It's not plagiarism
Some thoughts on literary recycling
There’s been a big fuss about plagiarism over the last few months, culminating in the resignation of the Harvard president. By now, people are thoroughly sick of the topic. Perfect time for a post!
Thanks for reading Small Potatoes! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
A little while ago, in a restless moment, I sent out this tweet.
Many people agreed, but I got a fair share of pushback. Several people argued that self-plagiarism is bad, or at least sometimes bad.
But this missed my point. I wasn’t saying that self-plagiarism is always ok. I was saying that it isn’t plagiarism. Plagiarism is a form of intellectual theft; you’re taking credit for someone else’s work. This only works if there’s a someone else!
There’s a superficial similarity here—plagiarism and self-plagiarism involve an overlap between one text and another—and I guess that’s why we have a stupid word like “self-plagiarism.” But they’re different. Something that’s wrong if you do it to someone else isn’t necessarily wrong if you do it to yourself. If you say something negative about yourself, it’s not slander. If you masturbate when you’re not in the mood, it’s not sexual assault.
I agree that there are cases where self-plagiarism is wrong. If I buy Micheal Connelly’s newest novel and discover that half of it was copied from a book of his I’ve already read, I’d be pissed. I expect new stuff. If a student in my seminar hands in a paper that was already submitted to another course, it’s cheating—my assignments should be based on the readings and discussions in my classes. If a magazine pays me to write an article for them and I send in something I published last year for a different magazine, I’ve done something seriously wrong. Same if I submit an already-published article to a scientific journal. Putting aside copyright issues, there is the expectation that (with some rare exceptions) you only publish the same article once.
What do these cases have in common? One concern is that they are deceptive; they sneakily violate certain expectations you are supposed to follow. This is the argument against self-plagiarism given by Jonathan Bailey in the context of a long-ago self-plagiarism (and plagiarism) scandal by the science writer Jonah Lehrer.
Much of the ethical issues surrounding self-plagiarism depended on the expectations of the audience and people who had commissioned the works. … Self-plagiarism, as with traditional plagiarism, is a breach of trust. As an author or other content creator, when you present a new work you are claiming, intrinsically at least, that the work is original and that has two components:
That the work is yours.
That the work is new.
Traditional plagiarism violates both components but self-plagiarism still violates the second.
In support of Bailey’s account, if you’re upfront about self-copying, it isn’t wrong anymore. If my student tells me ahead of time that their paper was already written for another course, I might complain that they didn’t understand the assignment, but I’m no longer angry. If the front cover of Michael Connelly's new book said “Half of this novel was already published”, I might not buy it, but I don’t have any right to complain. These acts are no longer wrong when the author is explicit that they are not claiming that the work is new.
If you think the Connelly scenario is weird, consider that in 2009, Malcolm Gladwell produced a best-seller called What the Dog Saw. It contains 18 previously published New Yorker articles by Gladwell (all freely available, at the time, online). A monstrous crime? No, because this overlap was explicitly noted on the back cover (though, interestingly, not on the front cover).
So this is a case where I agree with Bailey: The normal default expectation when we see a new book is that it’s mostly original. This is reasonable because, among other things, many people would not want to buy a book that contains a lot of writing they’ve already read.
But I don’t buy the argument more generally. If I’m reading a book or article and a few paragraphs are taken from something else the author wrote previously, it’s not like the Connelly example—it does nothing to spoil my reading experience. If the original paragraphs were well written, then I’d rather the author use those than struggle to rephrase the same thoughts differently.
Because of this, Bailey’s claim—that self-plagiarism is wrong because we expect written work to be entirely original—has two problems.
Not all of us have this expectation. I don’t. When I read the introduction of a scientific paper, for instance, I don’t care if some of it was published verbatim by the same authors years ago. I don’t expect every sentence to be original.
In such instances, it’s a dumb expectation. The proper response to someone who says I expect no overlap in your writing isn’t to promise to comply. It’s to say: That’s a silly thing to expect from me. Buzz off.
You’ve heard the phrase kill your darlings? I have better advice. When you have a darling (a phrase, image. or idea you really like), drop it into different papers, chapters, and books you write. Clone your darlings! If you do this and people complain, send them to me and I’ll set them straight.1
While I’m on the topic, what about actual honest-to-God plagiarism?
The word “plagiarism” is murder to spell. Shouldn’t the first “i” come before the “g”, not after?
Plagiarism is morally wrong.
It’s often wrong because it’s stealing from the work of others. If I plagiarise your brilliant ideas or lovely prose. I’ll get credit for them, and you are harmed. Something has been taken from you.
It’s also wrong because it’s deceptive. Even if I steal words from something that can’t be wronged (like a dead person or ChatGPT), I am fooling others into thinking I’ve created something I didn’t.
There exists what we can call felony plagiarism—a cold-blooded stealing of text or ideas with the intent of fooling others into thinking that the text or ideas are one’s own. Often, felony plagiarists work to cover their tracks, ripping off material from unpublished dissertations or obscure journals with the idea that nobody will discover the crime. This is a seriously bad thing to do.
More usual is misdemeanor plagiarism. This includes sloppy note-taking, unfamiliarity with the rules (there are big cultural differences as to what sort of copying/paraphrasing is acceptable), glitches in memory, or honest confusion about who has an idea first. Usually, these cases are easy to discover because there is no ill intent and no attempt at a coverup.
Misdemeanor plagiarism is wrong. One should be more careful; one should know the rules; and so on. And even when the right care is taken, there are times when people have to take responsibility for honest mistakes. But generally, when these cases are discovered, the miscreant should apologize and work to do better in the future, and that should be the end of things.
If I’m coming off as a softie, I’ll add that I am bothered by cases that almost everyone else accepts as ok. People pay others to write for them, as in ghostwriting and speechwriting, and pretend that they did it themselves. It’s really surprising to me that this is an accepted practice.
Who wrote the book below? Andre Agassi, of course. That’s his picture and his name, and the word “autobiography”. But this is a lie; it’s the work of ghostwriter J. R. Moehringer. Perhaps Moehringer wasn’t wronged—he was well paid to work with Agassi to pull off this scam. But this is still an act of blatant deception, far worse than the inadvertent cut-and-pastes that people get so upset about.
Check out my What Can’t Be Sold for more on the issue.