When is copying not plagiarism?

by Harry on May 8, 2013

Sometime ago (just after the 2001 general election), I was listening to a senior adviser to Tony Blair at a non-academic public policy conference. He started saying some things that were quite critical of the promises New Labour had made, and implemented, in education, and I found myself, at first, thinking how sensible and well-thought out the criticisms were. Then, I started thinking that I recognized the language in which they were couched, and, eventually, realised that the reason it all sounded so good was that it had been taken, more or less verbatim, from something I had written. My first, momentary, response was to be irritated by this—but, once I remembered where I had written it (the cover story of a magazine that was distributed widely at the previous Labour Party conference) I was, simply, pleased. Of course, he is not going to cite me in a speech, and if you write in that sort of venue you should be hoping that somebody like him will take your words and ideas and make them their own.

If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct. But in the context it seemed just fine.

I remembered this during a discussion with a grad student recently. Grad Student is going to be the lead instructor in a large lecture course that I, also, teach. We were discussing how to develop a syllabus and teaching materials, and the topics to be covered, and I observed that my (primitive) syllabuses, and plenty of my powerpoints and class exercises are all deposited online, accessible to the whole department, and I suggested (not very modestly, I admit) taking those on the topics to be covered and adapting them as GS sees fit. GS looked horrified—“But that feels like plagiarism”. I understand the impulse, but it doesn’t seem at all that way to me. As a teacher your job is to devote your time energy and effort to ensuring that the students learn. Obviously, it would be impossible to give a lecture (well) that you hadn’t already put a lot of thought into. But starting from and adapting a good template saves time and thought, which can be turned, instead, to thinking about what questions to ask the students, developing thinking exercises for them, even just to meeting and talking to them (save 5 minutes on prep, and get to the room 5 minutes earlier than you would and chat with the students who are there). I’m proud of some of the teaching materials I’ve developed (eg this and this) and it really gives me a thrill to know that other people use them (without attribution); probably more than it does seeing my work cited in academic research (with attribution).

I’ve been trying to figure out why it seems to obvious that Government Adviser was doing nothing wrong, and Grad Student would be doing nothing wrong, by taking my material and using it without attribution, whereas another academic who did the same would be doing something wrong. It seems to me it is something to do with the role. The job of academic qua academic is to produce new ideas and present them in a way that makes it easy to see how they fit with existing ideas. But the job of government adviser/politician is to make use of existing ideas in improving their policies, and spread those ideas; and the job of the teacher (and academic qua teacher) is simply to make learning happen. It just doesn’t matter whether the audience understands the provenance of those ideas or the materials being used.

So. Share your teaching materials as widely as possible and, when developing a course, feel free to take anything you can from anywhere you want, as long as it is legal.

(X-posted at ISW)

{ 46 comments }

1

Pete 05.08.13 at 1:30 pm

The job of academic qua academic is to produce new ideas and present them in a way that makes it easy to see how they fit with existing ideas. But the job of government adviser/politician is to make use of existing ideas in improving their policies, and spread those ideas; and the job of the teacher (and academic qua teacher) is simply to make learning happen

Seems right to me.

I’d just add that one of the reasons that academics get more excited about plagiarism than others is that it directly affects how their success is measured. Citations are important to the standing of academics, and the system relies on the norm that people give credit where it is due.

2

Phil 05.08.13 at 1:39 pm

Something about the finger pointing at the moon, I think. If Fred tells students “the modern concept of ‘subculture’ derives ultimately from the rather different model developed by David Matza”, and Fred’s colleague Jane gives a lecture two years later telling a different group of students that “David Matza’s ‘subterranean values’ model is the ultimate source of the – rather different – contemporary concept of ‘subculture'”, no harm has been done: the argument isn’t any the less true (or sustainable), and Matza is still there to be read. Ultimately putting forward new and interesting ideas that you can stand by isn’t central to teaching, whereas it is to research.

