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Copying from Yourself:

I thought I'd pass along a few thoughts about Orin's and Stephen Bainbridge's posts on "self-plagiarism."

First, "self-plagiarism" is probably a misleading term. I realize that it's often used humorously, but I think some people might take it seriously, and think that "self-plagiarism" really is kin to "plagiarism." It's not: The harms of plagiarism are that (1) it deceives the reader into believing that your work is your own invention, when it really isn't, and (2) it wrongly denies credit to the people whose work you're copying. Neither of these applies to copying from yourself. (In this I agree with InstaPundit.)

Second, there are problems with copying from yourself, but it's also easy to deal with those problems. Setting aside the purely copyright law questions that arise if you've given away or sold the copyright, they are:

  1. Copying from your past published work may make a reviewer -- for instance, a law review editor deciding whether to publish the work, or a professor grading your paper -- think that your work is novel when in fact you've already said it before.

  2. Copying from your past published work may annoy readers who have read your old work, are now reading your new work, and are slowly finding that they've wasted their time rereading what they'd already read before.

The way to deal with these problems, I think, is simply to drop a footnote at the start of the discussion -- or, if you prefer, have a sentence in the text saying something like "As an earlier article of mine discussed . . ." -- that makes clear that the following paragraph, section, or whatever else is adapted from an earlier work. This signals to the reviewer that this material shouldn't count as original, and it signals to readers that they can skip this section if they read the earlier piece.

There's no inherent need to paraphrase your original words (if you edited them well the first time, they're probably the best words for the job), or to put them in quotes (which would just be needlessly distracting). You might still want to reword the material if the context is different enough to justify such alterations, but there's no ethical obligation to do so.

Of course, if the whole article is just a version of your earlier piece, then the introductory warning may signal to the law review editor and to readers that the piece isn't really novel -- which is only fair, and which discharges your obligation to them. (The editors might not mind this, for instance if you're adapting a piece from a law review into a communications studies journal, or if you're publishing a trimmed down version of a long piece; the important thing is that they realize that this is going on, and get to decide whether they want to publish the article nonetheless.) You should also signal this on your c.v., so that people who are counting your publications for various professional reasons realize that they shouldn't double count. On the other hand, if only a small part of the article -- say, the background section -- is borrowed from an earlier piece, then there's no need to stress this on the c.v., and law review editors probably won't be much annoyed by the duplication.

Third, all this refers to scholarship being reused as scholarship. If you write an op-ed (or a blog post) based on your scholarly work, I don't think you even need to point this out (though you might want to, since it might make your op-ed seem more credible). Editors expect op-eds not to have been published before in newspapers, but I don't think they expect that the material is novel in the way that scholarly work should be novel; I suspect they actually like it when the op-ed is based on published scholarly articles. And virtually no readers are likely to have read the original scholarly piece, so you don't need to worry about wasting their time by giving them something they've already read.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Copying from Yourself:
  2. Self-Plagiarism:
John Armstrong (mail):
I don't know about law, but in mathematics it's common practice to cite the earlier work. I wrote a paper introducing a new construction for one use, and then when I wrote another investigating properties of that construction in-and-of itself I cited the paper in which it was introduced.
11.29.2005 1:39pm
Justin (mail):
Agreed.
11.29.2005 1:40pm
the real a3g:
No surprise you take that position, Professor Volokh. How's your ninth article on slippery slopes coming along?
11.29.2005 2:22pm
m (mail):
I think where some of the worry comes from is from students turning in the same work (or substantially the same work) for more than one class. Obviously that's less bad than turning in someone else's work, but is usually held to be against the rules. But, outside of this and some other contexts it certainly doesn't seem unethical. It's perhaps reasonable to note where the work has been used before, though, and this is often done (Along the lines of "portions of chapter 3 draw from my article X which appeared in Y".)
11.29.2005 2:52pm
Cathy (mail) (www):
Re: the last paragraph - what if you've written a blog post that you then convert into an op-ed?

Since I harbor aspirations to be published, I sometimes wonder if I should suppress the blogging reflex with the idea that I should instead seek 3rd party publication with my ideas. Unfortunately, since the likelihood of publication is generally low, it just results in self-censorship when nothing gets published at all, anywhere.

Also, the blogging exercise stimulates my writing and lets me try things out. But if I manage to blog something in a way that I particularly like, would it be (im)proper, and to what extent, to send it to a third party for publication?
11.29.2005 3:00pm
Wintermute (www):
Why re-invent a wheel that you already got rolling nicely?

Maybe on copyright grounds, but self-plagiarism??!! I seem to recall that the provision of copyright law on compilations provides a default status that favors re-use by the creator.

Reasons of economy matter, too. I recall your policy about linking to a piece elsewhere, exhorting the commenter to quote himself in pertinent part before so doing. OK, but out of this context, sir, just decline to sue yourself.
11.29.2005 5:23pm
JBurgess (mail) (www):
Is it an example of self-plagarism when a book publisher re-issues a book under a new title?

Recycling a blog post as an op-ed would probably run up against most newspaper's and magazine's requirement that the piece not have been published before or simultaneous to publication in said newspaper or magazine. On-line publication would have to be counted.
11.29.2005 6:16pm
Justin (NC) (mail):
Interesting... as a developer, being able to reuse code we've already written is a goal from the outset. It seems like such a waste of time and energy to have to redo your own work, just so you can say you did so.
11.30.2005 8:24am
eeyn524 (mail):
Actual case from a university in Texas: a faculty member up for tenure was accused of self-plagiarism, and the tenure committee voted to deny tenure. The faculty senate heard about the case, decided that it was silly, and voted to officially censure the members of the tenure committee. The members of the tenure committee in turn sued the members of the faculty senate who had voted to censure them.

There are really two separate issues: (1) whether there is any academic dishonesty involved - clearly most faculty believe there isn't, and publishing conference proceedings later in a journal, often with lengthy sections verbatim, is standard practice in many disciplines; (2) whether the original and duplicate paper should count as two papers, one paper, or something in between when doing a tenure bean count.
11.30.2005 1:14pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
The Texas case is a little complicated, because the work in question was a proposal for another university (in this case Syracuse University) and might have belonged to them. I'm not sure how the intellectual property issues play out when someone is contracted to write something for someone in particular. Self-plagiarism in that sort of case may be a legitimate problem.
12.1.2005 10:49am