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Is academic recycling plagiarism?

Handing in an assignment twice, even if you've done it yourself, is considered "plagiarism." In other words, handing in the same assignment for two different courses... - Vivian in a comment responding to "To Make it Google-proof, make it personal" blog post.

I was startled when a magazine editor rejected a column I had written. "It's plagiarized," was the simple reason. And she included a URL where the material could be found online. I went to that web address, and sure enough, there was much of the material from which my column was composed.

Of course, the website was my own. I was busted. I'd recycled something I had written before. Which according to Vivian (see above) and the editor constituted plagiarism.

I would beg to differ. At a basic level, most definitions of plagiarism stress someone else's work is involved. For example define plagiarism as: to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own) include reference to another person's work). If one steals a physical object - a can of soup, say - one removes it from another owner. Moving one's own can of soup from one cupboard to another, just isn't theft. 

So let's call this intellectual property recycling, not plagiarism and ask if that practice is ethical.

If the teacher, editor, or other requester specifically states that one's writing needs to be completely original then re-using one's writing is wrong. But I'd argue that there are nuances here that makes recycling ethics a bit more complex. When I consider reusing something I've written before, I ask these kinds of questions - and it would benefit our students if we gave them practice asking them as well:

  1. Am I writing for a different audience? (I may have written about a topic for librarians, but am now writing with building principals in mind.)
  2. Is the focus of the topic different? (When I am writing about plagiarism, for example, the focus changes depending on whether it is an English teacher or a computer integration specialist for whom I am writing.)
  3. Has the topic been updated? (What I wrote about BYOD two years ago may be very different from what I would write about today since technologies, legal interpretations, levels of acceptance have all changed.)
  4. Is the purpose of my writing different? (Writing to persuade a librarian to adopt a new way of thinking about technology is different from writing to inform curriculum directors about what they should expect from their school librarians.)

A student who chooses a single topic (or more likely a blend of topics) for research that works both, for say, science and history assignments is not only ethical, but probably doing more intellectually challenging work by blending diverse subjects. (What was the science behind the atomic bomb and how did the bomb influence international politics?) 

And I would argue that the best research, the best writing, the best media production will come when students are allowed to write about genuine passions. If a kid loves horses, why should their K-12 portfolio not show an increasing level of skills and thoughtfulness of work - all about horses?

Academic recycling just might have its place in education.



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Reader Comments (10)

I completely agree that we (teachers) should allow a student to use one paper, assignment or piece of work for multiple assignments - if that item satisfied both (or all) of the requirements.

If I were a student and I knew I could get multiple credit from one assignment I would get that done first. I believe it would also give the student the impression that they are not just doing "busy work" which seems to be the catch all phrase for anything that a student does not want to do.

Lastly, if the one assignments is turned in and graded by multiple teachers, how much better should that evaluation be?

July 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

Hi Doug,

This definition of plagiarism was given to me by a university that I am doing a Master's degree with (not the one connected with Coetail, though) It's not really my definition per se. I don't even know what I feel about this definition really, actually. Never gave much thought about it before...but I will now! I guess I never thought I needed to worry about it too much as I would not think to hand in my work for two different courses. The guilt would do me in! Who cares about the F mark?! :)

I think I get that the essence of what the university is saying is that they want the students to do the work. They are trying to make a level-playing field for all. However, I wouldn't call this plagiarism. I would call it dishonesty (because you are trying to pass off this assignment as something "made from scratch" for this particular course). It's interesting that they think they can "invent" a new definition of plagiarism that is quite a stretch from the original definition.

After a bit of deeper reflection about the matter, I don't think that academic recycling is inherently wrong.
But, I do wonder how to solve the problem of a student getting course credit that hasn't done the work like his other classmates?

In my ideal world, we would all graduate with a transcript that said what we covered without judging one person against another (grades, bell curves, letter grades, comparisons etc.). At the same time, I know that employers want some tangible index so as to compare graduates from each other (for hiring purposes). I'm not saying that university/college grades actually help employers find the right employees. I am not too sure they do, actually. I just know that they are doing it like that. So, where does this place the issue of academic recycling?

If I blogged about something and then re-wrote it later for a journal, magazine or book, I think that should be fine. (If I can get paid for something that started out given for "free", hey why not?! ;) ) On the other hand, if I hand it in twice for two different school, college, university courses, it doesn't seem fine.

What do you think? Should it vary depending on the situation, the context of the re-mixing, re-cycling?


