You might assume that you can write something and then recycle it as you please. After all, these are your words and ideas, right? However, there are ethical questions to consider when it comes to repurposing your own work. Do you know about the laws involved in reusing texts? Guest contributor Nancy Lin walks you through the minefield of “self-plagiarism”–including the consequences, and the cases where it’s perfectly fine.
Avoid Self-Plagiarism in Your Articles
Have you come across the notion of “self-plagiarism”? You might wonder how you can possibly plagiarize your own writings. You might even ask why it’s important to acknowledge your prior works.
However, most submission policies stress the importance of submitting original content. If you want your writings to be in demand, every work you submit should be original.
Even if you happen to duplicate your own thoughts by mistake, you’ll have a hard time proving it was an accident. Take some precautions not to put your reputation at risk. Cite your previous works or check them for similarities with the help of automatic checkers.
Now, let’s dig deeper and find out how to avoid it…
What’s the big deal about copying your own writing?
Ask any professor whether a student is allowed to re-use an already-written paper to fulfill another course’s requirements and the answer will be “No” in most of cases. This is especially true if it is a degree-fulfillment paper. Research writers typically have a publication ethics code to follow. But do other writers have the same strict rules or are there exceptions?
As long as writers are publishing their own works on their own blog, they are the copyright owners. It’s up to them to decide whether recycling previous articles will be acceptable or not. In this situation, it’s a question of ethics: To cheat or to not cheat your readers who usually expect fresh material.
However, the moment the writer signs over a copyright to a publisher or decides to mass-publish writings to gain fame or make a big profit, text recycling is judged differently, and more seriously, to be exact.
Let’s consider the example of Zygmunt Bauman, a widely recognized sociologist. According to Times Higher Education, Bauman “recycled 90,000 words of material across a dozen books.”
Another example comes from Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the book includes numerous instances where she recycled her own work:
Large portions of Hillary Clinton’s $14-million memoir Hard Choices are copied from more than a dozen public speeches, congressional testimony she made while serving as secretary of state, and her previous book Living History, a Washington Free Beacon analysis found.
When Can Text Recycling be Justified?
You can hardly call a series of Sherlock Holmes stories self-plagiarism, right? Each story has the same characters and similar narration, but different plots. There are a few more cases where repeated usage of your texts is allowed. Below is a short list of them:
- Adjusting the text to a completely different readership, so that they can better understand the key points of this or that story;
- Commenting on the previously written work in order to restate/reinterpret/agree/disagree with the statements made earlier;
- Providing deeper insight into the written story to analyze some plot details, etc.;
- Re-using already published works as a kind of example in your public speeches or presentations;
- Translating the original text.
Still, if you no longer own a copyright to the work you want to re-use, you’d better obtain the copyright holder’s official permission or get the editor’s approval. And yes, you should give credit to your previous works regardless of who is the current copyright holder.
How to Avoid the Risk of Self-Duplication?
As an experienced writer, you are sure to have already developed your writing voice and style. Quick double-checking, however, is simply not enough. To avoid the risk of being sued for continuous recycling of your prior works, you’d better take the following precautions:
- When the work is submitted to multiple publishers or sites, keep track of their responses and once one of them agrees to publish your writing, inform all the others about it. To keep a record of this information, you can use Google Forms or Evernote, which can sync to your mobile phone and PC;
- Apply paraphrasing techniques to avoid possible repetitions. To find out what exactly should be changed, take advantage of an automatic plagiarism checker that allows you to store all your published texts inside your personal account and check each newly written text against them;
- Check if you properly referenced your previous work;
- Try out other creative writing techniques;
- Play with different literary devices to make your narration more distinctive;
- Have your colleagues proofread your writings and give feedback on what corrections should be made.
As you can see, there are all sorts of ways to avoid self-plagiarism. It may feel like a lot of extra work, but it’s what you must do if you want to call yourself a real writer.
I would like to hear your thoughts about this article in the comments section! Please don’t hesitate to share it on social media.
A student of Rockhurst University and enthusiastic freelance writer, Nancy Lin is fond of English language and literature. She wants to build a successful writing career, and to become a best-selling author in the near future. Follow her on Twitter @nancylin90.
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