Plagiarizing Yourself - When is it okay?

Business writing is based on "reuse" — for legal, regulatory, and efficiency purposes. It is normal to "plagiarize" in professional workplaces. Once company lawyers okay a block of text, you definitely don't want to change it. Federal and state regulations can also dictate wording of a text; change the text and risk a serious fine.

Non-traditional students coming from industry or non-profit work might have been trained to recycle writing. How do you explain that reuse isn't the right approach in a university setting?

While I was trying to explain that original writing helps us learn, a student asked if my writing doesn't get recycled. Yes, it does… and that's hard to explain to a class.

The student asking the question works in the financial industry. Reuse is the norm in such a tightly regulated industry. However, the student saw reuse more from the perspective of efficiency than legal compliance.

"Why would you rewrite what you've already written?"

That's a pretty good question. When you specialize in a field, you do rely on your previous works. Hopefully, you cite them, but you do reuse that you have learned and many of your passages are going to be similar. Admittedly, I struggle to revise and update ideas from paper to paper. Also, there are some things you do reuse, such as citations that are considered foundational to the research.

But, I do sometimes post the same column to more than one blog. I don't hide this reuse; the different blogs also have different readerships. I would not submit the same work to two different clients. When I compiled blog entries into a book, I opened the book with an explanation that it was based on blog entries posted online — and then expanded upon within the book.

Recently, science writer Jonah Lehrer admitted to fabricating and misrepresenting quotes. That's unforgivable for a journalist, especially when it is so easy today to record interviews to ensure accuracy.

Lehrer also "self-plagiarized" portions of columns, recycling text from one publication to another. This poses some questions for me about different writing contexts.

When a writer sells his or her work at "full price" to several publications, that's fraudulent unless the writer clearly explains portions of works might be reused.

If a magazine pays me for a column or article, it should be an original creative work. That's the same rule I'd apply to an academic paper: you write new papers for each course. Recycling term papers is prohibited by most schools because you learn by doing new research.

It's somewhat understandable that a writer would try to recycle, especially if he or she is trying to write for dozens of publications to pay the bills. Sorry, but writing doesn't pay a lot, so writers tend to take on too many projects with too rushed deadlines.

Publishing is a business, so anything that reduces expenses is embraced by the publishers. Newsrooms and the "stables" of writers supported by magazines have declined precipitously since the 1980s. I know freelance rates have stagnated, making it hard to earn a living.

Syndication and press cooperatives have long allowed one column or article to appear in dozens or hundreds of publications. The Associated Press cooperative was established to pool resources among member publications. When a big story happens in a small town, the local newspaper reporter's work is published nationally by other AP newspapers. Seems quite reasonable to me from a business perspective — but there's little reward for the writer.

A different approach is syndication, which sells columns for a minimal fee to hundreds of publications. This approach shares the cost of employing popular columnists. Again, perfectly logical, but not financially the best situation for the author.

Writers don't even get byline credit in some instances.

There has long been a tradition of using "column services" for some newspaper and newsletter publishing. While I have no problem helping someone write a column, it does bother me that columns are sold to business professionals nationally — appearing under dozens of bylines. Is there a difference between doctoring a column for one person and selling a column dozens of times? I hope so, since I help people edit their ideas and publish them.

Writers eager to earn a living do what they can… but it isn't always clearcut ethically.

Students have some good questions about why and how to be original writers. When they learn a "professional writer" sells his or her skills and words, the contradiction is complicated.

And, let's be honest, writers are in business for themselves — selling themselves as much as any other professional sells his or her skills and services.


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