Can you plagiarise your own work?

Something I was wondering about as I was working on a project this afternoon- let’s say you’ve previously had work on a given topic published elsewhere, and later use that published work (verbatim) in a different project, without crediting yourself- could you be said to have plagiarised your own work?

I suppose you could say you did, but there’s nothing unethical about doing so.

Context is, as always, everything.

Are these professional journals, or mass-market publications?

You’ll often see an article first published in a low-circulation magazine re-printed in a national title (with a note to that effect).

We had a rule at uni that you were not allowed to submit the same piece of work twice.

But I regularly re-used large sections in different essays, adjusting them to fit the theme.

It’s not plagiarism to have the same work published, but it might well be seen as intellectually dishonest and/or an indication that you’ve run out of ideas.

In college, dual submission was considered on par with plagiarism. If you wanted to hand in a paper you’d already done for another class, you had to get permission from the professor first, and most would probably refuse. After all, the point was to learn new things by doing research on the subject being taught, and just handing in a paper from somewhere else misses that entirely.

If it’s for business use, the person you’re submitting it to will probably see it as doing a half-assed job by cutting corners, since the two project requirements are unlikely to be so similar that the same work could equally satisfy both. If it’s a client that’s paying you for original work, they’re likely to be pissed. They’ll probably demand either that the work be re-done or the price cut considerably, and will probably re-think working with you again.

That’s not to say that people don’t get away with it. The ad agency I work at was hired by a bigger agency to help on a project with Client A. At a meeting with Client A, Big Agency handed them a report that outlined Client A’s current market situation and specific advertising needs. Client A was very impressed at all the work Big Agency had done, and agreed to pay them lots of money. A month later, when Big Agency asked us to help out with Client B, they handed them the exact same report with Client B’s name and logo copy-and-pasted throughout the report. Client B was very impressed at all the work Big Agency had done, and agreed to pay them lots of money.

In the scientific academic comunity it is considered a no-no to publish the same bit of work twice, and one has to sign a release form to the journal saying it is not being published elsewhere. However, if it is is a useless bit of rubbish then no one will notice. If it is any good then someone will will spot it.

The only exceptions are communications, in which one briefly describes the work, and it is expected a full paper will follow in due course expanding on the work. In practice, most communications are never follwed up with a full paper - the communication was only submitted because they were too lazy to write a full paper or there is not enough work to justify a full paper.

Here’s a specific example:

C.J. Date has written several books about databases. One is An Introduction To Database Systems which covers all types of databases. He has also written a manual specifically for DB2. A lot of material is common to both books. Several chapters appear to be identical. Is this a bad thing? In my opinion, no. When there is a lot of overlap in the subject area, why shouldn’t an author re-use his own words? Should he really be required to come up with a totally different explaination of the same thing?

One scenario which could cause legal trouble is if the either manuscript is considered Work For Hire. With Work For Hire, you retain no rights to the piece, and all copyright laws apply just as though someone else had written it.

John Fogerty was once unsuccesfully sued for plagarising his own work. The publishers of his song “Run Through The Jungle” sued him over similiarities between that song and “The Old Man Down the Road”, but Fogerty, after a long and expensive case, eventually won the suit.

Isaac Asimov once wrote a story, forgot about it, and then several years later wrote it again. I don’t recall either of the titles offhand, but it was about the dinosaurs having actually developed intelligence and weapons, and hunting each other to extinction. And we’re doing the same thing!

In a storytelling class, I submitted two stories I had written in other classes. One was effectively the same assignment, a bit of autobiography. I didn’t mention this, but didn’t get caught. For the other, I adapted a screenplay I previously wrote into a short story format. This fact was known by the teacher, and she was OK with it.

Even if it’s unimportant work, if you submit it to a refereed journal, the editors and/or referees would notice. I once submitted separate papers to different journals and got a referee comment telling me to reduce overlap. (One was about instrument design and the other was about experiment result using that instrument.)

However, the preliminary results leading up to those papers had previously been published as conference proceedings. The journals had no problem with those.

