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Plagiarism and self-plagiarism

Date Released: Wed, 9 November 2011 00:00 +0200

Dr Mark de Vos gave a paper at an EDUCATION DIALOGUES panel discussion on plagiarism held at the Rhodes University Environmental Education Learning Resource Centre on Wednesday 19 October. A full copy of his paper is available below:

 I broached the issue of plagiarism with a philosophically inclined friend of mine a few weeks ago.  His response was quite blunt: it’s a legal issue; let the lawyers sort it out.  I’d like to argue against this view, that leaving it to others (especially lawyers) is an abdication of the defence of academic freedom and that we (and Rhodes as an institution) should be taking the high ground before others do.

Let’s define plagiarism loosely as taking somebody else’s work or ideas as your own, where the severity is mediated by various literacy practices.  For example, we generally don’t cite in lectures, or give page numbers or bibliographies.  Writing a paper as if it were a lecture could get you in deep trouble.  (I think Chrissie Boughey will talk more about this.)  What I want to draw attention to is essentially a two-part equation: Plagiarism is (1) the stealing part and (2) the associated practices part that is implicit, negotiated and often exists outside of a legislative framework.

This can play out in at least two ways.  First, there is plagiarism which is copyright infringement (e.g. publishing the same article twice).  And this is probably just plain silly to do.  Although, there are grey areas (e.g. in some disciplines, journal editors accept that certain sections such as methodology can be verbatim).  And I won’t touch on the thorny issue of whether it is just to sign away your copyright when you have a gun to your head: do it or don’t get published; do it or don’t work here.

Second, there is an even more murky area of plagiarism that is not legal copyright infringement, but which runs in the negotiated world of scholarly etiquette.  For instance, a student submits the same essay twice for two different subjects – perhaps with or without acknowledging that fact.



The first, and most obvious, objection to self-plagiarism is that it is a misnomer.  You might say that it is no more possible to plagiarise yourself than to steal your own TV set.  And I agree.  We might classify it as perhaps “unwise” or even “silly” but probably not criminal, or illegal, much less a fireable offence. 



My second argument is that it is in the very nature of plagiarism that it is murky; that each must be treated on a case-by-case basis.  This is precisely because it depends on certain disciplinary practices.  If we say that these practices are negotiated, then the nature of negotiation is such that I do something, and others respond.  In doing so, we may take positions (or do things) that cross the line.  But gradually, a line is drawn.  So if we proscribe self-plagiarism in principle, we are setting limits on the nature of negotiation. 

Here are some cases where one might think the evidence is clear.

  1. I publish the same paper to two journals (e.g. Bruno Frey – University of Zurich).
  2. I write two papers.  One has the title “Evidence against global warming: a novel approach”; the other has the title “A novel approach to evidence against global warming”. 
  3. I write two papers but use text verbatim for entire sections, such as methodology. (e.g. Robert Barbato – Rochester Institute of Technology:  Case dismissed.  A case of “poor scholarly etiquette”).


What makes these examples clear is that the stealing part of plagiarism is legally defined: copyright infringement.  So if you step out of line you get nailed, QED.  But when it comes to the literacy part, things are murkier, because it is precisely this that is established through consensus and negotiation, that is implicit.  And often it is in this arena where the powerful can exert an inordinate amount of influence regardless of what the facts are (E.g. Leibniz’ offence:  I make a major discovery, but don’t publish it so that I can stay ahead of my opposition.  When somebody else independently comes to the same conclusion as myself, I cry foul: plagiarism!).

But there are other scenarios where things become a bit murkier.

  1. I write two papers and use the same text for the methodology sections.
  2. I write a paper with relevance to two distinct disciplines.  For example “Formative Assessment as Mediation” (Belluigi and De Vos 2011).  I write one paper with a particular journal in mind.  Then I write another paper with the same results, but recasting it for the other discipline.
  3. A student submits the same essay for two different subjects.
  4. I write a book.  Chapter 2 is adapted from an article I published (e.g. Noam Chomsky’s The Minimalist Program).
  5. I write a paper.  It is based on a draft paper which I published on the Internet (e.g. at ROA or Lingbuzz).
  6. I write a paper.  It is based on a conference presentation, where my paper was published in conference proceedings. 
  7. I write a paper.  It is based on my PhD thesis.
  8. I write my PhD thesis while I am a staff member at Rhodes,  I move to Potch and write a paper based on my PhD.
  9. I write my PhD thesis while I am a staff member at Rhodes,  I move to Potch and write a computer programme based on my PhD research which makes 3 billion USD….  And would it make a difference if maybe the computer programme was published in the thesis? (See Rhodes intellectual copyright policy)
  10.  I deliver a “Friends of the Library” talk where I discuss research I am currently being sponsored to do by a corporation.
  11. All of the above with the variation: the first paper is not subsidy-earning… the second one is.

