Monday, November 12, 2012

There's No Plagiarism Like Self-Plagiarism

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Self-plagiarism his the news in a big way earlier this year.

Best-selling author and columist Jonah Lehrer "resigned" from his job at The New Yorker after it was revealed he had lifted his opening paragraph in his innaugural New Yorker column from his own op-ed article published a few months earlier in the Wall Street Journal.

This followed revelations that Lehrer has simply fabricated quotes allegedly from Bob Dylan for his latest book, Imagine, a biography of John Lennon.

Now making up quotes is one thing - but what about quoting yourself?  Recycling your own words and thought?  Is there anything wrong with that?  After all, when you see a noted speaker giving a speech, you know he or she has given that speech before. In campaigning they even have a name for it -- the "stump" speech.  The speech politicians used to travel around and give to crowds while standing on the stump of a tree.

Some in academia and certain journalism circles, and certainly among the preveyors of anti-plagiarism software and websites, seem to go into apoplexy about self-plagiarism.   Google and plagiarism-seeking software have resulted in a geometric escalation in cries of "You're plagiarizing yourself."

But does is self-plagiarism illegal?  Is it unethical?

My view tends toward that of Judge Richard Posner that a writer's repeating himself/herself seldom rises to a level to support an accusation of "self-plagiarism."  See Posner's excellent book, A Little Book of Plagiarism, pp. 40-44.

Posner cites the example of novelist Laurence Stearne who sent love letters to his mistress.  The problem - well one of the problems - was that his letters were copied verbatim from love letters he sent to his wife at an earlier (and apparently more copecetic) time.  Posner's response: "Tacky, but is it plagiarism?  Id. at 41-42.

Posner's response was "no."  He goes on to state:  "{R}eaders should realize that authors repeat themselves;  it is only wholesale and literal repetition that should disappoint."  Id. at 43
Utilizing one's own prior ideas and work, in general, is neither an ethical nor legal violation.  The cries of "self-plagiarism"  at every repeated phrase or paraphrased idea are off target.  And the number of assertions of self-plagiarism are excessive to a matter of magnitudes.

But self-plagiarism does exist.  And there are legal issues when writers start repeating themselves.  But that's the topic for my next post.

photo credit: <a href="">hjconti</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

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