As a student, you must already be aware of how serious plagiarism issues are in academia. You rigorously keep notes of all your reading, use citation generators to track all the sources and keep them for accurate citing. However, what if you need to include some rather informative passages from an article you have written yourself? Should you reference that too? Can you plagiarize your own work? These are the questions every student faces once they complete a number of assignments. In this post, we will discuss a rather tricky question of what is self-plagiarism and how to avoid it.
What Is Self-Plagiarism?
First of all, let’s unpack the meaning. If plagiarism is taking someone else’s work, ideas, or words and passing them off as your own, then what is self-plagiarism? You cannot steal from yourself, can you? In fact, the self-plagiarism definition is a bit more specific.
Self-plagiarism means incorporating your previous work into your new piece of writing without disclosing it. That is, presenting your old ideas and findings as new. It isn’t as bad as intellectual theft, but it’s still unethical and constitutes academic dishonesty.
How Can You Plagiarize Yourself as a Student?
I can see how this can be confusing. “Well, but how do I avoid using my previous work? Learning doesn’t happen from the clean slate, you know!” It’s a valid point. However, the line between building upon your previous work and self-plagiarism exists, even if it’s a fine one. Let’s look at some concrete examples.
Is it plagiarism to reuse a paper?
Let’s say you have two different courses with some overlapping course material. You have to hand in separate papers with very similar topics. Would it be self-plagiarism if you write one piece that fits both sets of requirements and just submit it twice? I’m afraid it would. Why? Because everything you submit toward academic credit must be the evidence of academic progress – that is, learning something. If you submit the same paper, no learning has happened. You cannot be awarded new credits for something you have already been given credit for. Just like you cannot get paid for the same work twice.
Is it plagiarism to copy your own work?
Okay, what if it’s not an entire paper, just some small part? For example, you have been working hard on the timeline of textiles in Europe for your Fashion history 101. Then, next year, you have another course, say, Medieval economy 201. And wouldn’t you know it, they have given you an essay to write about textile production. It might be tempting to just lift entire passages from your last year’s paper about the technology of making wool and linen just to save time. However, it’s still a no-no. However, you can cite yourself if you feel that those passages are super-relevant. In other words, you must unequivocally indicate that you incorporate your past work into the new one.
Is it possible to plagiarize yourself by paraphrasing?
That’s the vaguest part. What if you use your own ideas but not the exact same words? It depends. If you present some old conclusions from your previous papers as new findings, it is self-plagiarism. If you give them for context, as a background, so that your audience could better understand this new research and you cite yourself properly, then it’s okay.
Moreover, if you use similar phrasing to describe your methodology or views on the problem, it doesn’t require citation. It’s just your style of writing. Everyone has a unique voice with hallmark expressions.
Self-Plagiarism Examples in Academic and Other Realms
Self-plagiarism isn’t limited to ever-pressed for time, overwhelmed college students, believe it or not. Here are some other examples of self-plagiarism to help you understand what other cases fall under this umbrella:
- A scholar submits the same paper for different journals to publish.
- A researcher uses the same dataset for another study without disclosing it.
- A freelance writer gets an assignment to write about the same topic again from another client. He whips out his old text, rewords it using synonyms, so it’s not an exact copy, and submits it as something she has just written.
- A blogger is asked to write a guest web article on her specialty topic. She takes an old article from her own blog, changes some wording, and moves the paragraphs around to avoid duplicate content. Still, the overall structure, ideas, and information stay practically the same.
- A technical writer copies large sections from documentation she wrote for several different products earlier to create a “new” description for another product.
What unites all these cases? A desire to show results without working for them. You might also call it laziness. Admit it. It’s sly and dishonest, even if you don’t steal from anyone.
Can You Get in Trouble for Plagiarizing Yourself?
Okay, so suppose now you have an answer to the question, “Why is self-plagiarism bad?” It is disingenuous. It can be frowned upon. Yet can you find yourself in hot water for it? I know, I know. This is the real reason why you’re reading all this. As with everything concerning this topic, repercussions depend on details.
If we are talking about the publishing of articles in journals and blogs, you might be getting into the territory of copyright infringement. When you submit a piece of writing to a journal, magazine, or online platform, you might be transferring some rights to the publisher. You retain intellectual property, but you cannot publish it elsewhere without permission. Here you do break written law with all the consequences it entails.
Suppose we return to just being exposed as a lazy recycler of old news. In that case, it can still damage your reputation and lower the trust that the academic community puts into your words and your findings. That’s not the end of the world but has long-running consequences ranging from general unpleasantness to actual costs such as loss of further publishing opportunities, positions, financing, scholarships, etc.
The punishment you can suffer for self-plagiarism as a student depends on your school’s policies and the attitude of your instructors. They can be lenient and just point the issue out, reprimanding you mildly. However, some schools have zero-tolerance policies that can get you expelled for plagiarizing your own work.
How to Avoid Self-Plagiarism as a Student?
Now it is safe to say that you don’t want to be caught plagiarizing yourself. At the very least, it’s embarrassing. What can you do to avoid self-plagiarism while still building on the hard work you already did? Here are some tips.
How to avoid self-plagiarism in Turnitin?
The short answer: just avoid self-plagiarism. If your school uses Turnitin, everything you have submitted will be in the database. Whether you hand in the entire paper again for another course or just use specific fragments, Turnitin will return a match. Paraphrasing and moving paragraphs around might help you fly under the radar. On the other hand, it might not. Proceed at your own peril. Wouldn’t it be better just to do your assignment properly? Or at least hire an essay writing service to do the project for you. This way, you will get a fresh take on a well-thumbed topic and save time.
Is it possible to use a paper I submitted earlier in another school?
Rest assured that most schools easily detect plagiarism, and self-plagiarism in particular. Most universities have internal databases of previously submitted papers, so if your new essay includes passages from the last year’s assignment, the system will show it. Moreover, some colleges have access to databases of other partnering institutions. Even transfer students must be careful recycling their old papers for courses in their new school.
Does it mean I cannot use my own research at all?
As I already mentioned, each school has its own policies concerning self-plagiarism: what is perceived as such, what isn’t allowed, and how infractions are punished. The rule of the thumb is to ask if you think there might be an issue. If you believe that your past research will be relevant for the new paper, consult your instructor as to the extent you can build upon it. Make sure you ask well in advance, ideally right after receiving the new assignment. This way, you will have plenty of time to do the project from scratch if your instructor says no.
My instructor green-lighted recycling for one assignment. Is it always okay?
If you get permission to use your past work for a new assignment, treat it as a one-off thing, not a precedent. You must ask again for every paper after that with this instructor or any other. Also, even if the use of your old paper is agreed upon, you must clearly cite it – just as you would any other source of the material. It might feel weird putting your own name in the brackets, as if you were so self-important and pompous, “Look at me, I am a big researcher!” Yet this is standard academic practice. Cite your sources, even if they are your own publications or submitted essays.
As you can see, just like plagiarism, self-plagiarism is about honesty, ethical standards, and good academic practices. When you submit a paper as an assignment or for publishing, your readers expect it to be new, original content. You can use your experience and research to propel your new ideas forward, but you must acknowledge that. If you have any doubts – ask your instructors or editors. Keep old information in the background, cite it properly, and always come up with something new and original. As long as you stick with these simple rules, you aren’t in danger of self-plagiarism. I hope this made it a bit clearer. Learn, move forward, and don’t let anxiety stop you!