WriteCast Episode 30: A Philosophical (and Practical) Look at Self-Plagiarism
© Walden University Writing Center 2016
[Teaser] BRITTANY: We do want to give some tips, too, for how to avoid self-plagiarism.,,,
BRITTANY: Welcome to WriteCast: A Casual Conversation for Serious Writers. I’m Brittany Kallman Arneson,
BETH: and I’m Beth Nastachowski.
BRITTANY: In this episode, which is actually our 30th episode of WriteCast,
BRITTANY: Yay, (laughing) we’re very excited. We will be talking about self-plagiarism: what it is, why it’s an issue, and how to avoid it. Well Beth, I’m going to let you define self-plagiarism for us. What is it?
BETH: Yeah, ok. So, let’s start with what is self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism is when, um.
BRITTANY: It’s a complex topic, actually. It seems like it should be straight-forward, but there are some nuances to it.
BETH: Yeah, I’m going to start by, kind of, zooming out a little bit here and talk about what self-plagiarism is in publishing in general not specifically at Walden, because that’s really where self-plagiarism comes from.
BETH: So, self-plagiarism is just when an author is reusing older work and not citing that older work. And, that becomes more of an issue for publications where, maybe, Brittany, you published an amazing article in 2010,
BRITTANY: Of course I did.
BETH: Of course, and now you’re writing and you’re referencing and using some of the same ideas and maybe even the same data and that kind of stuff, but you’re not citing that older work. And, the issue is kind of two fold there, because first, that first 2010 article was published by someone and is now owned by someone, and they make money off that, the journal makes money off your article by selling it to people who are interested in reading it. Right? So, if you aren’t citing yourself, and a previous work, you’re kind of stealing, sort of, property, intellectual property from, not just yourself, but the publisher. The other issue could also be for readers, right? If they’re reading your 2014 article and you’re referring to information, but they can’t go and verify that information because you didn’t cite it, even though it’s your own information, it originated with you in 2010, your reader needs to be able to follow those bread crumbs back to that 2010 article, so that they can verify the information you’re referring to. So, that’s really where self-plagiarism comes from, and I think it’s really helpful for students to think about why self-plagiarism is something APA even mentions. Because, it seems a little weird at first, because, while you’re at Walden, you’re writing, and your ideas, they’re all building off one another. That’s the whole purpose, right? Your first course should build onto your second course, and, within each course, your assignments build on one another. So, it feels a little weird at first to think about self-plagiarism, but I think it’s really helpful to think of where it originated from.
BRITTANY: I really like the idea of getting into it from the perspective of published work specifically, because you’re right, that is where it originates from, and I think that’s an important reminder too for us that the APA manual is the APA publication guide, the publication manual. So, while we’re using, at Walden, those guidelines to apply to student work, which won’t be published, all your coursework and so forth, it is designed, its primary audience really is people who are writing for publication. So, that whole self-plagiarism section, in there, and all of the rules that go along with that and guidelines, have to do with, like you said Beth, intellectual property issues, with that kind of following the thread of ideas, and I think really what this goes back to is the fact that writing is a process, right? It’s not just each individual product, and I think, like you talked about, those bread crumbs, it’s important for you to help your reader, sort of, see, well, and when I say “you” I guess we’re still now talking about published authors, um, it’s important for them to help their readers see that there was a process there, right? That some of these ideas came out in a publication before, and now they’re coming out again, but they’ve maybe developed or changed, or been refined in some way, and that helps enrich the reader’s understand of the development of those ideas over time.
BETH: Yeah, and to kind of narrow our scope back in then, for Walden students self-plagiarism, even though you’re not publishing your discussion posts, your course papers, even a final paper for a course, even though you’re not publishing those, it’s still important to think about self-plagiarism, because the whole purpose of our assignments and the learning that you’re doing at Walden is to build upon what you’re learning, but also to approach each assignment, sort of, with a new perspective almost, I would say.
BETH: So, self-plagiarism at Walden can take the form of reusing a paragraph from a previous paper that fits into the current paper or wanting to reuse an entire paper that, you know, that you did in a different course that really fits the assignment for this course. That’s more where self-plagiarism comes in. There’s less of an issue of needing to self-cite or citing previous ideas and things like that. Um, because it’s not quite the same, it’s not quite the same context. So, self-plagiarism usually happens at Walden in those cases where you’re, kind of, copying and pasting or repeating or resubmitting paragraph or entire pages or papers. And really, I liked your point Brittany about writing as a process, and I think that becomes really important in thinking about why we can’t just resubmit paragraphs or papers over and over again in courses. And, that’s partly because the assignments that you’re doing at Walden should be building your ideas. So, you should be taking ideas from one course and applying them in a new context, or building on them, or taking a new perspective, so that you’re constantly learning and challenging yourself. Not just, you know, repeating what you did, but going beyond that, because that’s the point of every course is to go beyond the previous course.
BETH: So, when you talk about writing as a process Brittany, I think that’s also really important to think about, because your learning is a process.