3

Anderson 05.08.13 at 2:18 pm

In the legal field, lawyers plagiarize one another’s briefs. Westlaw and Lexis have taken to publishing briefs (which nowadays have to be filed electronically as well as hard-copy), greatly facilitating this practice.

I’ve seen courts fuss at lawyers for doing that, but only where the plagiarized material wasn’t even applicable to the case. (Yes, some lawyers write about like some students.)

4

eddie 05.08.13 at 2:22 pm

Shouldn’t your first response have been to completely reassess your ideas?

5

Andrew Condon 05.08.13 at 2:41 pm

Perhaps at some point version control systems will be made accessible and popular enough that attribution – even fine-grained attribution and history – will be available to peruse. That probably seems a bit far-fetched right now, as with Clay Shirky’s visual joke of the Venn Diagram of “Lawyers & Git-users”, but maybe not forever.

6

Anarcissie 05.08.13 at 2:45 pm

The concept of plagiarism, and the cult of originality, are aspects of the propertization of culture which also shows up as IP law and order (including the extreme surveillance now being pushed by the authorities with regard to the Internet). As a property issue it is part of the struggle for power which mostly benefits those who already have power, in short, the class war.

7

b9n10nt 05.08.13 at 2:46 pm

To add to what’s been said so far…

If the purpose of academics is to seek and establish truths, then lying is the gravest offense to the profession. In the case of plagiarism, the lying is proven: you must intend to copy in order to plagiarize. Obviously, other schemes to mislead (various misuses of statistics and data, as well as logic) are more damaging to the pursuit of truth, but intentionality isn’t as clear. This leads to a fetishization of plagiarism, to compensate our inability to prove lying in other instances.

8

Mandos 05.08.13 at 2:53 pm

Another interesting question is, “When is not copying plagiarism?”

9

Bruce Baugh 05.08.13 at 2:56 pm

Anarcissie: The concept of plagiarism, and the cult of originality, are aspects of the propertization of culture which also shows up as IP law and order (including the extreme surveillance now being pushed by the authorities with regard to the Internet). This isn’t really true. Individual and collective (often familial) claims to what we file as intellectual property exist in a bunch of cultures, and go way back. “He has no right to use my thing that way; it’s mine/ours, and we never gave him permission” is an objection that can make sense in contexts from Pacific Northwest totem pole carving to Australian Aboriginal songlines.

10

Neil Levy 05.08.13 at 3:17 pm

How would you have felt if government adviser had published the speech, still without attribution? I wouldn’t expect the adviser to provide references in a speech, but I would in a publication. Passing off someone else’s ideas as your own is plagiarism. It might be worse if another academic does it, but that does not entail that it is not even a little wrong.

11

DBW 05.08.13 at 3:35 pm

One of the reasons not to copy somebody else’s course materials (and presumably the reason that GS was shocked by the idea that he/she should do so) is that it has the potential for students to not really see the difference between their own academic uses and borrowings and those of their teachers. The kind of contextualism invoked here is much more difficult to articulate than a straight rule. The acknowledgement of the idea that we switch rules when we move from research to teaching makes violations of scholastic honesty rules more difficult to enforce. Students, after all, also have very good reasons for why they copy work (as do successful academics who plagiarize, I imagine), and when properly contextualized such copying can be seen as serving important purposes. Why are your desires to be effective in teaching more important than the ends the student plagiarist desires?

More generally, the tone of the discussion here (not the OP but in comments) seems to be that plagiarism is just a bourgeois/academic construct by which information and ideas are held hostage, and that everybody plagiarizes and copies, so that there is no meaningful sense in which academic integrity and value can be tied to academic honesty. But isn’t the very process of attribution, by which we can identity the trail of evidence and argument that supports various claims, at risk if we seek to overcome restrictions against plagiarism?

