Plagiarizing Yourself

Brian Taylor

October 04, 2010

At the end of the summer, I helped run a discussion for faculty members who would be teaching a certain book to freshmen in the fall. During that session, our first-year dean showed us a PowerPoint presentation she had prepared for the students on academic honesty and dishonesty. She wanted to give us a sense of the information freshmen would be receiving during orientation before classes started.

Her presentation contained a slide that said academic dishonesty included plagiarizing yourself—i.e., taking a paper you had written for one course and turning it in for credit in another course. That, she explained, constituted a dishonest representation of your work for a course.

"Unless," one of my colleagues chimed in at that point, "you're an academic, and you're presenting the same idea at a bunch of different conferences. Then it's clearly not dishonest."

I laughed along with everybody else, and then we went right back to the presentation. I didn't think much further about the exchange, or about the idea of plagiarizing oneself, until we hit the second week of this semester, and I was handing back the first set of writing exercises to my class of freshman honors students.

I use writing prompts in all of my courses both to ensure that students are keeping up with the reading and to prime them for the day's discussion. The format is always the same: I pose a question related to the reading, and ask students to write a paragraph in response on a half-sheet of notebook paper. I grade the writing exercises simply, on a 10-point scale, using only two criteria: Did the student answer the question? Did the student provide evidence from the text in support of his or her idea?

After the writing exercise has ended, I pose the same question to get our class discussion started. We have better discussions when I use the writing prompts than on the days that I don't.

So for the first writing exercise of the semester, I posed a question that was designed to prepare students for the first paper topic (although they didn't know that yet). In the next class session, after I gave back the graded exercises and handed out the paper assignment, a student raised her hand.

"Are we allowed to use ideas from our writing exercise to help us write this paper?" she asked.

"Of course," I said. "That was the whole point of the writing exercise—to get you a head start in thinking about how you want to approach your paper."

"OK," she said. And then after a brief pause: "Because at orientation they told us we weren't allowed to use our own work twice."

"Ah," I said. "That doesn't really apply in this case. And anyway, I don't really mind, in this course, if you take a paper that you've written for another course and revise it for an assignment in here. You just have to make sure that what you turn in fulfills my specific assignment. Other professors might feel differently, though. So I would always ask before you tried to do that."

I stopped there, realizing that I was probably just confusing everyone. But after class I sat in my office and couldn't stop thinking about the issue. Immediately my mind went back to my colleague's remark last summer about conference papers. His quip reflected an obvious truth. Most of us among the ranks of tenured faculty members have recycled a presentation from one conference to the next, or trotted out a conference paper in a pinch that was merely an extract of one of our published articles.

In fact, most people in any profession do the same sort of recycling. If the sales pitch you labored over at your first company was successful, why not use it again at the second? You might have to tweak it to accommodate a new audience, but otherwise you're going to stick with what works.

The more I thought about it, the more examples of that occurred to me. My neighbor across the street, a resident in a medical program, has presented the same research at a bunch of different conferences. And of course when I have a lesson plan that works, I recycle it until I get bored with it, or until I come across new research or ideas that make it obsolete. My wife does the same thing with her kindergarten lesson plans.

So does the injunction against plagiarizing from yourself fall into the category of one of those hypocritical rules that we like to impose on our children: Drinking soda every day would be bad for your health, honey, but it's fine for me?

If a categorical difference exists here between what we do and what we forbid our students to do, I confess, I have a hard time seeing it.

I can foresee the counterargument: Academics give presentations multiple times because we are testing out our ideas, and want to see how different audiences react to them before we put them in final form. After each talk, we may revise our paper as a result of the response, and then present it again. Eventually, we will have tweaked and revised it enough that we submit it for publication somewhere—improved, no doubt, by our multiple presentations of the idea.

That process is one of the more rewarding aspects of our profession. It's an opportunity to take good ideas and make them better by a series of feedback-and-revision loops. That process, I'm certain, reminds us of some pretty basic truths about learning and the intellectual life: That good ideas must be articulated and tested in public forums, for example, or that every presentation must be tailored to fit its specific audience, or that even our best ideas should be considered provisional ones, always pending new information.

So why deprive our students of the opportunity to learn those same lessons, by recycling a particular paper from one course to the next?

I can foresee one more objection: What's to prevent a student from recycling the same paper from course to course to course? Students who did so would lose the valuable opportunity to practice their writing—and writing, like any other intellectual or physical skill, requires lots of practice.

But—practically speaking—the opportunity to reuse a paper might arise only once or twice in a student's career, thanks to the diversity of our course assignments and disciplines. A paper assignment that a student gets in my English class on 20th-century literature won't be anything like her assignment in Renaissance literature—much less from psychology or sociology. Because the content of courses differs so much, the opportunity to use the same paper will happen only rarely.

But when it does, why not allow a student to take advantage of the opportunity? Suppose a student writes a final research paper for an introductory psychology course in the fall semester of her freshman year, and receives helpful suggestions on it from the professor. That same student then takes an English-composition course with me in the spring, and I assign an open-topic research paper to finish the semester.

Why should I not encourage the student to revise her psychology paper, according to both the guidance she received from her previous professor and the new writing principles she has learned in my course? She couldn't merely turn in her old paper; it would have to fulfill the requirements of my assignment. The student would not only get the opportunity to return to a set of ideas she thought she had finished, but the assignment would also reinforce the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the curriculum.

No doubt, she might end up doing less work than a student who wrote a paper from scratch in my composition course. But does that really matter?

At this point, dear readers, I would like to turn the discussion over to you. I have two questions.

First, do you see a problem with allowing students to revise a paper or presentation created for one course and turn it in for another one, assuming they can make it fit the assignment for the new course? Does this count as plagiarism?

Second, are there any courses or programs that build such a process into the curriculum—requiring or encouraging students to take work from one course and adapt it for another?

I encourage readers to offer their ideas. Of course if you have published or presented elsewhere on this subject, you should still go ahead and share your recycled idea. I will leave it up to you to decide whether to feel guilty about that.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at