BRITTANY: Mhmm mhmm. You know, we talk a lot about product as being, kind of, the opposite of process, and I think too often Walden students, and students in general, focus on, and we’ve talked about this in previous podcast episodes too, focus on their education as, sort of, a series of boxes to check. So, a series of products to produce, right, where it’s like: “ok, I have to produce this paper, and check this box. I have to produce this paper and check this box or this assignment,” or whatever. And so, if you think about it that way, then, of course, it seems like you’re going to kind of kill two birds with one stone if you can reuse some ideas or a paper here or there. I mean, there still are, like, ethical questions about doing that. You definitely shouldn’t do that. But, I mean, from that mindset, it sort of seems like that solves a problem for you as a student, perhaps. But really, what we’re trying to emphasize is that that’s not really what your educational journey is about. It’s not just about checking boxes. At least, if you want it to be as rich as it can be. Um, what we want to be here at Walden is, as Beth was saying, something where you are developing ideas, where you’re challenging your ideas, where you’re, sort of, using. I mean, I think one of the coolest thing that happened to me when I was in grad school, and undergrad, I think, has had it too, is learning something in one course that, all of a sudden, I could see how it related. I could, like, draw those connections to something I was learning in a completely different course that was, basically, unrelated in its topic to the previous course. And, that’s really what this is about, synthesis, right? That, kind of, bringing together of ideas and letting them simmer together until you start to make new ideas out of, out of those ideas that you’re absorbing in your courses.
BETH: I, I think that’s a good point too if we think about learning as a process and student’s degree programs being a process, right? The same thing goes for writing. Writing is also a process. While not always explicit in the directions or in the rubric for your course work, one of the purposes of writing an assignment, of completing an assignment, is, not just the product, the final thing you hand in to your instructor, but the process of writing that assignment. So, going through the writing and researching process, developing your ideas, you know, using your critical thinking skills, and practicing those critical thinking muscles, because, you can’t develop those skills unless you really work at it and continue to use them. So, I also want to emphasize too that even, you know maybe, you had a paper that you wrote for your last course, and the assignment is so similar, and it fits really, really well. If you handed in that assignment, potentially the product itself might fulfill the requirements of that assignment, but you’re missing the process of writing the assignment that is really meant to serve you well. It’s meant to help you develop the skill you’re meant to learn as part of your program too. So, both learning is a process, but the writing and researching of a product is part of that process.
BRITTANY: Yeah, that such a great point. You’re sort of cheating yourself, in a way by doing something like that, because you are missing out on that learning that happens through the process. And that learning is really, that’s what you’re paying for when you’re getting a degree, right, is that ability to flex those muscles and build up those critical thinking muscles, like you said Beth. I like that metaphor a lot, because I think it is really similar to, like, training to run a race, right? You’re not just going to jump in and run a marathon without doing the leg work first and, no matter what Walden program you’re in, you are building up to some culminating project of some kind, whether that be a dissertation or doctoral study, or a capstone of some kind for a masters, or undergraduate degree. And so, you do want to make sure that you’re doing all of that critical thinking, sort of, training throughout your courses before you, before you run the final race.
BETH: Yeah. And, and I want to point out here too, I feel like maybe what we’re saying could be seen as being a little negative about it too. We’re not trying to be negative. We really, I see this more as, um, I really see it as, if you view assignments and the papers you’re writing not as product, but as process, it’s really empowering. I think, because then you can take each assignment and really say, “ok, I want to develop this skill, because I know it’s important for me to develop this skill, and I’m going to focus on, you know, X in this particular assignment that I’m writing.”
BETH: And to really embrace the process of writing that assignment as much as the final product is really empowering, because it helps you understand why all that work is necessary. It’s not, all the work that goes into writing, the process of writing, is just as important as the product. So, it can make it feel more valuable.
BRITTANY: Yeah, it’s not something that’s being imposed on you. It’s actually something that your, sort of, privileged to be able to do, I think. And, I think, that’s a good point, that we are, maybe, taking a little bit of a negative tone by accident. I mean, really, what we hear the most from students, when we discuss this topic with students or when we encounter this issue with students, is not like, “oh why can’t I reuse my past work?” It’s quite the opposite. It’s “Oh my god, how do I avoid? I heard self-plagiarism is a thing. I’m, you know, writing all this stuff, all the time on all the same topic, because I’m getting this degree that’s in this particular field, how do I avoid self-plagiarism?” And so, we do want to give some tips too for how to avoid self-plagiarism. And I, I think, we do have some concrete tips here, but the overarching message that’s important here is to, sort of, engage with this topic with your colleagues, your classmates, and your instructor, and not be afraid, again, approaching it more as a process than a product, not being afraid of breaking rules, but instead, sort of, like, for instance, let’s say that you did have an assignment that you’ve written in a previous course that was really similar to an assignment that you are working on now. And, you were wondering if, maybe you developed a really interesting idea that you’re really excited about in that previous paper, and you want to use that again. Well, that might not necessarily be out of the question. It’s just a matter of how you treat that, right? Though maybe you take just that kernel of that idea, and you expand it, and you work on it, and you change it, and you grow it, that is actually participating in that critical thinking process. But, you want to be able to be really up front with your instructor about doing that. And say, “hey, you know what, I grabbed this from a previous paper, and I want to make sure I’m not self-plagiarizing, can we talk about this? And, I just want to be straightforward about this, and I want to use it.” And so, that’s really our first tip is to talk to your instructor and be open about what’s going on instead of feeling like it’s a taboo topic or it’s, you know, off the table.
