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.