again, you're a hack at worst, not a plagiarist.

The exception to this seems to be when specific courses are involved: submitting work to one class that you previously turned in for another. That's widely considered (rightly so) to be dishonest, unless it has been done with the full knowledge and consent of both professors involved.

I think the standards for informal work are generally lower than for published papers. Many would consider republishing substantially the same paper in another journal as dishonest. Presentations tend to get given and revised all the time -- you keep giving the talk and cut what doesn't work and add new material. If you're passing out the slides for distribution, you could, in the interest of full disclosure, add a note stating that the presentation was originally developed for X seminar and subsequently revised.

But don't listen to me. Go look up "self-plagiarism" and read up on the many sides of this (often inane) debate.
posted by zachlipton at 4:44 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Now that others have answered in more detail, I feel I should be more specific in my answer:

In reference to graded coursework, as others have said, of course you should write fresh material for each assignment given (and cite your previous work if necessary). I suspect this is not what you were getting at, so I will add that in any writing intended to be graded, published, or in some other way viewed as a unique product, I would argue that you should cite your previous work rather than recycling the text.

In the context of unpublished work like presentations (whether it is the actual Powerpoint presentation, or the paper that you present as a guest lecture, or anything along those lines), I see no need for you to cite your previous work. It's pretty common for those things to be recycled.
posted by pemberkins at 4:54 PM on March 30, 2009

I am not an academic but I'm skeptical that this all has anything to do with "academic honesty". If it's a professor or institution's job to evaluate a student's capabilities I don't see how that purview extends into ascertaining when an example of the student's work was written. For someone to believe that it's their ability to compel students to do busy work that constitutes providing an education to those students is a bit silly.

This seems to me more like jealousy between students that another has had the good fortune of receiving a similar assignment repetitively and hence gotten multiple gold stars for it, or perhaps vanity on a professor's part that they receive bespoke work from their students.

If this really had something to do with honesty, and a principle that similarity between previously-written material and material produced for a current project is some form of dishonesty, I would think that we'd see people (both students and professors and other academics) maintaining an electronic corpus of their work and using anti-plagiarism tools on it to make sure that there isn't even an accidental resemblance between a current and previous works. But I don't think we'll see that because I don't think that this is genuinely regarded as a matter of honesty and dishonesty, it's some sort of fightiness about how easy or hard other people have it and how much work they're doing.
posted by XMLicious at 5:08 PM on March 30, 2009

I think this depends on context. My understanding has always been that submitting the same work as assignments in two different courses is frowned upon because it is "double dipping," not plagiarizing in a strict sense. This seems to be what dreamyshade and PhoBWanKenobe are referring to (correct me if I've misread). But I got the impression that you were asking about research-related presentations at the graduate or professional level, not coursework for credit.

The nature of academic work is that you talk / write / publish about the same project many times, and I would really be surprised if every responsible researcher always rephrased or explicitly self-cited re-used material. I may be mistaken, but I thought it was indeed "standard practice" to re-use one's own material—to adapt a conference presentation for a job talk, for example, or give the same job talk twice, or re-use distinctive phrasing from the dissertation prospectus in a presentation to the department, or re-use paragraphs from the prospectus in a dissertation fellowship application, all without explicit acknowledgment.

As you indicate, publication introduces other concerns, but in other contexts, I always took it to be understood that your work is your own, to re-shape and re-purpose as you see fit, and also that your project is ongoing, so why should you be expected to completely re-invent how you talk about it every time?
posted by Orinda at 5:11 PM on March 30, 2009

Best answer: Holy crap, done all the time. I work for an academic publisher and at one point we were given an intern to research copyright issues for us. We asked the intern to check to see how much of an original article was modified to meet the requirement that a submission to a book anthology be an original or significantly reworked piece that would require a new copyright, and not infringe on the original copyright of whatever journal first published it. The results were surprising. If it came from a journal most of the article was pretty much the same. Sometimes exactly the same and frequently mostly the same with additional unoriginal material. In other words, journal articles submitted to books as reworked articles were frequently not significantly reworked. And when they were, they were often borrowing from other articles written by the same author.

Now, this would be probably be scandalous if it weren't for the fact that when you study some small corner of a topic, you can often completely cover that material once and then build on that original work in further study. If you said it well once, I'm not sure I see the harm in covering the same topic in the same words. You really need to answer to yourself and ask the tough question, not is this rewritten enough, but is this original and significant scholarship. Synthesizing previously written work is not the sin, the sin is not adding anything to the debate, not advancing an argument. If you're just rearranging paragraphs, you're part of the problem. But reusing part of that article on Medieval glossolalia in an article on women overcoming gender restrictions to sacred texts sheds new light on that scholarship. Maybe they pretended to speak in tongues to hide the fact they knew Latin?

It's not only done, it's kind of the point.

Okay that's my opinion of the practice in published scholarship. In papers of a more limited audience (advisers, your department, your department head, a committee in your scholarly society) no, I wouldn't recycle. And I am talking about book publishing, which is different than a paper or a proposal. And specifically edited volumes. But as a practice in scholarship, the sin isn't recycling words, the sin is not advancing the argument.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:16 PM on March 30, 2009

Response by poster: To elaborate for those interested:

I am referring specifically to my own PhD research, which takes various presentation forms from time to time, usually expanding on/ changing the same basic research ideas... at internal university seminars, conferences, as literature reviews, working plans, chapters-in-progress etc. I have not had anything published.

What I want to do is change research departments within the same university, and they are happy with my current topic, slightly tweaked more towards their own favoured methodologies... but they have also requested a written proposal as a formality. As I have already done a substantial amount of work in the previous department (all entirely my own, and in no way collaborative with my adviser there, beyond the normal supervisory role) I had planned to use sections of my previous work in my new proposal.