At this point, people will all have an opinion based on implicit understandings – Oh, (4)  is definitely OK, (2) is OK, etc.  I think your opinions are probably right.  But it really isn’t up to you to decide.  Somebody else is going to decide for you and the first you will hear about it is when you are suspended pending a level 3 disciplinary hearing. 

Here’s why.



Earlier, when I defined the two components of plagiarism, I alluded to the notion of the role of power and the legislative framework.  I will argue, that legislation, in the interests of Power, will gradually encroach onto the negotiated, disciplinary space and appropriate it.

Over the years, plagiarism has never been a major issue.  Socrates via Plato probably borrowed ideas from people before him.  Various myths and legends (e.g. Beowulf) were in oral circulation long before they were ever written down.  Every piece of literature that alludes to another could strictly speaking, be plagiarism.  But it isn’t.  Looking at a corpus of English, we see the first references to plagiarism only become a trend at the end of the 18th century (with a few major spikes earlier).  So it is a relatively modern problem. 

Plagiarism corpus graph  

What I’d say is the issue is that a practice that was previously not a problem at all in oral cultures, has been gradually appropriated and labeled as plagiarism.  In fact, before 1710 in Britain, the copyright infringement did not exist as a crime.  And those that have been pushing that change have probably been institutions such as universities, and also the corporate machine.  And as the volumes of capital at stake have grown, so too has the incentive for industries to pursue copyright claims – and to manufacture them where they were not before.

An example of this is the copyrighting recently of things that would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago.  Numerous genetic modifications in animals and crops, public goods like pharmaceutical derivatives from folklore medicine and even a discussion of the copyright to the human genome.  Why should the academic enterprise be any different?

So here is what I expect. 

Academics behave as academics do – and probably have for centuries.  What counts as plagiarism is commonly accepted and negotiated.  So we all agree we don’t have to reference our lectures.  That lecturing on copyrighted material is itself not something we have to pay royalties on.  That we can send draft versions of our papers to our colleagues (or publish them online in this day and age).  We also take it for granted that our own ideas are actually our own and that our rights to use, modify and build on our own ideas are inviolable – although note the Rhodes policy on intellectual property in this regard!

But as the pressure grows, various industries and institutions will start laying claims about what constitutes plagiarism.  And things we have taken for granted will gradually be appropriated.

So my final argument against self-plagiarism is that copyright encroachment shows that there isn’t anything inherent in what is considered plagiarism.  It’s just a historical process.  In fact, my inalienable right to use my own words is perhaps one of the last areas of free intellectual space. 



Having argued that plagiarism is a social construction and a historical process, it makes sense to ask: what has self-plagiarism been constructed by; what drives it?  To me, the answer is obvious: self-plagiarism only makes sense in a context where academics are rewarded by quantity of publications without consideration of their content.  That is to say, the current “subsidy” and/or “impact factor” system.  If I were evaluated on the quality of my contributions, then I might publish the same article 15 times.  It would probably reach a wider audience.  And it would also waste a lot of my time.  Because my standing in the academic community would not change: my contribution would remain the same.  And so there would simply be no incentive to self-plagiarise – and if I did…who cares!  Seen in this way, it is very clear why self-plagiarism has only become an issue of late: it is a product of the continuing assault on academia in the name of bureaucracy and mindless box ticking.

That said, we can’t simply accept my arguments 2 and 3 naïvely: saying that self-plagiarism should be treated on a case-by-case basis.  If we do, others will make that decision for us.  This means that academics – and universities at national level – should take the initiative and issue a bold charter that states our position and which takes the intellectual space before it is stolen by others.

Mark de Vos
Rhodes University

19 October 2011.