12

Marcus Pivato 05.08.13 at 3:54 pm

I think that using another person’s words or ideas without attribution is almost always plagiarism. This is independent of whether or not current copyright laws make any sense. We must distinguish between the “right to attribution” and most of the other “rights” provided by current copyright law. Most of the other “rights” (e.g. the right to receive financial compensation; the right to control the manner and context in which your creative work is used, etc.) are things which authors, artists and other creators are often willing to surrender (and perhaps sometimes should surrender), and which are increasingly unenforceable and untenable anyways, given modern digital communications technology. But even fairly radical opponents of traditional copyright, who think “information wants to be free”, still generally want to receive credit and attribution for their creative work.

So I think that when a government official or another academic instructor uses your material without any attribution, that still counts as plagiarism. The question is, is it harmful plagiariasm? How much has been taken from you? This depends on what benefits you could have expected to receive if you had received proper credit.

We academics are lucky that we live in a world where our financial compensation is not directly tied to our creative output. So we are generally quite happy to make our work freely available, e.g. on our webpages, preprint servers, etc. Some of us even e-publish entire textbooks for free. The “economy” of academia is not driven by money. However, it is driven by reputation. An academic’s entire career depends on what other academics think of her, which, in turn, depends on their recognition of her creative work —mainly her research. So for this reason, we take plagiarism of academic research very, very seriously. Because if you steal the credit for another academic’s research, then you are stealing from her the only thing which really matters, which is the recognition and admiration of her peers.

But an academic’s reputation does not depend on her teaching nearly as much as it does on her research. A lot of the pedagogical materials we create feel pretty “generic” —there is a sense in which “anyone” could have made something pretty similar. It is not a unique reflection of our creative genius. So we don’t really care whether we get credit or not. Our status in the academic community doesn’t depend on it. For this reason, I think many academics are much more willing to concede the credit for their pedagogical creativity. This is perhaps why it “doesn’t feel like plagiarism” when your graduate student cribs your lecture slides. Technically, it is plagiarism, but it’s pretty harmless to you.

What about the government official? Well, suppose that you were hoping to get a position as a policy consultant or civil servant in the government. Or suppose that you worked in some field of academia where having your work cited by a government official would be seen as the supreme recognition of your academic merit. In this case, having your words quoted without attribution by the government official would have robbed you of a huge opportunity for career advancement. Thus, you would have been extremely upset by the official’s “plagiarism”.

However, apparently neither of these things is true for you; you aren’t looking for a job in the government, and your academic career doesn’t benefit from government kudos. Instead, as someone who just wants to influence public policy, you are quite happy to see a government official “borrow” your words and ideas, whether he gives you credit or not. Thus, from your point of view, this is “harmless” plagiarism.

13

alkali 05.08.13 at 4:11 pm

When is copying not plagiarism?

The short answer, outside of academia, is “usually.” That doesn’t mean that academia is wrong to consider a great deal of copying plagiarism, only that its reasons for applying that label are frequently inapplicable in non-academic contexts, where there is often considerable value in reusing previously-generated material.

14

Bruce Wilder 05.08.13 at 4:36 pm

I think students should imitate, which starts with some pretty close copy. And, researchers definitely should replicate, which, again, is closely akin to copying. And, of course, intellectual property, as a sunk-cost investment in a non-rival good, should be freely used: information wants to be free, and culture thrives on the mash-up.

Somehow, the Emersonian imperative to be original in one’s efforts has crossed wires with the injunction against cheating, which is to make no effective effort at all. And, the dominating cheaters of our political economy, the rentiers, those greedy drones, brand as thieves all, who defy their efforts to create scarcity where none need exist.

15

Hector_St_Clare 05.08.13 at 4:58 pm

There’s talk nowadays about something called ‘self plagiarism’, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. apparently you’re technically guilty of self plagiarism if you copy and paste paragraphs from one of your papers into another.

16

someBrad 05.08.13 at 5:43 pm

Doesn’t it have to do with the expectations of the audience? People reading academic work expect the words contained therein, if not the ideas, to be the author’s own. A teacher expects the same of student papers. But students do not expect such of a teacher’s syllabus or other materials, nor of a politician’s words.

