self-borrowings: yikes!

Suppose you have an argument, one with fairly distinctive premises and a very distinctive conclusion, that bears both on a question in philosophy of mind and on a question in moral philosophy. Imagine next you’ve published a philosophy of mind paper with the argument and now you are writing a paper in moral philosophy. Where is that argument, you ask. Remembering, you go to the earlier manuscript, click on the argument, copy it into the new paper and, voila, you’ve met your day’s word count.

What is wrong with that? What can you do to put it right?

The reason I am asking is I just stumbled on an article in the NY Times about plagiarizing, and it does seem one can plagiarise oneself. They call it recycling work, and it doesn’t sound like a good idea.

Is the difference between right and wrong reuses just one of acknowledgement? Journalism’s rules may be different from ours, so let’s just ask it about academic writing.

12 thoughts on “self-borrowings: yikes!

  1. Hmmm. Interesting. Not just writing you know. I’m an industrial designer. What if I borrow the innards of a product I made for company X and sell it to Y. Please tell me how far I can go.

  2. It’s obvious enough to me that recycling your own work word-for-word is a bad thing that you shouldn’t do. But I don’t really like how it relates to the semantics of plagiarism. To me, plagiarism is passing off someone else’s work as your own. That’s how I explain it to students and that captures what’s basically wrong about it.

    Calling what this guy did ‘plagiarism’ picks up on the “stealing someone’s copyright” definition of plagiarism. I don’t particularly care for copyright law, and I don’t give a damn whether someone’s copyright gets violated. So, I’d just prefer to call what this guy did something else. “Being a jerk?” “Being lazy?”

  3. I would be surprised if you could just move words from one document to another without massaging it to make it fit. I think doing that and nothing further would probably be a worrying sign, but if you keep improving it over time, that’s fine.

    Reworking old material is an important part of the philosophical process. You have an idea. You write a short conference paper, you get some feedback, you refine it into a longer article, you have that published, and then a few years down the line you work that article into a chapter of a book. I think that if you did all that with just a copy and paste and no further work, it would be lazy and a possible sign of poor scholarship, but if you end up reworking the same idea and improving it each time, there’s no reason you should have to type it all up again from scratch. If you got the wording right the first time, why not use it as a basis for future improvement instead of proceeding ex nihilo?

    There are separate issues of copyright involved—if you sign your rights away to a publisher you need to get permission before using the same words again—but there’s nothing wrong with the process of refining work over time.

  4. It is obviously problematic to use whole portions of texts directly from another paper from yourself without citing that paper. But I’ve had the situation where I need to summarize the work of X (where x is an author that is not me) briefly because it relates to the paper I’m currently writing, say paper q. I reference X of course. Now, I have in a previous paper p two sentences summarizing the work of X in what I think is a clear, concise way. I try to paraphrase, but find that in that context my earlier two sentences summarize X ideas very well. So I copy them verbatim into the new paper. If these two sentences were a novel idea from paper p I would cite paper p, of course. But now they are just a summary of someone else’s idea, which I reference as well. So I don’t see why I should cite paper p at that point.
    I see this practice widely done by others, and it doesn’t seem to harm anyone (I’m not passing off other work as my own, I’m not publishing duplicate papers).

  5. If, say, you sit down and read Davidson’s _Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation_ straight through, you’ll see the same arguments come up, over and over, sometimes in almost exactly the same way. These were written pre-wordprocessor, of course, so they were not cut and pasted, and there are usually small differences in wording. But if I remember correctly, he doesn’t usually cite the earlier papers. I don’t say this to blame Davidson (though reading the papers like this does get tedious, even if you go in for Davidson!) but only to note that it’s mostly the advent of the ability to cut-and-paste with the word processor, and so to have exactly the same working for long stretches, that makes this a new problem, if it is one at all. (I’d tend to think that saying something like, “as I have argued in X” before putting down the argument again would be sufficient to avoid any problem at all, assuming there is one.)

  6. Matt, mind you, if you’re Davidson, you can generate a whole secondary literature on which the arguments are really the same.

    I’m inclined to think that you one certainly should refer to the first use and perhaps to all previous ones. I think it is a bit tacky to simply cut and paste, but also pedantic to make grammatical changes just so there are some changes.

    GH, I’m surprised no one has taken your question on. I should warn you philosophers are great for a priori investigations. If I were you, I’d look instead at an intellectual property attorney. That said, don’t tons of different manufactured goods have the same innards? I think my own much loved 12-year old car has a lot of Ford innards, which is good, because until shortly before I bought it they had British innards, which do not go well with Houston summers.