If the author sold the work with the proviso that it would be used exclusively, then yes, he or she should be required to use totally different words even on the same subject.

What some people are ignoring in this thread is the difference between copyright and licensing. Your words are yours. You have an automatic copyright over them.

However, you can then sell or assign copyright, or license specific rights. Work for hire is an example of assignment of rights. You forfeit your copyright in return for payment. Obviously, if you were to sell these words a second time it would constitute plagiarism.

On the other hand, contracts call for a licensing of specific rights when you sell a book or an article. In the U.S., articles or short stories normally license first North American serial rights, meaning that you agree that no other publication in the U.S. or Canada (sorry, Mexico) can run the piece before that magazine does. However, many other variations of licensing are possible: world rights, world English-language rights, exclusive rights for a period of time, etc. etc. etc. If you sell the same rights to a number of magazines, or if you allow a magazine to publish your piece when you guaranteed it exclusively to another, you are in trouble. Whether this is formally plagiarism or not, the effect is the same: you are in violation of contract for using the same words twice.

Similarly, contracting to produce an original piece and reusing your words from another piece without notification may well be a violation of that contract. It depends on what the contract language said, and book publishing contracts run to many pages of fine print to cover all such contingencies.

This is a much trickier question to answer than it might at first appear, and plagiarism is probably a poor choice to cover the various situations in which reuse of one’s words occur. But good writers will seldom reuse previous passages. Each work, even on similar topics, should be unique in tone and expression and plopping old words in a new setting is almost always a bad thing.

In the business world, this is commonly called “leveraging” or “re-use”.

People in this thread seem to be using plagiarism to mean the reuse of an entire piece, where it really means reusing significant chunks. In technical papers, this happens all the time. People often write several papers on different aspects of the same subject, due to both page limitations and the need to publish more. Each will have an introduction to the area, and it makes perfect sense to reuse this material for all the papers. There are requirements on the amount of new material for a paper to be publishable, and at least once a year we wind up rejecting a paper that doesn’t have enough. But this amount is nowhere near 100%.

For fiction I agree with you that it should be close to 0. However, when you read a book of essays that got originally published in various places, there is often a great deal of overlap. I’d suspect this is as much saying the same thing in the same way as cuttting and pasting, since it predates word processors.

This is pretty much what I thought… the problem, I’ve noticed, when you’re writing on some topics is that there’s only a finite amount of information available in the first place, and if you’ve already been published on that topic it seems rather pointless to have to re-write your own words to say exactly the same thing- provided there aren’t any contractual issues, of course.

I think in some situations there is. I’m writing my dissertation and am reprinting 3 articles in modified form, and I had to get permission from those publishers. One of my committee members also told me to make sure not to plagiarise myself throughout the document, from chapter to chapter.

There may be a great deal of overlap in a book of essays on a similar topic. But I can’t think of a single example in which large portions of text were used verbatim.

Can you give even one book in which this is true?

Roald Dahl’s first published work - a short story about the time he crashed his fighter plan in WW2 - is repeated very closely in his later biography (Going Solo)

Whether or not it’s verbatim I can’t recall, but the details of the short story neatly form a “chapter-size” piece for the larger work.

When I see this sort of thing today, there’s usually disclaimer at the front of the book, on or near the copyright page, that says things like “Chapter 42 previously published in Scientific Surplus as “My Fondness for Squid”.”

I read a lot of Asimov, and with all those anthologies from different decades, there’s a lot of repeats. They’re all pretty clearly marked as repeats, though.

I always wondered about quasi-dual submission. For example, I wrote a short-ish(5 pgs) paper on data compression methods during my freshman year.

I re-wrote it to match the technical writing standards and added a lot of detail to it during my technical writing class my junior year, as well as added more sources/created an annotated bibliography, and some diagrams.

Finally, during my senior year, I had to write a research paper on some topic in computing, and I took my old paper and added 3 sections(MPEG1/2, MP3 and fractal) and edited the others, and turned it in.

I never thought it was exactly “dual-submission”, but I didn’t create it from whole cloth either.

Would this be considered “self-plagiarism” or “dual-submission”?