Anyway I think the best thing to do will be put a disclaimer that this is simply an expanded re-working of my previous proposal at Dept X, and therefore some of the material has been presented elsewhere... I can't see that this would be a problem, since at the end of the day it's MY dissertation? thoughts??
posted by Weng at 5:27 PM on March 30, 2009

Response by poster: I should add: the main thing re-used would be the literature review.
posted by Weng at 5:29 PM on March 30, 2009

I think the best thing to do will be put a disclaimer that this is simply an expanded re-working of my previous proposal at Dept X, and therefore some of the material has been presented elsewhere.

This seems fine to me, but: is there a reason why you can't ask your contacts in the new department whether it's OK to re-use parts of your proposal to the previous department? I doubt they'd have a problem with it, especially since they seem to have indicated that the proposal is "a formality."
posted by Orinda at 5:34 PM on March 30, 2009

Best answer: I'm wrapping up a PhD, here are my data points. (from acceptable to unnacceptable)

Powerpoint presentations: I reuse these all the time, in whole and in part. It never even occured to me people might object to this.

"Double Dipping": I'm surprised people are opposed to this, if I have done work that meets the demands how can people object? I'd reuse classwork in a heartbeat, and thank providence for the opportunity.

Conferences proceedings or abstracts: parts of my abstracts and presentations are often copied and pasted from older work. I feel slightly bad about this, but not enough to try to vary saying essentially the same thing when I feel I've said it well the first time.

Published papers: No repeated sentences. (But I've only got 3 papers, this probably gets harder to avoid with time)

If I were you I'd be copy/pasting like a mofo. But maybe run it by your new advisor, it seldom hurts to ask.
posted by pseudonick at 6:19 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

(I am referring to unpublished work only here - proposals, informal seminar presentations etc - I would probably avoid this if both pieces were to be published.)

For my research presentations I reuse slides all the time. As a PhD student, there are just too many times where I have to present my research informally: student datagroups, committee meetings, prospective student recruiting, etc. However, when you go to meetings (with a published abstract associated with your talk), you have to be careful that you're not just re-submitting the same abstract that you've already presented at another meeting/conference; there has to be new meat there (but reusing sentences here and there is almost unavoidable if you want to introduce similar subjects in the most concise way, like pseudonick said). But if there was no published abstract going along with the invited talks, no one else has a claim on the ideas you're presenting. And if you have published any of the data figures, you can attribute those with a citation at the bottom of the slide.
posted by twoporedomain at 6:49 PM on March 30, 2009

I would expect that one of the big differences is the intent. And / or what you purport this work to be. Obviously, if your work has been published in any meaningful way, it would be necessary to cite.

The only time I would say that reusing ones own work would be wrong would be in a situation where you are practicing some skill. Just like in sports, practicing is about the act, not the result.

In this scenario, I would probably ask for guidance. But I would also not think twice about reusing my own work- after all, it's not like you have to rewrite that novel just because it was rejected by one publisher.

The education purists would say that it's not about the result, it's about the work that you do. Well, if I've already done that work, it's not dishonest. It's not my fault if I get the same assignment in two different classes. If the assignment is (to use a grade school example) "go to the library and read three books on George Washington and write a 10 page report using those sources" and if I've already done that exact thing, I'm not losing anything by reusing my work. Nor gaining anything by redoing it.
posted by gjc at 6:55 PM on March 30, 2009

PhD student, dissertation phase here. Your specific use seems TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE. In your case, I might acknowledge that it was a reworking of my proposal from the other department. Not so much because it wouldn't be ethical, but because it might excuse some terminology or ways of thinking that don't fit with the new department (and to recognize that the work was not begun after entering the new program). I spent a lot of time in the proposal phase reworking the same description over and over (short description to get people on my committee, long version for proposal meeting, very short version to recruit participating agencies, etc. etc.) I'd be wasting so much time trying to restate things 10 different ways.

You're right that once something's published, you ought to cite yourself. But I've seen some stuff by my professors (especially where they do similar studies over time refining their methods and such) where the methods section is very similar in every paper and the phrasing in parts of the lit review are repetitive. There's only so many ways to say the same thing. I'm not saying the copied and pasted, but they certainly have decided the best way to put certain things.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:58 PM on March 30, 2009

My high school English teacher, who has been teaching high school and college English courses for forty years, gave us a speech about how the essays we were writing in her class could be resubmitted for similar assignments in later years.
posted by Gotham at 8:14 PM on March 30, 2009

A student using an old course-assigned paper as if it were new = self-plagiarism.
A researcher (prof or grad, doesn't matter) giving a second presentation on the same topic at a different professional conference = going to another conference.
The difference is, basically, that the first is fraud and the second isn't. Note that how you represent two closely related professional presentations on your cv or other bio material is a separate question.
I also think, from a professional development point of view, that the more important question isn't whether some bits are carried over from one pres to another, but how your thinking matures from one audience to another. [And that's really my frame here--one conference performance resembling another (as long as you don't lie about it) isn't really different from one musical set resembling another. Just don't lipsynch if you say you aren't, because that is lying.]
posted by Mngo at 8:54 PM on March 30, 2009

Best answer: For proposals? My god, Ctrl+V is the most common keystroke in proposal writing. That text gets reused and reused and reused. As someone who has written dozens of scientific grant proposals, and who has collaborated with a bunch of other scientists in writing proposals, I can attest that this is common practice.

It is also common practice to reuse the text of your publications verbatim in your dissertation.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:20 PM on March 30, 2009

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