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BFTP: 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.

Original post 7/17/08


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Reader Comments (2)

Totally agree - I sometimes feel like student are scared to do something they like vs. something they are required to do. I often get students who give me a very strange look when I tell them they can choose their topic. It's unfortunate that we expect so much from students (five to seven classes each day) and so much outside of school work while asking them to set aside their own passions.

September 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterKenn Gorman

I might be afraid to share some of my "passions" with those who could commit me to an institution or lead to a criminal charge ;-)

Hope your year is off to a good start!


September 4, 2018 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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