BETH: Yeah, and we definitely don’t mean to make this sound even more taboo either, as we’re talking about self-plagiarism, because we talk about it a lot with students, because we realize you guys are busy. You have time constraints, and you have a lot of assignments that you’re doing as well as other responsibilities. So, we totally get that, and your instructor gets that too. So, it’s really about being open and reaching out to your instructor and letting know, “hey, this is the question I have.” I always, always suggest that students are as transparent and communicative with their instructor as possible.
BETH: Is communicative a word?
BRITTANY: I think so.
BETH: Ok, cool.
BETH: Um, then, one other thing we wanted to mention here is, as sort of a caveat about assignments that are meant to be iterative, the purpose of those assignments is meant to be iterative, or the writing process is meant to be iterative, and, if you’re not sure what I mean by that, that’s ok, it’s a very vague statement, but what I wanted to really emphasize here is that self-plagiarism isn’t something that we’re really, not that we’re not concerned about, but the same rules that we’re talking about, about taking each draft a new, or something like that, doesn’t really apply. When we’re talking about a master’s thesis that you’re working on throughout an entire course, or a doctoral capstone study, if you’re writing a doctoral capstone study, and you’re working on that for a year or more, you don’t need to cite yourself each time you go back and revise it, or something like that, or submit it to your instructor, things like that. Those are documents that are meant to be worked on and revised and submitted to your instructor, or your committee, or your chair, many, many times, so that’s the place where we’re really not too concerned about self-plagiarism in those kinds of documents, or in a class where you start writing paragraph one, on week one, and you add paragraphs each week and, at the end of the course, you submit all the paragraphs as part of a companion paper. You don’t need to self-cite, you know, cite yourself from week one, or anything like that. So, that’s a quick-ish caveat that we wanted to add there as well.
BRITTANY: Again, I think this is the type of thing where, if you’re not quite sure if you should be self-citing, just bring it up with your instructor. And, you can certainly ask a Writing Instructor from the Writing Center if you have a paper review appointment. I will say that, a lot of times, we’ll just throw you back to your instructor, because they’re the expert on what they prefer, and because the APA manual and guidelines are designed for published work. There are some gray areas in terms of the way that different professors here at Walden, sort of, treat this issue. So, it’s always best to check with your course instructor or chair, depending on what your particular struggle or question is.
BETH: Mhmm. So, that leads us into our last topic that we wanted to cover about avoiding self-plagiarism by self-citing. And, that’s what APA calls citing yourself, so citing a previous work. Like we were mentioning, Brittany wrote something in 2010. She’s writing again, and so she wants to use something from the 2010 publication, and she cites herself. This is something that you can use to refer back to a previous paper, or discussion post, or something like that. But, similar to reusing a paragraph or reusing paper or page, I always recommend students ask their instructor if it’s ok if they cite themselves. Some instructors really want students to avoid self-citations, because they want them to use the research, right, the other research from other peer-reviewed sources other than previous ideas. So, that’s one thing to note. That’s our main thing here. Talk to your instructor before you do this, just to make sure it’s ok and that they think it’s an appropriate thing for that assignment.
BRITTANY: Yeah. I feel like basically this episode is all about reaching out to your instructor if you have questions about self-plagiarism, but we do actually have some resources on our website as well. So, if you go to our website, and you search “citing yourself,” in the search box, you will find our self-plagiarism resource, and that sort of lays out a lot of the things that we’ve been talking about today and, sort of, the when’s and when-not-to’s and that sort of thing. So, do check that out as well.
BETH: Thanks for sticking with us as we had this more philosophical discussion about self-plagiarism today. I think it’s really important for all of us to understand where these rules come from and, sort of, the reasoning behind them, so that we can better understand the approach to take with this kind of stuff and the questions to ask as well.
BRITTANY: We are also still interested in hearing from you, our listeners, about topics or ideas for what you want us to talk about on the podcast. So, please do reach out to us, really in whatever way you feel most comfortable with, whether that social media, via email, or on our blog. We’d love to hear from you, and we would love to record episodes about topics that are of interest to you.
BETH: See you next time!
BRITTANY: WriteCast is a production of the Walden University Writing Center. This episode was produced by me, Brittany Kallman Arneson; my co-host, Beth Nastachowski; and our colleague, Anne Shiell.