17

Anarcissie 05.08.13 at 5:46 pm

@ Bruce Baugh 05.08.13 at 2:56 pm (9) —
I don’t see how propertarian practices in some other cultures affects the truth of what I said about ours. In ours, when someone copies a cultural artifact, what is diminished is not the model but the monopoly of the model’s owner over all instances of its form, a monopoly which requires state force. In other words, it’s a struggle for power, whether in the form of actual ownership rights or repute (social status).

18

Trader Joe 05.08.13 at 6:10 pm

@16
Context is surely part of the equation.

Citing Newton when talking about LeBron James’ gravity defying dunk to friends in a bar would be ridiculous…doing so in a paper which purports to calculate the amount of force necessary to shatter the backboard would not be.

The politician in the OP could certainly have mentioned “As many of you may have seen in the most recent party magazaine….” even if he didn’t specifically cite author name, volume and page number as he might have in an academic reference. That would at least be a nod that the presented ideas had some inspiration, somewhat akin to a ‘works consulted’ listing where you might not be lifting ideas, quotes or conclusions verbatim but a review of them had an influence on the orginal thoughts now being presented.

The Grad Student in the OP needn’t put “property of Harry” at the bottom of every page, particularly since the work was freely shared by the source – but the classy thing to do is to still make mention of the fact of sharing in an appropriate way. Perhaps when handing them out say something like “This syllabus came from my great mentor Harry, hopefully I haven’t messed it up too much with my additions”….credit is like smiles the more shared the more received.

People who give credit it tend to get it.

19

Socrates 05.08.13 at 6:12 pm

Many years ago I creatively generated these two famous texts:
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

And

“Kids, get off my lawn”

But very often those texts are used without citing the source, so that today it happens that people that should know better doubt that I was the author in the first place.

It hurts me.

But, what can I do, I just try to accept my life with some philosophy.

20

Anderson 05.08.13 at 6:23 pm

15: I recycled the same paper in undergrad & grad school Shakespeare classes. Not a good thing to do, but I can’t be unique in that.

21

js. 05.08.13 at 7:07 pm

This is a slightly weird thread. In general, though, I (too) think the key distinction—in academia, anyway—is between teaching and research. I’ve shared lecture notes with colleagues, had others share similar with me, etc. Slightly different, of course, because it’s not really a “template” sort of thing. Still, it doesn’t worry me at all that someone else might have used an idea, wording, etc., from my notes in their own teaching, and that without attribution. But if somebody incorporated something from a working paper I’d shared with them in their own work and didn’t include an attribution, I’d be pretty damn upset. And I do think, as others have pointed out, that this has to do with the different institutional roles of teaching vs. research.

All that said, I agree with Trader Joe (18) that if you’re relying on slides or methods originally developed by someone else, a verbal acknowledgment, e.g., is all to the good.

22

DBW 05.08.13 at 7:43 pm

js.: “But if somebody incorporated something from a working paper I’d shared with them in their own work and didn’t include an attribution, I’d be pretty damn upset.”

This seems to echo the OP, and point to the logic of the entire distinction being made here. Harry starts from the idea that certain kinds of copying bother him– and would lead him to characterize them as plagiarism–and others don’t. The starting point of his argument, then, is his emotional response to the different forms, and he assumes that there must be an under-articulated rationale for this, that the two things really are different for intellectual reasons, and not merely conventional ones. But it may well be that certain kinds of practices are just accepted –not because they are intellectually justified or have a different end that defines acceptable methods and means– but because we are inured to them. Why is it OK to share teaching materials without attribution? Because that’s what we (at least some of us) do. Why is it OK for public figures to use published writings verbatim in a speech? Because we expect that kind of behavior. If asked to articulate the difference between these occasions, we can come up with distinctions in role and purpose that appear to legitimate different standards, but we can just as easily come up with reasons why these behaviors are not acceptable and should be reformed to a uniform standard.