July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Thanks for bringing up this topic, Doug. I remember - long, long ago - when I was an undergraduate, I became fascinated with Franz Kafka. One term, I wrote about him for two different classes, one English class and a Psychology class on the Psychology of Biography. I think I also wrote about him in a subsequent English class. I know that I reused some of the material in the different papers. It never occurred to me that I was "plagiarizing" myself or even being dishonest. I was surprised years later to learn that this could be regarded as plagiarism. I believe that what I was doing enhanced and enriched my understanding of Kafka, because I was looking at him from different perspectives. I think we are being too hard on our students and ourselves regarding reuse of our own work as plagiarism. I would love to see your suggestions adopted in our academic ethics policies.

July 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJane Lofton

Actually, when I read that submitting the same work for two university courses would be considered plagiarism, I assumed it would be essentially the same "paper". I'm not too sure if anyone has specified that re-mixing (taking old "content" and adding to it, expanding on it) is considered wrong. I think it would be rather difficult to make every piece of work a complete original in terms of ideas. However, I would hope that every academic knows when he/she hasn't been original in the form of the ideas to the point that it's crossed that "line" of integrity and become an easy-way "out".

I guess you can say that I am exacting the same conditions for breaking copyright to our own work: In other words, it's acceptable to have the same ideas (repeat ideas). (We'd have to have the same ideas unless we were schizophrenic with multiple-personality disorders ;) ) However, what about the form? If the form of our ideas isn't changed much, then I hope that our discernment and then conscience kicks in. We should "know" when we're taking a short-cut on our way to easy credit and that "twigging" of our conscience is what defines dishonesty for me. (In this issue, it's that twigging that would indicate that someone is guilty of self-plagiarism).

In other words, if you feel you've re-mixed and re-cycled and done good work still, then by all means, you're not guilty of self-plagiarism.

Another point that occurred to me is what if there are two students and both have done previous work in an area? One student basically recycles old work. The other student starts from scratch and stretches himself to go into new areas. Should both get equal credit? Or, maybe it's the "system" that is faulty for not being able to differentiate between the two-- short of pronouncing one is plagiarism. If it's the system that is faulty, what would a better system look like? Maybe students should be given an opportunity to own-up to how much they've recycled but with a written justification. This would be attached to the assignment as a formal part of the process. Then, it's up to the "teacher" to judge whether the justification warrants equal credit to a student who has done something very new for him.

After some more reflection, I think this issue should be dealt very differently between elementary school, middle school, high school, and university. (Most of my comments relate to university level studies.)

I don't think elementary students would be in danger of doing this. I don't think they are looking for loopholes at this age. Would it even "twig" on them they could do this? I don't think so.

Middle school students might do this naively as they wouldn't realize it's a problem. Or, they might do this because they are short on skills, ideas. They fall-back on what is familiar as they lack the skills to go further. These are acceptable excuses for "self-plagiarism".

In high school, students would be aware that this is a possibility and wouldn't be entirely honest but my guess is that the work to "recycle" the original assignment would probably mar the quality of the initial assignment. They are unlikely to be rewarded for recycling since I suspect skilful recycling is not that easy at that age-level. Even if they do recycle "successfully", I don't think it's such a big deal since they're still "kids" and the process is a part of their learning.

As for university, they are adults. I expect more from adults who are supposed to be operating at the highest level of academia and have opted to be there, since university is optional. So please live up to the privilege bestowed on you by having membership in an university. Add value to the knowledge-pool and not just recycle the same stuff. (Sounds like I'm using the same argument that you use regarding Social Media, Doug ;) I thought the point of university and journals is to develop and share cutting-edge ideas, research etc.

I hope and expect academics have some level of conscience to know when they have "crossed the line" in terms of integrity. I'm proposing a radical idea is that we should allow adults to follow their conscience and we should believe that people in higher education tend to do the right thing since they are there by option and not through duress.

Ahh, but that brings us "full-circle" to the whole issue of plagiarism and copyright: Can we legislate common sense? I think not. The mere fact that we try to legislate common sense strips people from developing---common sense!

I can see this discussion being turned into a 10 page plagiarism document. I'm about to write one even as a I type ;) My heart tells me to "not bother" --wanting rather to believe that academics know how to regulate themselves in terms what is acceptable recycling and what isn't. This latter way of dealing with the issue might be the answer, after all.


July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Wow... all I can say is, "Wow".

