Can you plagiarize yourself?
And other questions regarding self-citation
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You’re an undergraduate student with a double major in Political Science and Chinese Studies. You write a research paper for one of your Political Science courses on the history of China and how it influences modern-day politics. You do a lot of research for it, and you get a good grade. The next semester you’re assigned a similar paper topic in one of your Chinese studies classes under a different professor. Can you re-use any of the research you did for the first paper? What about copying whole sections of text or multiple text passages into the new paper? Do you have to cite yourself, and, if so, how should you do that?
If you’re unsure about some of these questions, you’re not alone. Even many seasoned researchers are unclear on what type of re-use is okay and what is not. A recent survey of faculty members, postdocs, and graduate students showed little consensus on the exact circumstances under which it’s okay to use past work.
In this blog post we’ll try to clear up some of the confusion surrounding the re-use and citation of past work. First, we’ll take a look at the question of self-plagiarism and what it is and then examine under what circumstances it’s okay to cite your own writing and how to do so.
What is self-plagiarism?
In the example at the beginning of this blog post, if you simply turned in the Political Science paper you wrote for your Chinese Studies course without making any changes, it would be considered to be self-plagiarism.
Most of us know that it’s wrong to commit plagiarism against others and we have a basic understanding of what it is. In case you need a refresher, a common definition of plagiarism is presenting the ideas of another person as your own, whether intentional or not. As students, we’re all taught that when we take the exact words of another person, we have to put them in quotation marks and cite the author. We also learn that even when we paraphrase someone else’s ideas and don’t quote them word-for-word, we still need to give proper attribution. Anything else constitutes a form of intellectual theft from the original author, is considered highly unethical and sometimes even illegal, and can have major consequences for your academic career.
But how does plagiarism apply when you re-use your own work? Since the common understanding of plagiarism is that you’re stealing other people’s ideas, the term self-plagiarism may seem like an oxymoron. How can you be committing intellectual theft if you are simply re-using your own ideas?
Well, although you’re not stealing anyone’s intellectual property by re-using what you came up with yourself, you are breaking your professor’s core assumption that you will submit original work for your assignments. Self-plagiarism is thus a form of academic dishonesty and an ethical no-no.
Besides the re-submission of past work, there are also a few additional forms of self-plagiarism described by Miguel Roig (2015). He discusses duplicate publication, i.e. when a researcher submits a very similar study to two different journals without informing them of the fact, the “salami slicing” tactic of creating multiple publications from one study, and copyright infringement, which can occur if a researcher re-uses text that was already published – under certain circumstances even if the information is cited appropriately. However, for most undergraduate students, unless you’re already publishing your work, you probably don’t yet have to worry about these types of self-plagiarism.
Using past work responsibly
So, now that we’ve looked at why it’s important to avoid self-plagiarism, let’s see how you can re-use work in an ethical way.
First, familiarize yourself with the polices of your university, since these can sometimes vary from institution to institution. Most universities will have a “Statement on Plagiarism” somewhere on their website or in the student handbook. There you should be able to find guidance on what constitutes self-plagiarism as well. For example, according to this statement from Wilkes University, it could be possible to submit a paper for more than one course, but only if both instructors agree. Other universities may never allow such re-use, even if both instructors would potentially agree.
If your university does allow for re-use with instructor permission, you’ll want to discuss whether such recycling is possible early on. For a research paper assignment this means asking your current professor if you can write on the same topic as you did previously. At the undergraduate level, they’ll likely agree that you can build upon work you’ve done in the past and re-use some of your past sources and research. However, they probably will want you to try and come up with a new take on the subject, and it’s very unlikely that they’ll allow you to re-use entire sections of text.
Try to think of this as an opportunity to take a renewed look at the topic rather than as a setback: as Smith (2012) writes in a Walden University Writing Center blog post
…your understanding of something–anything–shifts over time and depends greatly on your perspective and circumstances; how you think about a place you’ve never been to is inherently different from how you think of it once you’re there. In other words, you should avoid relying on your previous work because the way you look at a subject now will almost certainly be different from the way you looked at it before.
Even if you are unable to re-use much of your previous text and will be taking a new approach, you may still want to refer to your past work. In these instances, you can cite yourself just as you would any other source. However, choose wisely what and how much of your own work you want to cite. Too many self-citations can make it seem as if you are trying to promote yourself, and when you’re no longer a student, you might be suspected of trying to artificially increase your citation count to help you get a job or tenure.
Don’t just cite yourself because it’s easier to do so than going back and examining the sources you used. In other words, don’t use a secondary citation from your past paper for any ideas you want to cite in the sources you used the first time around. Make sure to go back to the original sources. In any self-citations you include, make sure the focus is on your own novel ideas or syntheses you came up with previously. If you’re having trouble deciding whether a self-citation is warranted or not, check out this blog post from the Rambling Academic, which includes a helpful list of valid reasons.
Once you have decided to cite yourself, make sure to do so just as you would any other source. If you’re working with reference management software, enter your previous paper as you would all other works. For example, in Citavi, to get the output you need in most citation styles, you would use the “Thesis” reference type. In the “Type of thesis” field, enter “Unpublished research paper”.
Keep in mind that different citation styles may require you to cite your unpublished research paper as a different reference type, for example as a manuscript rather than as a thesis. If that’s the case, use that reference type instead and make sure to later double-check the output in your document.
Once you’ve added your paper (and the direct and indirect quotations you want to cite if using Citavi), just insert its citation into your document using your citation tool’s Word plugin, just as you would any other source. It will appear in the bibliography automatically.
We hope this post has cleared up some common questions regarding self-citation, re-use of past work, and self-plagiarism. Although as an undergraduate student you won’t yet have as big a body of work to pull from and likely would only ever have to worry about the re-use of past short papers you’ve written, as you progress in your academic careers, you’ll unfortunately find that questions around self-citation and re-use of work get trickier, especially if you’re doing highly novel work in your field. For a more detailed discussion and best practices, we recommend checking out this fantastic overview article written by Miguel Roig for the Office of Research Integrity and the recently launched Text Recycling Research Project.
What is your institution’s approach to self-plagiarism? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know on Facebook by commenting on the post for this blog article or by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.