Short answer: yes. Read on to learn when and why to be concerned about plagiarizing yourself, as well as how to avoid self-plagiarism.
Plagiarism is generally defined as the theft of someone else’s words or ideas and the misrepresentation of them as your own. So how can self-plagiarism exist? Surely it’s impossible to steal from yourself?! Yet self-plagiarism, or “recycling” your own words in multiple papers, often does pose ethical problems in academia.
Self-plagiarism among college students
Let’s say you’re a senior history major. You wrote a 5-page paper on a 14th-century legal dispute last year for a course on medieval history. Now you’re taking a course on legal history and are tempted to turn in the same paper for credit. Should you do it?
Probably not. Many universities consider self-plagiarism (or “multiple submission”) to be a violation of the honor code just as much as regular old plagiarism. Statements from the University of Colorado, UCLA, Yale, Princeton, and Western Michigan University indicate that condemnation of self-plagiarism is pretty widespread.
In some circumstances, you may be able to talk with your professor about incorporating previous papers into a new assignment. Reusing old papers without the knowledge and approval of your professor, however, is ill-advised and could lead to disciplinary measures if you’re caught. (Exactly how professors and TAs detect academic dishonesty is beyond the scope of this post, but it generally comes down to a combination of personal experience—we read a lot of student papers—and sophisticated anti-plagiarism software).
Self-plagiarism among academics
You’d think academics would know better, but all too often the pressure to publish leads otherwise well-meaning researchers to recycle old work for additional publication credit. In addition to ruining your reputation, self-plagiarizing from your old articles or books may in fact constitute copyright infringement. Bottom line: self-plagiarism is unprofessional, unethical, and not worth the risk.
In an ethical gray area? Questions to ask yourself
That said, it’s very common for our work to build upon itself over time. Often, we investigate multiple research questions within the umbrella of one wider topic, or we gain further ideas and insight from our previous work. How do you know if it’s okay to recycle a few of your own ideas or words? Here are two questions to ask:
How much material am I recycling?
Are you reiterating one or two minor points, or copying a full paper wholesale? There’s obviously a difference. If the amount of material you want to reuse is minor, you’re probably in the clear, though it’s generally best to rephrase things instead of copying yourself verbatim.
What kind of material am I recycling?
Essentially, recycling your old arguments and key results—and deceitfully presenting them as new—is far worse than recycling general background information.
Let’s say you’re writing three articles on different aspects of one broader topic. For example: separate articles on the liturgical practices, treatment of apostates, and recruitment efforts of Benedictine monks. Understandably, you may want to use some of the same background information or literature review in all three of your articles. Each one needs at least some general context on the Benedictine Order after all.
Nevertheless, you’d be advised to avoid including lengthy identical sections in multiple articles. Find a different way to express your ideas. Odds are this will result in stronger papers anyway. Background context is often most effective when it is tailored to a specific angle and argument, rather than copied and pasted with no consideration for how it relates to the rest of your paper.
Now, what if you’re tempted to recycle entire arguments you’ve made before with little to no change? That’s less a gray area and more a bad idea. No matter how much you need the additional publication prestige, resist the urge to spin one good idea out into a handful of redundant publications.
Strategies to avoid self-plagiarism
For students: Ask your professor
If you’re a student and having any doubts, stop by office hours or email your professor. Since professors may have varying policies, it never hurts to ask if you can use previous research in a new assignment. Keep in mind though that it’s incredibly unlikely your professors will be fine with receiving an old paper unedited. Recycling an older paper isn’t an easy way to get out of doing work. Rather, you should be substantially expanding your old ideas, applying them in new contexts, and so on. And that’s only if your professor agrees. If you have further questions on avoiding academic dishonesty, schedule an appointment at your university’s writing center.
For scholars: Cite yourself
Your more recent scholarship may very well build on your previous research. Treat yourself just as you would any other scholar whose work you’ve found helpful for formulating your arguments: cite yourself! By being open about how your past writing informs your present work, you both signal of the importance of your past work and clarify how your new work is different and innovative. Proper citation is the best way to avoid plagiarism in general, and it’s an excellent form of defense against self-plagiarism too.
If you find yourself constantly retreading the same old lit review, consider going back to the basics: read some more books. Is there new scholarship you can incorporate? Or, if you reread your old standbys, do you notice any new insights to include? In some instances, a tendency toward self-plagiarism can indicate stagnation. Avoid this problem by continuing to read cutting-edge scholarship and absorb novel ideas.
Over the course of a long and prolific career, it’s quite likely you’ll need to express similar ideas more than once. From our example above, you might find yourself writing a paragraph on the foundation of the Benedictine Order ten different times. That’s fine. But copying and pasting the same old paragraph every time is lazy and likely does your paper a disservice. Even if you’re providing simple, essential background information, there’s more than one way to say it.
In rare cases, there really may be only one or two ways to phrase something. For instance, the use of specialized language may reduce your ability to reframe an idea. Or perhaps you’ve coined a truly magnificent sentence that simply can’t be improved. In those cases, quote and cite yourself!
Learn more about self-plagiarism
Theresa Culley, “APSS’s stance on self-plagiarism: Just say no,” Applications in Plant Sciences.
Doug Lederman, “A Study of Self-Plagiarism,” Inside Higher Ed.
Miguel Roig, “Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing,” Office of Research Integrity.
Pamela Samuelson, “Self-Plagiarism or Fair Use?” Legally Speaking.