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Self-Plagiarism:
Stephen Bainbridge looks at an issue I've been wondering about recently as I work on my computer crime law casebook: What are the rules and norms for copying your own scholarly writing? When working on my casebook, I often find myself covering ground that I have already covered elsewhere in articles, case updates (a service now-defunct, alas), and even as a government employee. Ignoring copyright issues — a realistic assumption, in that I own most of the copyrights, or else the works are not copyrighted — is there something wrong with copying a sentence or a group of sentences from my own prior written works as part of a new discussion in the casebook? On one hand, the concern feels a little silly; after all, the words are my own, and you can't steal from yourself. On the other hand, cutting-and-pasting even from my own text feels, well, icky; I usually end up rephrasing and rearranging to feel better.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Copying from Yourself:
  2. Self-Plagiarism:
Alexander Louis (mail):
An interesting case regarding self-copyright is John Fogerty. The former lead singer of Credence Clearwater Revival was sued by his former management after Fogerty went solo. According to the suit, Fogerty as a solo artist sounded too much like John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival.

In the end, Fogerty won the suit and the right to sound like himself.
11.29.2005 11:25am
Douglas Brackman:
It all depends upon whether the "effort" and "originality" of the derivative work is ostensibly part of its value. A student who tries to "double count" a seminar paper by submitting it twice to two different professors has serious ethical problems. Though perhaps less of clear-cut issue, most Law Journal editors, I suspect, would feel burned to find out that a "new" piece they accepted borrowed verbatim and extensively from a previous work from the author (although I think a sentence here and there is probably ok). A casebook, however, generally does not lay claim to being an original work -- indeed the whole point of the book is to survey the existing field. So when it comes to casebooks, I think that at most a brief note in the preface stating "portions of this book draw heavily on previous works of the author" would do the trick.
11.29.2005 11:27am
Brutus:
Why can't you just paraphrase yourself and say "see my article such and such" in the footnote?
11.29.2005 11:29am
Steve:
Many authors would see this situation as a free chance to cite to, and promote, their prior published work.

The analogy to a student recycling an old paper is apt, with the difference being that I doubt a student would get in trouble for recycling a single paragraph from some earlier paper. The need to repeat yourself is even more clear in the case of a casebook, since if you had a certain thought regarding Marbury v. Madison 2 years ago, you probably have much the same thought today.

And, by the way, anyone who doesn't think "The Old Man Down the Road" sounds just like "Run Through the Jungle" has a more finely attuned ear than I.
11.29.2005 11:32am
The Original TS (mail):
My favorite bit of "self-plagiarism" was when Koziniski managed to cite himself. He'd written a dissent in some case that had been cited and discussed in a U.S. Supreme Court opinion. There was nothing the slightest bit unethical or underhanded about it. I think managing to cite himself simply appealed to his sense of humor. Made me laugh, anyway.

Orin, I don't think there is anything even the slightest bit unethical about "self-plagiarism." In fact, plagarism is copying the work of another WITHOUT ATTRIBUTION so (copyright issues aside) it's perfectly ethical to use lengthy, verbatim quotes so long as you attribute them to their sources.

In your cases, I think it would be "unethical" for you NOT to draw extensively on work you've already done, so long, of course, that you've checked to ensure its continued accuracy. If you've already done something and done it well, it's a waste of time for you to spin your wheels doing it all over again when you could be doing something new.
11.29.2005 11:33am
Rebecca Oris Davidson (mail) (www):
If it's a big enough chunk that it makes you feel funny, cite yourself. Or, if it happens often enough that you would feel a bit sheepish quoting yourself all over the place, you could include a note in the beginning to the effect that the text borrows heavily from your earlier published works, and include those citations.
11.29.2005 11:36am
B. R. George (mail):
i know i've read philosophy books where they just note in a footnote somewhere early on that says ``parts of this text previously appeared in...''

would something like that be an acceptable solution?
11.29.2005 11:39am
Cheburashka (mail):
What do you mean about work of yours that isn't copyrighted? It seems to me that all of your work is copyrighted (unless you're much older than you appear), and that for your published work, you may have either assigned the copyright or granted the publisher an exclusive license.
11.29.2005 11:51am
Brooks Lyman (mail):
This is a complex issue, and the previous posts have covered it pretty well. I would additionally suggest that: 1) Large quotes probably need to be attributed, which is both polite and also lets people know that you have written on the subject before. 2) Don't just give a reference if the earlier material is important to understanding the current writing. Most people are not interested in doing academic research in order to understand your article - they want to read the whole thing on the pages in front of them.

Brooks Lyman
11.29.2005 11:55am
flaime:
The ideas are yours and the words are yours. However, I think that you would find, upon examination, that that "icky" feeling you mentioned is a result of some combination of the following:

1) the hard driven rules against plagiarism that many of us experienced in college, and some of us received in high school.

2) the fact that the phrasing of a specific idea might need to be refined for new context or new understanding of the idea.

