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Solving Self-Plagiarism Conundrum: Can You Steal From Yourself?

how to avoid self-plagiarism

Various publishing manuals and APA, in particular, have been adding new guidelines addressing the issue of self-plagiarism lately. The reason behind it is the growing scale of the problem in the scientific community, especially in medical publications.

Although self-plagiarism is not nearly as bad as actual intellectual theft, where you take someone else's ideas, statements, or concepts and claim them as yours, it still falls under the definition of academic dishonesty. In this post, we will look into why it is so, whether it is ever okay to reuse your own writing, and how to avoid self-plagiarism as a student and researcher.

What is self-plagiarism?

Self-plagiarism is reusing your own specific words, ideas, and findings from previously published works. This problem is widespread among academics, who are pressed to "publish or perish" because frequent publications are the mandatory condition for keeping a position or getting research funding. They are often tempted to recycle their research data and publish two (or even more) very similar articles in different journals.

Another category guilty of self-plagiarism are students, who – and let's not be coy about it – are often frugal with their time and effort. Suppose you have to hand in two papers on very similar topics for two different classes. How much of the content will you just copy and paste? There is a high chance that most of it. Also, often students economize and let their master dissertation piggyback on their bachelor thesis, for example.

Okay, so what's the big deal? It's your own words, your ideas, your work! Aren't you allowed to build your thesis on continued research? You have been studying this subject for some time. You've worked hard and amassed all those data. It's not like you have bought it from a term paper writing service. It's your intellectual property. What gives?

Why is self-plagiarism an issue at all?

Self-plagiarism is rarely considered illegal per se, but it is usually met with disapproval and raised brows as something unethical. This doesn't do any good to your career and reputation as a scholar.

The main problem with self-plagiarism in academia is that you mislead your readers. You present old data and ideas as something new. They belong to you, yes, but they are no longer original. That still counts as academic dishonesty because you are riding on the same old same old instead of doing your job properly and mining for new nuggets of knowledge. That's slacking – let's be real. Ethical reporting of newfound data is crucial to the scientific method and necessary for advancing knowledge in the field – and ethical reporting demands disclosure of your sources.

It's definitely not as severe as passing someone else's ideas as your own, which is a major no-no but still pretty iffy. The unspoken assumption is that you publish when you have something new to contribute – your readers expect that. When you reuse old data or repeat your observations, you breach this unspoken contract.

Another issue might lie in the realm of copyright law. If you have submitted your work for publishing, you might have given your publisher exclusive rights to disseminate it. Thus, republishing the same work in another journal or anthology violates this right.

Can it be okay to self-plagiarize?

The short answer is no. This doesn't mean that your ideas or conclusions have expired. You can still reference them in your new work, only you must cite them properly, as you would do with any other work. The rule of citing previously published works applies to your own writing as well. Once it's published, treat it as something you would access in the library – a useful source that is okay to use if clearly cited.

There is a difference between regurgitating your old ideas and using them to support your new arguments and propel your research further. It's normal to build your new papers on some of your previous work and allude to it to provide context for the fresh data. The rule of thumb given by the APA publication manual is that you should include previously published material primarily in the discussion of theory – and only the amount necessary to understand your new, original contribution.

Sometimes, it is even okay to recycle large portions of your previous work. For example, as a chapter for a book of collective works, if you have been asked to present this research or topic specifically. Alternatively, you may want to publish an article about your research in another language. There is also a possibility that you want to present your research holistically after giving a short presentation on it. Your primary motivation in those cases is making your findings and conclusions available to a broader audience, which is a good thing.

In that case, however, you will need to disclose that what you submit for publishing is primarily based on your previous material and give reference to the original publication. Also, you must ask if the publishers of your last work won't be against that. Otherwise, it can infringe on their copyright. Strictly speaking, such work should not be considered as another distinct publication and counted towards your publication score.

You should also distinguish self-plagiarism from having your own writing style. You might sometimes use similar wording and particular phrases to describe the research process or methodology. As long as the ideas you express with them are new, it's not self-plagiarism. It's just your own voice that your readers can recognize.

How to avoid self-plagiarism?

Now that we are clear on what self-plagiarism is and in which situations it sometimes occurs, let's rehash some of the good practices that allow you to own and use your work freely without crossing the line to self-plagiarism.

  • Follow the guidelines from your writing center

    As a rule, universities don't treat self-plagiarism as seriously as they censure plagiarizing someone else's work. However, they usually have a policy on reusing one's own writing, which might be allowed under certain conditions. Consult your writing center for guidance if you are not sure what's allowed.

  • When in doubt, ask your instructor

    If you have done the research for one course and think your findings will be super relevant for another class, consult your instructor about whether it's okay to use them in your new paper. Even if you think you won't break the college rules, it's still better to ask your professor about it.

  • Always cite your works

    Your duty is to inform the reader that you are building your argument using some old research data and ideas. Always cite your previously published or submitted works. APA, MLA, and other style guides have provisions for referencing all kinds of sources, including unpublished manuscripts – check them out.

  • Reframe your ideas for a different purpose

    Sometimes it's challenging to avoid self-plagiarism because your thought process does not exist in a vacuum. You do build on your previously expressed ideas – and it's okay. Give your observations from previous works as a piece of background information rather than the original input. Make sure you find a new, original angle to look at the same subject, interpret your ideas differently, and take them one step further.

  • Use anti-plagiarism software or editor's assistance

    There is such thing as unintentional plagiarism when you forget to cite a paraphrased statement or attribute a quote correctly. Automated plagiarism checkers can scan the text for quotes and detect them. However, they are usually powerless in cases of paraphrasing. Still, an experienced editor with solid background knowledge in the field can help you find unattributed paraphrased ideas as well. For unpublished works, such as your college papers, there are plagiarism scanners that work with the documents on the hard drive of your computer or in the cloud storage.

Students are often under a lot of pressure, and the amount of writing they have to submit for college can be overwhelming. Still, you should not try to shortcut and borrow from your old work. Self-plagiarism is a serious issue. It is unethical, can damage your reputation, and even entail sanctions from your school. Always cite your previous works if you reference them in your writing and focus on new ideas and observations. Your readers trust you and have a right to expect new information from every paper – whether published or submitted for grading.

When under time pressure, turn for professional assistance and editing instead of copying and pasting entire passages out of your old paper.

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