23

Lost Left Coaster 05.08.13 at 7:46 pm

“I’ve been trying to figure out why it seems to obvious that Government Adviser was doing nothing wrong…”

I’m glad that you’re fine with it, since it’s your work, but I’m not so sure that this is abundantly clear as a matter of principle. I guess if there is a clear understanding that your words belong to the party once they’ve been published in the magazine, then that is fine, but otherwise, isn’t utilizing someone’s work like that, without attribution, still unethical? I mean, did you know that you were writing a speech for someone when you wrote that article? Something about this doesn’t sit right with me. Again, not my problem, but yours, and you’re fine with it, so there isn’t an issue in this case, but in a broader sense, something still seems wrong.

24

Bruce Wilder 05.08.13 at 7:51 pm

People reading academic work expect the words contained therein, if not the ideas, to be the author’s own. A teacher expects the same of student papers.

But, why? I expect the student to make the prescribed effort, because the effort is prescribed as a learning process, but I wouldn’t prescribe originality to a student at an early or intermediate stage of learning.

As the OP rightly says, academic work should be accurately footnoted — a critical part of the exercise is often scholarly context. But, some of the most useful (if not always high status) work is the carefully refined summary or survey or restatement, and the useful if decidedly unoriginal, but well-defined and familiar terms, frameworks and phrases, is fully expected and desirable. It cannot, and should not, all be original, but half-baked discoveries and innovations, in which the only truly original things are the mistakes.

25

John Quiggin 05.08.13 at 8:23 pm

When I write as an opinion columnist, I’m not too worried about giving credit for ideas – sometimes it makes sense to do so and other times not. Equally, I’m very happy to see my ideas being repeated, whether or not I’m credited. But I’m much more worried than I would be in an academic context about the danger of inadvertently reproducing a sentence or turn of phrase from someone else, or of reusing my own too frequently. It’s the expression and exposition, more than original ideas, that distinguishes one columnist from another with much the same opinions.

26

Tomboktu 05.08.13 at 8:37 pm

I was reading the blog of an Irish law lecturer some months ago who reported that he had been at a conference which was attended by a judge. The judge mentioned to the lecturer that in a recent judgment he had quoted a paper by the lecturer , but had not named the source because it’s not the done thing when the author is still alive.

27

Leo Casey 05.08.13 at 9:05 pm

The culture of teaching and the culture of research/publication are different. In teaching, if I share you the tools I have developed, it does not diminish what happens in my classroom, or even what credit I will get for my teaching; it just makes it easier for you to improve what goes on in your classroom. This is especially the case when you are a novice at teaching, or even a beginner with a certain course. Yes, it is nice if you credit me when you use my tools, but there is nothing I lose by treating my tools as part of a creative commons and giving you free access. The only reason for not sharing my tools with you is some sort of misguided Puritan Ethic, that there is virtue in every individual doing the work for him/herself, even if the result is a diminished learning experience for your students.

The culture of research and publication is different, much more of a zero sum game. If you are my colleague and you use my ideas without crediting them to me, you have advantaged yourself at my expense. It is not quite the same issue with student plagiarism, since there is no loss to me, but there is arguably a loss to other students, especially if they are graded on a curve, and there certainly is a loss to the community, since the education of all is premised on each student contributing his/her part of the knowledge work. While students do get assistance from others in study groups, all are contributing and it does not take the form of one student avoiding work by using someone else’s as his own.

28

js. 05.08.13 at 9:30 pm

The starting point of his argument, then, is his emotional response to the different forms, and he assumes that there must be an under-articulated rationale for this, that the two things really are different for intellectual reasons, and not merely conventional ones.

I can’t speak for Harry, but I certainly am not “starting from an emotional response” and then looking for a rationalization. It’s perfectly clear to me why I would, well, let’s consider myself wronged in one case and not in the other.* I alluded to the reason at the end of the first paragraph of my last, but quite simply no one “rejects” a lecture slide, say, because it’s not original; things often stand otherwise with research.