3) a growth in writing ability rendering the original phrasing awkward and in need of editing.
11.29.2005 11:58am
freezeout:
Cheburashka: when Prof. Kerr refers to works of his that are not copyrighted, he probably means certain works published by the federal government that are public domain.
11.29.2005 12:12pm
Richard Bellamy (mail):
What is the purpose of a citation? It strikes me that there are two: (1) Not representing some other idea as your own, and (2) reinforcing the idea by stating that someone smart and respected said it already.

Citing yourself does neither of those things, as the idea you had was yours to start with, and saying it twice doesn't give it any more weight.
11.29.2005 12:17pm
The Original TS (mail):
"I would additionally suggest that: 1) Large quotes probably need to be attributed, which is both polite and also lets people know that you have written on the subject before."

Polite? Polite to whom? Polite to himself? I can't imagine why the reader would think it rude if you were to quote yourself without attribution.

I think extensively attributing yourself is actually a bit suspect and even pompous. First, the presence of multiple footnotes gives the impression that there is outside "evidence" for whatever it is you're saying, especially if people don't read the footnotes closely (which the seldom do).

Self-referential footnoting can also come across as pompous. "See my seminal treatise on . . ."
11.29.2005 12:18pm
Jerry Mimsy (www):
Cheburashka: he said that some of this writing was as a government employee; much of such work that would otherwise be copyrightable is explicitly not under copyright because the federal government is not allowed to copyright its works. Some information is at:

http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/GODORT/prin_gpo.html

Jerry
11.29.2005 12:22pm
Eric Muller (www):
Orin, I find that cutting-and-pasting even from my own text feels, well, icky; I usually end up rephrasing and rearranging to feel better.
11.29.2005 12:41pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
If this was a real issue, you could never have multiple editions of the same book with separate copyrights. Although some of the material retains the earlier copyright, it is still directly quoted in the new edition.

Academic fraud is another matter. It is common for researchers to pad their resumes by citing every instance where they represent essentially the same results. On one hand, this is legitimate because it shows the diversity of publications that are willing to print your work. At the same time, this can be taken to extreme by listing "working papers" and unpublished lectures and speeches. If you pick up a random research paper, you may find the same author or group of authors from the same research project cited multiple times. This is not uncommon to make the bibliography appear longer. While not straight fraud, this is considered unethical in the sciences, but it's quite prevalent.

But one thing I really don't get how can this ever arise to plagiarism without a copyright issue.
11.29.2005 12:44pm
Eastern University (mail):
This is going to be somewhat vague as I am not in a position to have us identified while this is in process. I am at a University on the east coast and we had a discussion of this topic the other day because one of us is a reviewer for a international journal. The facts basically are as follows;
A fairly well known person in the field submitted a paper for publication in a special issue of the journal. The reviewer in researching some information contained in the article found a conference paper that had been submitted to a small foreign conference a couple of years ago. The conference and the submitted article were so very similar that this raised a concern as the conference paper was not referenced in the article. Upon being questioned about this the author became somewhat belligerent and said that it was new work and that less than 50% was from the conference paper. In subsequent analysis the reviewer determined that about 70% of the article was copied from the conference paper.

Given the high percentage and that the author was belligerent we concluded that there was a deliberate attempt to deceive and that the author's paper should not be published and further that an existing banning policy should be enforced. Should note this was an ethical discussion among colleagues and not anyone in a position to address this matter directly.

As in the military there is an assumption that you can do what you say you can do and that you are honest and upright about what you put your name to. Anything else lowers society in general and each one of us specifically.
11.29.2005 1:05pm
Kevin L. Connors (mail) (www):
As an engineer, I frequently borrowed heavily from my previous work. As long as there were no patent or other proprietary issues - no problem. Why re-invent the wheel?
11.29.2005 1:25pm
The Original TS (mail):
Eastern University,

Once again, assuming there are no copyright issues (which I doubt there would be) I don't see the intellectual dishonesty. It's standard procedure for academics to present conference papers which are effectively works in progress. The same ideas are then developed further for broader publication.

I find the "under 50%"/70% discussion to be a serious red herring. The only issues I think you really need to consider are a) is this really the author's work? and b) does this work deserve wider dissemination?

It is perfectly reasonable for you to decide that this paper, much of it having already been published, isn't unique enough to merit being published in your journal. But that's a distinctly different issue than academic dishonesty. In the academic world, people often become world-class experts on fairly narrow topics. Of necessity, their new work relies heavily on their old. Requiring "full disclosure" of past work relied on by the author would essentially require including a CV in every paper.
11.29.2005 1:28pm
John Armstrong (mail):
Mr. Bellamy:
There's another use for citations. They provide a trail for future researchers into the literature. If a concept is raised in one paper and reraised in a later one (by the same author or another), then readers of the new paper wanting to investigate the roots of the concept and to find other papers which talk about it can use the citation tree to find the original proposal. Then they can look for other papers citing that root.
11.29.2005 1:42pm
Public_Defender:
Practioners regularly copy themselves and others without attribution. Sometimes we even deliberately hide the source. The only critical rules are that you must stand behind what you write (i.e., you can't blame the person you copied from) and you must honestly account for your time (i.e., don't bill eight hours for a cut and paste that took you thirty minutes to adapt).

