Monday, August 3, 2009

The Morality of Self-Plagiarism

I am used to thinking of academic honesty as a pretty clear issue. If you steal a page out of somebody else's writing and try to pass it off as your own, you are acting in an immoral and academically dishonest way. However an incident here at CU has made me realize that the issue isn't as cut and dry as I once thought. Please excuse my vagueness as I wish to protect the identity of the affected student, who I will call Bob.

Last spring Bob was taking a senior-level writing class and a business class. He wrote an opinion paper for the business class advocating a certain management practice, turned it in, and received a high grade on the assignment. A couple weeks later Bob was assigned to write an opinion paper in the writing class on a topic of his choice. He lengthened the paper from the business class by roughly 25%, made some general revisions, turned it in to the writing class, and received a high grade.

After the writing professor returned the paper to Bob they chatted about the assignment briefly. In that chat Bob mentioned that sections of the paper had been used in a previous assignment for another class. The professor then told him that he had violated CU's academic integrity policy and would receive no credit for the assignment. A couple days later Bob was informed that he faced possible referral to the Dean of Students (the closest thing CU has to an honor code office) for additional action. Bob was shocked to find out that what he had done was being treated the same way as plagiarism or cheating.

CU's academic integrity policy
specifically bans "submitting the same paper for multiple classes" which has been dubbed "self-plagiarism". I was surprised to hear this, but it turns out that most schools ban self-plagiarism, including BYU. I can never recall being told that by anyone in my time at BYU and CU. Perhaps I simply missed the boat, but if this practice is banned, shouldn't students know about it?

The bigger issue in my mind is why so-called self-plagiarism is a problem at all. If a student can use their own words and ideas in more than one context, why is it immoral to do so? The student is not gaining an unfair advantage over other students anymore than a science major has an advantage over a humanities major in a general education science class (or vice-versa for a GE humanities class). And the student has not stolen words or ideas from anyone. The only reason I can see for this rule is that professors want students to do work specifically for their class, but if an assignment is off-topic isn't a poor grade a sufficient punishment?

I personally think that there is nothing morally reprehensible about reusing old assignments, but I want your thoughts on the matter. Why is it wrong to reuse your own previous work?


  1. I agree Nick, I had no idea this was "bad" plagarism. I can't think of the time, but I seem to remember once using ideas in a paper I had written for a previous class for a paper. (Though I may be wrong. I just can't remember.)

    Also, this happens in physics all the time. I won't mention names if it turns out this is a bad thing, but I know of serveral papers where entire sections come from previous papers.

    In fact, I was reading a highly cited review article where several sections of the review article were copied almost verbatum from the author's PhD thesis.

    So, my point is in the real world it is done. I see it a lot and have never thought it was bad. If I came up with X and have written it in a way I really think explains concept X well, why can't I use that description every time I want to explain concept X?

    I don't know what that professor or CU is thinking. (And it seems like it is an issue at other schools too!) I almost was to say we should try to expose this nonsense publically. (Though I may be overreacting and I don't know all the facts. I just don't want to see a student meet the fate he may meet because of over-zealous "honor code" enforcers.)

  2. I agree. I can cite quite a few examples were text is copied almost verbatim from thesis work or previous papers. In fact I was in a "pre-thesis writing" workshop here at CU where they recommend writing papers as a grad student that can be easily modified to serve as thesis chapters. It appears that self-plagiarism is only an issue when dealing with actual class assignments, but again, why is that immoral?

  3. This is a rather interesting issue, but only because teachers have made it one. In regards to Joe's comment about publishing parts of a PhD thesis I would say that this is to be expected. Most of the grad students (and faculty members) I talk to refer to taking portions of one's PhD thesis and turning them into a paper (or two). I guess it depends on how you treat your PhD thesis. If you are publishing it with an independent publishing house (i.e. not your university priniting office) then there might be some issues, but other than that I say it is expected to do that.

    In one case that I know (you all know him too, but I won't say who) a grad student took three papers that he had published, wrote a little filler to connect them and turned it in as his PhD thesis. He is now teaching at BYU.

    In cases like this I think the issue comes from a desire that some professors have to have their students do work specifically for them and no one else. I don't think I ever had the opportunity to use a paper from class to fulfill an assingment in another, but usually the assingments were so dissillimar that it would not be possible to use them anyway. I have used papers written for other things (like symposiums) that I have used as extra credit in a few classes, but the professors were aware of it and were ok with it.

  4. I think the issue here is that he did not write the paper specifically for the class and he should have given that it was a writing class. It is like taking part in a shop class and turning in something you made last year for your final project. Or it is like taking a PE class and saying "I don't have to run a mile to get a time since I have already done it." In these cases it would be an issue, but on the other hand if it can fulfil the assignment then why would there be a problem?

    I think it is an issue of expectations. As President Hinckley said, an orchestra can play the same piece of music over and over but a speaker is expected to come up with something new every single time.

  5. Ryan,

    So far I think your rational is the best I've heard for why it might be wrong to reuse one's previous work. That being said, I still have to disagree. The point of any academic assignment (physical exercise excluded) is not to keep you busy, it's to show that you understand how to do something (in this case express an opinion in writing). If the paper did that (and when the writing professor graded it he found that it did it very well), then the student has proven that he can express his opinion well in writing and has satisfied the assignment.

    Perhaps the thing that troubles me most is that this is considered the to be along the same lines as plagiarism or cheating. If a professor or university want to make a rule against it that is their prerogative, but don't pretend it's the moral equivalent of stealing ideas.

  6. You are all wrong! In fact, there is a special place in the fiery depths for self-plagiarizers. As I always say, cheating off of yourself is a bad idea... (I would reference that but I can't remember the last time I said it) ;)

  7. Yes Nick I agree. I was thinking about that as I was writing my comment, so my analogies do not transfer directly but there is something to be said for completing the assignment specifically for the class, if the purpose of the class is to focus on writing. Still the oposite can be argued and I think has the stronger argument, that the purpose of the assignment was to write something and the student did just that. In the end I don't think there is anything to be gained by discouraging or punishing self-plagerism, since in the real world it is never looked down upon.

  8. I think we're all in agreement here, but there must be some good reason for this policy because it is specifically defined as academically dishonest by BYU, CU, and UC-Irvine. Interestingly, it is not specifically mentioned in the academic honesty policies for UNC-Chapel Hill, UIUC, or Baylor.

    Also, UNC's website has a nice reference to a study that showed that while 75% to 89% of professors regard self-plagiarism to be dishonest only 25% to 49% of students agreed. You can see more at .

  9. Jared, what circle of hell is that? To reference a little known TV show, is that above or below the special hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater?

    And since we're talking about plagiarism, I'll leave of the source for that one. A million points to anybody that can identify it. :)

  10. Shepherd Book?

    I really don't know, just cut and pasted that quote into Google, much the same way I will cut and paste text from my publications into my PhD thesis.

  11. Come on now Joe, haven't we learned anything about cheating here today? I'm afraid I'll have to refer you to some sort of honor code office where you will be tortured mercilessly until you confess to your academically sinful ways.

  12. Ahhh, we will send Shepherd Book after you for cheating... Good job on that obscure reference... I <3 Firefly.


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