More importantly, you’re drawing a distinction between “intellectual reasons” and “conventional reasons” that’s pretty obscure to me. At any rate, these don’t seem like mutually exclusive categories. Some sort of behavior, or a certain sort of distinction, could be perfectly well justifiable (backed by “intellectual reasons”?) yet only make sense within a specific set of social practices (“conventions”).

Maybe that’s horribly abstract. Look, if you read 18th century academics or scholars, e.g., their standards of citation—of attribution—are utterly inadequate by today’s standards. But it would be bizarre to conclude that they were horribly deficient at a basic aspect of good scholarship.

29

js. 05.08.13 at 9:32 pm

I meant to say: “why … I’d consider myself wronged”. I switched to speaking of `being wronged’ so as to make clear that reference to emotional responses was completely inessential for my point.

30

rocinante 05.08.13 at 10:31 pm

“If an academic had done that, I would have remained irritated (for about 20 minutes, I imagine, I really don’t care that much), and I think that it would have counted as plagiarism. If a student did the same thing I would regard it as serious academic misconduct.”)

Not clear to me why it is a mild source of irritation, and maybe plagiarism, when an academic does it, but “serious academic misconduct” when a student does it. Surely the academic should be held to a higher standard than the student.

31

mdc 05.08.13 at 10:41 pm

When I was in grad school, a professor lost his deanship for telling a joke in a lecture and not attributing it. An investigation revealed that he had heard the joke somewhere else.

32

Harry 05.08.13 at 10:50 pm

rocinante — you’re right. I would make a harsher judgment (indeed I have done!) if the academic used somebody’s work other than mine. But I also feel sorry, mostly, when a student plagiarizes, rather than irritated. I still think it is serious misconduct.

I’m not sure plagiarism is as bad as faking results though (among academics).

33

Dave 05.08.13 at 10:52 pm

Government Adviser was doing nothing wrong, and Grad Student would be doing nothing wrong, by taking my material and using it without attribution, whereas another academic who did the same would be doing something wrong.

It seems obvious to me that neither Government Adviser nor Grad Student would be doing anything wrong because no one is evaluating their words on the other end as an indication of mastery and mental labor. Plagiarism by undergraduates offends me as a professor because I’m taking time and care to evaluate their work–not someone else’s. No one is grading government speeches or course lectures; they have different purposes.

34

Aulus Gellius 05.08.13 at 11:39 pm

I think people have basically said this already, but basically the issue is, not reusing or reproducing work, but claiming credit for work you didn’t do. If the political advisor had prefaced his remarks by saying, “the following is an idea I came up with originally myself, thus proving that I can be relied to come up with neat ideas,” he would pretty clearly be doing something wrong. When you read a student’s paper, you’re not primarily looking for valuable knowledge and ideas, you’re looking for evidence that the student has mastered the material in question; by copying someone else’s work, the student is presenting false evidence.
A scholarly article is both providing ideas and proving the worth of the author; but if I submitted an article I hadn’t written, and prefaced it with, “I didn’t write this, but the author is for some reason unable to submit it,” I don’t think there’d be any moral problem.

35

L.D. Burnett 05.09.13 at 1:35 am

As a grad student, I completely understand the aversion/horror of the GS mentioned in the OP’s post. Unless the material is posted under a CC license or is posted with some explanation, “Feel free to adapt these syllabi for your own use,” I wouldn’t so much as borrow somebody’s lecture title. I certainly wouldn’t use somebody else’s slides unless there was explicit written permission to do so. However, I would probably look at the readings someone had assigned and see which ones of those I’d like to use. Is that plagiarism, or is that the pedagogical equivalent of plundering someone else’s bibliography to find sources for your own research? Because I don’t know “the rules” or “the answer” to that, I tend to err on the side of caution and take the “reinvent the wheel” route.

