Imaginary offense: Plagiarizing yourself


Your college schedule for the semester includes three classes.  One class in American History, one in Economics, and one in American Economic History.  You have three different professors for all three classes.  The three class professors tell you to write a paper in all three classes.  The subject of the paper is identical for all three.  You do in-depth research (outside of just class text) and write a paper that considers points of view, supports arguments, and is well attributed.  You submit the SAME paper to all three instructors and receive a superior grade (A) from all three instructors.

Have you just done something unethical, illegal, or immoral?

The short version is no, no, and no.  Some of you are going to immediately jump down my throat declaring heresy.  Allow me to support my argument before you attempt to call me an academic assassin.

First we’ll consider the definition of plagiarism:

The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one’s own creation.

Simply put, you CAN NOT by definition plagiarise yourself.  Let’s step away from copying your own work verbatim to another part of the definition to prove how ludicrous this concept is.  If you write something, and then a week later write something else on the same IDEA without attributing it, you will have plagiarized yourself.  In some cases, if you merely copy your own style of writing without crediting your previous work (using the same style) you’d be guilty of plagiarizing.  How many people change their writing style every time they write?  Next to consider is the concept of harm.  Can you harm yourself by copying yourself?  This is what legal systems would consider.  No, you CAN NOT plagiarise yourself, so you can not claim you harmed yourself because you can not plagiarise yourself.

The professors have all taught the classes in question before.  They have all led the same discussions, and MADE THE SAME POINTS before, in a public venue.  Some of them even PUBLISH THE SAME NOTES published in previous classes for the students to use , or provide THE SAME WORKSHEETS that they have used in a previous class.  In short the instructors use the same curriculum that they prepared for more than one year.

OF COURSE THEY DO!  They would be stupid not to.  It would take too much energy to rewrite an entire curriculum yearly on the same subject, repeatedly, without eventually using your previous material.  It would be fantasy to believe otherwise.

Without going traveling through the concept of a double standard, how can you arrive at it being an allowable thing for a professor to “recycle” their work, but NOT okay for a student to?  What exactly is the difference between a student using THEIR OWN WORK MORE THAN ONCE and a professor doing the same thing?

The fact of the matter is a student is under no legal, moral, or ethical obligation to produce original work (if they have their own work to draw from) in every circumstance that a professor requests a paper from them.

Another article to consider.

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