  7. A) Davidson probably did cut-and-paste—using actual scissors and actual paste! (My mother always boasts that during her college days in the 70s she was a big cut and paste-er before that was a computer thing.)

    B) “I think it is a bit tacky to simply cut and paste, but also pedantic to make grammatical changes just so there are some changes.”

    I think it’s worse than pedantic; it’s actively harmful. It’s like how you get student papers plagiarized from Wikipedia but with incidental changes of words into their synonyms so that it actually reads worse than Wikipedia. Making changes for the sake of making changes doesn’t affect whether or not something is plagiarized.

    The issue in plagiarism is misrepresentation. You represent someone else’s hard work as your own. Students will try to argue their way out of trouble by paraphrasing some text in a word-for-word fashion. But it doesn’t change the fact of plagiarism because it’s still misrepresentation. If it were the case that paraphrasing was as hard as summarizing, there wouldn’t have been any advantage to the plagiaristic paraphrasing instead of doing an honest summary. The student is representing him or herself as having done an independent paper, but actually they just did a hacky paraphrase.

    In the case of Lehrer, was there misrepresentation? Well, if one of his publishers thought that the pieces he submitted were 100% new then perhaps there was some misrepresentation. But the level of misrepresentation is much less significant and not a matter of public concern (it may be a concern to whoever holds the copyrights on his pieces). The fundamental representation—this is a piece written by Lehrer—was correct. It was only the additional implicit representation “which has never been seen before even in part” which was incorrect. I don’t see how this rises to the level of requiring an investigation or an apology. Let his lawyers sort out if someone was owed money they didn’t get and move on.

  8. Carl, I probably wasn’t clear about this, but my underlying worry is about expected academic behavior.

  9. I have often lifted a paragraph or two from one paper and used it in another. I don’t see anything wrong with doing it (obviously, since I’m posting under my real name). Suppose I have gone to some trouble to phrase a claim. Why would I want to rewrite that claim? Papers are (supposed to be) arguments. I’m cutting and pasting one of the premises; so long as there is sufficient difference (eg, some of the other premises and the conclusion is new) I think it would be a kind of rule fetishism to object. It’s called having a research program!

  10. I agree that what Lehrer did isn’t appropriately described as plagiarism; indeed, it seems strange that, when there is so much of _substance_ to criticize about Lehrer’s work (as was recently done in The New Republic), anyone would bother about the kinds of repetition found –which came mostly from blog posts, it seems (I looked at the nymag page linked from the article, which posts the passages in question). And to be fair, if one is describing an experiment (“A bat and a ball cost $1.10…”) there really aren’t that many ways to describe that particular experiment and its results. Lehrer makes what variations seem appropriate, but this is a recurring problem in science papers, where a lab that works on Disease X will end up publishing dozens of papers that must each, inevitably, at some point describe the basic features of X. Usually one emphasizes one aspect of the disease that is more relevant to the molecular genetic studies (or whatever) being discussed, but the descriptions over time are going to share a lot in common. (This relates to the problem described so well by #4 Anon.)

    That said, it is very rare that one can lift a whole sentence intact from one work and place it in another, because a paper betrays signs of such “inorganicity” to any trained reader (which is why it’s usually so easy to spot plagiarized passages in student essays). To address Anne’s question about academic standards, I think this is the real answer: it’s rare that such ‘transfers’ would even be appropriate (notwithstanding Davidson) but when the same ideas must be re-presented, a simple “As I have argued in {ref}” should suffice for being above-board.

  11. It seems that there is a risk that you can plagarize yourself, either by copying verbatim or closely paraphrasing part of a paper you have published earlier. But why not simply cite properly your previous paper, and avoid taking the risk? A good rule of thumb I was once told: its not plagiarism if you cite it!

  12. Re: Davidson and Lifting from your own work. Putnam does the same by by reproducing some passages from Mind, Language and Reality to his later Reason, Truth and History. Like Neil, I don’t see anything wrong with it. Sometimes I think that this has to deal with delivering papers and testing it to an audience and colleagues, then perhaps citing objection to one’s arguments, contributions etc.

    Carl writes: “The issue in plagiarism is misrepresentation. You represent someone else’s hard work as your own. Students will try to argue their way out of trouble by paraphrasing some text in a word-for-word fashion. But it doesn’t change the fact of plagiarism because it’s still misrepresentation. If it were the case that paraphrasing was as hard as summarizing, there wouldn’t have been any advantage to the plagiaristic paraphrasing instead of doing an honest summary. The student is representing him or herself as having done an independent paper, but actually they just did a hacky paraphrase.”

    In the past, I’ve had many discussions with students about this.

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