That said, I’m putting together my own syllabus right now, and trying to figure out what readings I might like to include. My supervising prof, who works in a different historical period than I do, suggested that I look on the internet and see what readings other profs use. I took that as a tip offered by someone with more pedagogical experience, not as an invitation to freely plagiarize. What’s original on a syllabus, I think, is the academic content created by the professor — lecture titles — and perhaps the shape of the whole. But it’s not like anybody has ever defined for me what does and doesn’t constitute some uncopyable essence of a syllabus. This is one of those “rules” that you’re just supposed to know. Can I adapt someone’s attendance policy for my own syllabus? Their expectations for class discussion? What in a syllabus is “boilerplate” stuff, and what is the “original” part? Some on this thread say, “Don’t sweat it — using other people’s syllabi is an accepted part of pedagogy,” and others say, “If you use it without citing it, it’s plagiarism.” So now I need to footnote my attendance policy to say where I got the idea for it?

Another big concern that I can completely sympathize with is the desire to avoid any hint of self-plagiarism. Today I turned in a paper that included a few sentences from two paragraphs I had written for two different assignments earlier in the semester. It was my writing, done for my coursework. But I went ahead and added a footnote to both passages — something like, “The three sentences at the beginning of this paragraph are taken from a precis I wrote on [book in question] for an independent study with [different professor].” Because I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I so much as appear to be plagiarizing, or self-plagiarizing, or doing anything that a good academic ought not to do — whatever the hell that happens to be. It often seems to be a moving target.

In short, I appreciate the effort of the OP to point out one of the features of academic life: there are some rules that are crystal clear across the board, and there are some “rules” that seem more flexible and have to do with the conventions of academic culture in a particular place (or a particular stage of academic life? a particular medium?). Seasoned academics know where those lines are; grad students don’t, unless somebody tells us. And even if somebody does tell us, it’s rarely any help, because “the rules” that we most need advice about are precisely those that are least likely to be stable/fixed.

36

Zamfir 05.09.13 at 1:46 am

I think people have basically said this already, but basically the issue is, not reusing or reproducing work, but claiming credit for work you didn’t do.

When you read a student’s paper, you’re not primarily looking for valuable knowledge and ideas, you’re looking for evidence that the student has mastered the material in question; by copying someone else’s work, the student is presenting false evidence. A scholarly article is both providing ideas and proving the worth of the author;

;-)

37

Alan White 05.09.13 at 2:05 am

I wish to add that pedagogical methods might be subject to copyright if those methods are published in a venue like Teaching Philosophy. I have published in various venues (TP and various anthologies) a strategy for teaching an introductory course where curriculum orbits around a single topic. My single topic for that intro course typically is free will, and thus anyone who structures a course in like manner I would expect to cite my pubs as source. Martin Benjamin certainly did when he taught a grad course at Michigan State about pedagogy that used my pubs. Research about pedagogy is subject to citation, and such citation I would say is required if those methods are actually used in classes as derived from a published source.

38

Anarcissie 05.09.13 at 2:32 am

If plagiarism is wrongly attributing another’s work to yourself, then it is obvious that you cannot possibly plagiarize yourself — the author’s monopolies remain with the author. I am trying to figure out what this phrase is actually aiming at. The best I can do is suppose that one might feel that one’s implicit deal with one’s audience was to provide new material. On the other hand, artists, scientists, and others often revise their works,
or copy material from one work to another, and are not therefore said to be self-plagiarists (usually). The term seems to be applicable only to lower castes, such as journalists.

39

Tony Lynch 05.09.13 at 3:05 am

JQ: “I’m very happy to see my ideas being repeated, whether or not I’m credited.”

– Would this apply to a certain essay in The Monthly?

40

John Holbo 05.09.13 at 5:12 am

I think the thing to say is that it’s plagiarism. But since you say it isn’t a big deal, it sort of thereby ceases to be a problem. You have retroactively given permission for him to quote you without attribution. It’s kind of like if someone steals $20 and you catch them but then you say ‘that’s alright, take it you poor man,’ then it sort of retroactively makes it alright. You’ve given him the $20. But it was still theft, what he did.