To editors/publishers - get over yourselves. If you don't like that someone re-uses previous thoughts and writings, then say just that as it is certainly not plagiarism to re-use one's work. Tell the writer that you prefer a new original.

To teachers - get over yourselves. Is the purpose of writing to prove that students can comply with rules about churning out "the work" or is the purpose of writing to inform, persuade, demonstrate reflection, ...? If a recycled paper cannot meet the objectives of the assignment, ding the student accordingly. If a paper can completely meet the objectives of a written assignment in two different courses - something is wrong with the system, not the student who is trying to game it.

My favorite quote from Seth Godin (paraphrased) - "If it's work, we figure out how to do less of it. If it is art, we figure out how to do more."

Because most assignments are like work - students will try to find ways to do less and recycling and good ol plagiarism are ways to do it.

Make your assignments more like art.


July 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoel VerDuin

Thanks, Kenn. I just wanted to raise the issue that this a more complex topic than "is it plagiarism." Like you, I suspect there are benefits to doing a single assignment for multiple classes.


Hi VIvian,

I am not sure if there is any less work in re-working an old assignment than starting from scratch. Think of remodeling an old house vs building new!

If we keep the question of what we want students to learn because of this assignment at the core of our judgements over recycling/plagiarism, I believe we are going in the right direction.


Hi Jane,

I purposefully chose research topics in my undergrad days that would work for multiple classes. As a full time student with a full time job and a family, I maximized my study and work time. Better one really good assignment than two half-assed ones, I thought.Your example is a good one!


Hi Joel,

Love the Godin quote (or paraphrase.) I need to remember that one.


July 19, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Yes, Doug. I agree that re-working an assignment can be as much work, if not more than starting "from scratch". I do better and faster if I start "from scratch", actually. We have two definitions of "self-plagiarism" being discussed in this blogpost. In my original post about making things "google-proof", I was thinking of it being the exact same assignment handed in twice. You've extended the definition to be a re-working of prior material. These two are separate things in my mind and I think should be dealt with differently.

I can't speak on behalf of editor/publishers but I can speak as a teacher. It's not about "getting over myself". It's about "not getting over" the students that extend themselves and do the extra effort. They should be credited for that. As a person that participated in group-work diligently and didn't mind doing the lion's share of the work, it would be nice if those students are not over-looked. (I didn't mind behind overlooked as I expected it. As a teacher, though, I am extra sensitive to this issue in regards to students.) I'm not talking about penalizing those that "self-plagiarise", necessarily (even though this is the present system of dealing with it). I'm talking more about giving credit to those who do the extra work. So, that is why I see the two examples as separate things.

So, perhaps we need to look at the system and change things as Joel says.

Again, I agree it takes just as much work, if not more, to re-work older material. So, I wouldn't put this into the same category of someone who prints off a second assignment and hands it in pretty much as it is. I reiterate that if you've re-mixed, re-cycled, and feel that you've done good work, then you're not guilty of self-plagiarism. You're the only one that can say that for yourself. No teacher or professor can speak to that. That's where your conscience has to kick in. Unfortunately, you're not going to find a university with policies where "trusting people's consciences" is embedded in the document.

As for publishers, they are paying fees so it's up to them to decide if they want to pay for something or not. If they don't want to, that's their prerogative. Publishing houses are not schools. I agree that it would be better if editors asked for a more "new" original but maybe the editor didn't have confidence to say that and preferred to fall back on the plagiarism angle.

I agree that if we could make all school assignments like "art" that issues of plagiarism would be minimized. However, art by definition is different for different people. A teacher can try and assign "art". Some students will see it as "art". Some students will not. That is the nature of art. That's the nature of people. Not always the fault of the teacher.

At the end of the day, there will be assignments and subjects where students don't feel like doing "the work". So, we do our best to make work relevant, authentic, personal and google-proof (as you say), like art (as Joel says). We teach them how to cite their sources. Then, it's time to let-go... It's not a perfect world so let's not try to make our students negotiate it perfectly. For K-12, I would say there are times to extend "grace". I don't know what to say to university and publishers. That's out of my realm.

Hope you're having a good road trip with the grandkids!


July 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian


Agree 100%! Love your "motivational" poster.


July 24, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Wiebe


How would you categorize the ethics of a student who deliberately planned to use a single paper for two classes? I rather think this is OK since there is purposeful design.


July 27, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

Thanks for this post! I really had no clue about this before. There's some really great info on this blog, keep up the good work!

March 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJim

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