Cans of worms (and other kettles of fish)

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I have long been aware of the notion of self-plagiarism, reusing one’s own work without acknowledging the earlier use. The post Elusive allusions is especially to the point.

That post was built around a piece by Paul Greenberg, In Praise of Plagiarism, in which he suggests that the re-use of a master’s prose (he names Cervantes and Shakespeare) may be excusable (along the lines of: you cannot say it any better than a master, so why try?). Not excusable, he continues, is the case when a plagiarist uses “… bad prose. It’s not the theft that troubles in such cases, but the poor taste of the thief.” Possibly in an attempt to establish a claim to literary taste and mastership, Greenberg’s January 2015 piece included large chunks of an article he had published in 2007, which in turn included large chunks of an article he had published in 2000.

I have recently come across the term “text recycling,” the practice of re-using one’s own words in new pieces, without noting that the text has been used before. Plagiarism? Self-plagiarism? Where is that line to be drawn?

Many sites and sources use (without thinking?) and usually attribute the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of plagiarism such as ” the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something” This definition be found in the online Meriam Webster Dictionary as well as in myriad resources which have used this definition.

But if the words or ideas are one’s own and not someone else’s, then it cannot be plagiarism, can it? Self-plagiarism? Not by the Merriam-Webster definition.

Where it gets complicated, even more complicated, is that, in some disciplines, it seems that text-recycling, the re-use of one’s own words may be – in some circumstances – acceptable.  It seems that, in certain fields of academia, word-for-word reuse of, for instance, a literature review or description of methods and methodology taken from one’s own earlier papers is an accepted form of discourse.

In Self-Plagiarism, Text Recycling, and Science Education, an essay published in BioScience, Cary Moskovitz notes increasing debate in some academic communities over the past decade regarding this practice. Not everyone agrees that it is ethical and acceptable, one of the reasons why the term “text-recycling” has come into use. As Moskovitz suggests, using the term neutralizes the negative connotations of “self-plagiarism” and allows for more productive conversation and argument about the practice.

I would argue that it goes against the grain and everything I have been taught and that I understand about plagiarism – but I do appreciate that much depends on law, interpretation, custom and practice. Moskovitz makes the point that

for the past 100 years, responsibility for writing instruction from the primary to the university level has been largely handed to those trained in humanities fields … those who teach writing (even scientific writing) and those who articulate plagiarism policies are often ignorant about TR (p. 2).

For me, it goes against the grain, but perhaps that is because of my background and training. Certainly there are different writing practices in different disciplines. I have become increasingly aware, for instance, of differences in the use of and the amount of quotation as against summary and paraphrase used in different subjects, aware of different patterns of use in academic papers in different disciplines.

Miguel Roig’s paper, Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing (written for the US Office of Research Integrity), includes a few instances in which text recycling should be and is acceptable, and several instances in which the ethics of re-use are borderline or totally unacceptable. as when a writer copy-pastes literature reviews or discussions of methodology from earlier papers without editing out anything which is irrelevant or inapplicable to the present paper (pp 22-24). Even when it seems that text-recycling is acceptable, Roig urges writers to consider the use of quotation and paraphrase and self-attribution (pp 24-25).

So, if some branches of science and other disciplines permit the use of text-recycling in certain circumstances in academic papers within their disciplines, who am I to make a stand or point fingers?

A major problem, of course, is knowing when text-recycling is permissible and when it is not. It is akin, methinks, to the problem of common knowledge – what is common in one discipline by way of knowledge or practice might not be commonly known or practiced in other disciplines.  What is known to one reader or examiner may be completely foreign to another.

Few students – even at undergraduate level – write or publish academic papers, so the issue (of text-recycling) may be moot. – although Moskovitz does argue for awareness and guidance in university writing courses.

Secondary school students may be too young to appreciate the nuances. Common knowledge, possibly – though even here caution is advised (see What’s common about common knowledge?). Text-recycling, almost certainly, especially if the amount of recycled text is significant.

There are intriguing issues here. They have me thinking – and they have me thinking about my own practice, as well as those of others. To be continued!

(Hat-tip and thanks to to DA, who pointed me to the Moskovitz’s papers, and has furthered my interest in disciplinary literacy).

(My apologies if you have missed my musings in recent weeks; pressure of work and other circumstances have curtailed my writing – though not my thinking. New Year’s resolution coming up, stand by!)


Moskowitz, C. (2015). Self-plagiarism, text recycling, and science education. BioScience (Advance Access). doi:10.1093/biosci/biv160

Roig, M. (2011). Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable
writing practices: A guide to ethical writing. The Office of Research Integrity, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

One thought on “Cans of worms (and other kettles of fish)

  1. Pingback: Another fine can of worms | Honesty, honestly…

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