As to the grad student case, the only thing I can think is the grad student is thinking that it will look like he’s taken stuff without permission and is doing his job sloppily, even though actually he hasn’t taken anything without permission and he’s doing his job fine. He’s worried about bad appearances, rather than bad acts. It seems to me just fine for one colleague to offer another a syllabus, to adapt. On the other hand, I would sort of expect the student to thank you, to the students. ‘I’ve adapted this syllabus from one Prof. Brighouse kindly offered, as something to work from, since he’s taught this course before and I never have.’ Which solves the appearance problem, too, thereby making everything peachy.

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John Holbo 05.09.13 at 5:15 am

“and it really gives me a thrill to know that other people use them (without attribution)”

If imitation is the sincerely form of flattery, then plagiarism is … ? It isn’t flattering, usually, because it’s too lazy. But I guess in the case you discuss it’s flattery.

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John Quiggin 05.09.13 at 5:46 am

@Tony Lynch Quite possibly, though perhaps not the one you are thinking of. Then again, perhaps that one.

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John Quiggin 05.09.13 at 5:47 am

I had some thoughts on self-plagiarism here

http://crookedtimber.org/2005/11/16/self-plagiarism/

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Marcus Pivato 05.09.13 at 12:14 pm

Anarcissie @ 38

On the other hand, artists, scientists, and others often revise their works,
or copy material from one work to another, and are not therefore said to be self-plagiarists (usually). The term seems to be applicable only to lower castes, such as journalists.

Actually, the place I have heard the term “self-plagiarism” used is in the context of academic publications. Because this is a context where, as you put it, “one’s implicit deal with one’s audience was to provide new material.” Actually, it’s a pretty explicit deal; when you submit a paper for publication, you must explicitly aver: “This material has not been published or submitted for publication elsewhere”. The reason is that journals (especially top journals) don’t want to waste their page space or their readers’ time publishing unoriginal or re-hashed material. Also, an academic’s research performance is measured (in part) by the number of (good) publications she has, so publishing the same (or very similar) material in more than one place is a sort of “double-counting”.

That having been said, there are contexts where some forms of “self-plagiarism” are acceptable in academia, if not exactly respectable. First, people doing interdisciplinary research might publish two very different versions of the same paper, in two different journals, targeted towards two very different audiences with different disciplinary backgrounds. Here, the “value added” is that each version of the paper is written so as to be maximally accessible to its target audience (i.e. it is written using their own disciplinary jargon, with a familiar organization, structure, and stylistic conventions; it avoids using unfamiliar terminology, etc.) Each version of the paper should explicitly cite the other version, just so that everything is above board. Since this sort of “self-plagiarism” is explicitly intended to promote interdisciplinary communication, it is considered acceptable.

Another place where “self-plagiarism” is accepted (if not exactly respected) in academic articles is in the so-called “boilerplate” material which often appears in the introduction of a paper. Here is the place where you set out the general problem, review previous literature to put your own work in context, and introduce the conceptual background and/or terminology and notation you will be using. This stuff is tedious and unoriginal and tends to be mostly the same in paper after paper, so it is considered acceptable to “borrow” a couple of sentences from one paper to the next. (Especially, e.g. in mathematics or theoretical economics, where you may have an entire page of tedious, highly technical notation and definitions, which are obligatory, but basically totally standard and unoriginal stuff.) Even here, however, verbatim copying of more than a single paragraph from another of your own papers would generally be considered a bit fishy.

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Marcus Pivato 05.09.13 at 12:15 pm

Damn. The first paragraph (“One the other hand… journalists”) should be blockquoted…

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Hector_St_Clare 05.09.13 at 10:22 pm

Marcus Pivato,

Yes that’s what I was referring to. I don’t see why extensive copying of your own introduction and/or methods section is considered self plagiarism. The ‘meat’ of the paper is often in the results and discussion section: if that’s novel, then the paper as a whole is novel.

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