A few years ago, an article from Chronicle of Higher Ed posed the question, “Can scholars plagiarize themselves?” (Lang 2010). Lang argues that despite academic policies that penalize students for “double-dipping” or self-plagiarism, this practice is frequent among academics. We recycle parts of conference presentations or adapt pieces of an article or book for different purposes. We may have sliced up a dissertation chapter into a few different articles or conference presentations, or we may even use a previously published article in a published book (depending on the copyright provisions of each publication). With this in mind, Lang questions whether it is hypocritical of us to suggest that students should not reuse their writing from one class to another. Lang argues that there is value in adapting and revising work for different audiences and contexts. Our students may not make such polished arguments about the ethics of “double-dipping,” but they, too, will often protest, “How can I plagiarize myself?”
Lang makes a valuable point, but his argument overlooks an important distinction between ethical and unethical recycling of ideas. This distinction is key in explaining these issues to our students. When academics reuse ideas, we do not simply present the same paper at multiple conferences or republish the same article in two different journals. We adapt, revise, reframe, and restructure our ideas. We may recycle research, combing through file folders for an article we read years ago that will help to illustrate our point. We may return to earlier ideas with a new perspective or new research that helps us to reexamine those ideas. But each time we reuse material, we turn it into something new. We do not merely reuse, we recycle.
While students may object to the unfairness of policies on “self-plagiarism,” these policies usually acknowledge the difference between reusing and recycling. Course-level policies often note that students may explore a topic that they’ve previously researched or build on an argument from another class, so long as they do so with the knowledge and consent of the faculty members involved. CPC’s “Statement on Academic Integrity” specifically notes that a violation only occurs when “resubmitting the same work a second time without the permission of the original and secondary instructor.” In ENG 102, faculty will sometimes allow students to work with topics they’ve explored previously, but a responsible professor will ask the student to provide the original paper and talk to the student about how to revisit ideas or recycle research without simply “resubmitting the same work.”
The key here is that students need faculty guidance and support to understand the difference between reusing and recycling. As with any issue of academic integrity, we must look at this as an educational opportunity – something we should address pedagogically. When a student is repeating a course, we as instructors need to explain why it is important to produce new work for the course in order to demonstrate learning. If a student wants to recycle ideas or research from another course, we need to work closely with that student to explain the difference between reusing and recycling and to make sure that the student is building from that prior knowledge in a way that allows them to demonstrate growth and new learning.
About the Author
Dr. Marcie Panutsos Rovan is an Assistant Professor of English and the Director of First Year Writing at Central Penn College. She holds a PhD in English from Duquesne University with a specialization in children’s literature and literary modernism.