I frequently pull arguments from one brief and put them in another without citation. How many times can I write a new Blakely argument? I am on a list-serv in which people regularly give and take material to use without attribution.

I may even conceal a source if I think the court I am writing for would disapprove of the source. For example, if I see a useful idea in a Ninth Circuit dissent by Judge Reinhardt, I might take the idea and cite his sources without referencing his opinion. Of course, I must disclose binding adverse case law (emphasis on the word "binding," but that's rarely a concern.
11.29.2005 1:47pm
Buck Turgidson (mail):
To Eastern University and TS

This seems to be an even less marginal case than what I brought up earlier. Conference papers are generally considered to be work-in-progress until they are published--and this is important--in some form. It would be idiotic for a scientific publication to reject a submitted paper because the author had made a preprint available to colleagues prior to publication. Judging from EU's comments, EU's department would have judged this case particularly egregious because the duplication may be in the 90-95% range. But if a reviewer made such a comment he'd be considered a boob (using a technical term). That's precisely how I view the reviewer in your department. What is worse, he managed to corrupt the whole group.

There is a major difference between conferences and journals. Conference reviewers--if they exist at all--rarely see the entire text prior to the presentation. Journals have reviewers that not only get to see the full product but have the power to suggest revisions, if necessary. Conference papers are usually not readily available and not well known in the field, with a few exceptions. Journal articles represent an official position of the author with his opinion affirmed (but not confirmed) by others. Journals are generally more widely distributed, including to professional research serrvices and libraries. Although conference papers occasionally (but not with regularity) are picked up by research services, it is rare for any of them to end up in libraries (even if conference proceedings are published, if the conference is obscure enough and the publisher is not one of the main distributors of professional literature on the subject, the proceedings are likely to be rare and obscure). Again, all of these differences point to the reviewer being a boob.

Having said that, I think, the author is also a boob. There was no real reason for him to become belligerent. If he was offended by the treatment he got from a bunch of boobs, he should have withdrawn the paper and taken it elsewhere. Banning for belligerence is justifiable, but I don't see any academic misconduct in this situation.

I also want to note that if the journal expects to see 100% original, previously unpresented ideas, it must be publishing in another universe. Either it will have very few pages or it will suffer very low quality. Let me add another scenario to consider for a similar analysis. An professor conducts a seminar on a particularly narrow topic. He prints a collection of materials for the seminar that include his own notes and observations. The materials are sold to the participants (largely students) along with other textbooks--a common practice. The author's observations are noted for their particular acuity and as participants spread out to other parts of the country, other professionals become interested in the notes. The materials are widely distributed, either by copying from others or by obtaining the official "preprint" from the author. Obviously, the author cannot distribute someone else's copyrighted materials, so the packet will not be complete, but we'll ignore this for the moment. The author is urged to put the notes into a single paper and submit it to a journal. By chance, he draws your boob reviewer who is adamant that the ideas are not original since the notes are already widely avaialable.

The moral of the story? The journal editors should have sacked the reviewer for being obtuse and published the paper despite his objections.
11.29.2005 2:09pm
magoo (mail):
Self-plagarism is ok if the original author consents.
11.29.2005 2:26pm
cmn (mail) (www):
Hmmm... I wonder if A3G will give Lat permission to use her material. Seeing as how they're different people and all.
11.29.2005 5:34pm
TJ (mail):
Conference papers are usually not readily available and not well known in the field, with a few exceptions. Journal articles represent an official position of the author with his opinion affirmed (but not confirmed) by others. Journals are generally more widely distributed, including to professional research serrvices and libraries. Although conference papers occasionally (but not with regularity) are picked up by research services, it is rare for any of them to end up in libraries (even if conference proceedings are published, if the conference is obscure enough and the publisher is not one of the main distributors of professional literature on the subject, the proceedings are likely to be rare and obscure). Again, all of these differences point to the reviewer being a boob.

Buck, this is just not true. Any decent library can get> the conference proceedings from any reputable conference. A real literature search will typically find even these "obscure" references...

I guess you struck a nerve- I keep getting screwed by people either not checking the literature, or just plain rogering me, and it is making me crazy.
11.30.2005 12:08am
LeeKane (mail):
I think it would, of course, depend how protean the author in question is. If after a few years, he can be rightly said to be, at least partially, a different person (jnot to mention his physical transformation via cell replacement and aging), then he might rightly be accused of plagiaring another thinker, even if it is one that shares his social security number.
11.30.2005 12:55am
ruds (mail):
Conference papers are generally considered to be work-in-progress until they are published--and this is important--in some form.

Buck, this is not always true. In the field of artificial intelligence (and some other computer science fields), for example, conference proceedings are published and archival. Moreover, even in fields where this is not the case, it is a small thing to cite the conference paper. It sounds here like the reviewer would have been quite happy had the author dropped a footnote to the effect of "A preliminary version of this work appeared in XXX" or "Some of these results were presented in XXX." The fact that the author became angry when asked to do this suggests that he was trying to hide earlier work, for whatever reason.

Not to stray further off-topic.
12.4.2005 1:28am