I posed the title question—“What Are the Ethics of Self-plagiarism?”—knowing many writers will see two questions: What is self-plagiarism? And if there is such a thing, how could it be ethical?
Yes, self-plagiarism is alive and often committed in the writing world. And yes, there are highly technical circumstances where it is perfectly ethical.
We all know plagiarism when we don’t see it. “Plagiarism is the wrongful appropriation and stealing and publication of another author’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions, and the representation of them as one’s own original work. Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions such as penalties, suspension, expulsion from school or work, substantial fines, and even incarceration. Recently, cases of extreme plagiarism have been identified in academia. The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral, and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic Movement.”
Plagiarism is so well-known, committed so often, and so roundly condemned, that it has its own Wikipedia page. Conversely, self-plagiarism is sly, often committed, but less roundly condemned, and hardly ever with any real sense of condemnation.
Madame Wiki pardons self-plagiarism by calling it duplicate publication. “The reuse of significant, identical, or nearly identical portions of one’s own work without acknowledging that one is doing so. Citing the original work is sometimes described as ‘self-plagiarism’; the term ‘recycling fraud’ has also been used to describe this practice . . . Self-plagiarism is considered a serious ethical issue in settings where someone asserts that a publication consists of new material, such as in publishing or factual documentation. It does not apply to public-interest texts, such as social, professional, and cultural opinions usually published in newspapers and magazines.”
My people (lawyers) are perhaps the most frequent violators. We self-plagiarize almost every day by recycling the words we used in last week’s briefs, motions, and opinion letters simply because we are giving the same exact advice, client after client, case after case, and it’s not against the law. It is considered “good” practice as long as you don’t double bill the same client for it.
But in academia, it generates frowns and tut-tuts unless proper attribution accompanies the latest iteration of one’s original work. Lawyers find this silly because it is legal, fair use under the copyright statutes, and not identified in any of our many ethical codes.
At first blush, self-plagiarism seems idiomatic since you cannot steal from yourself. But there is a real issue of hiding something from your reader. If the reader assumes he or she is reading original work, since you don’t say otherwise, are you passing the thoughts, ideas, or positions as “new?” If so, isn’t that deceit?
“The concept of ethical writing . . . entails an implicit contract between reader and writer whereby the reader assumes, unless otherwise noted, that the material was written by the individual/s listed as authors, and that it is new and is accurate to the best of the author’s abilities. As such, self-plagiarism misleads the reader about the novelty of the material.”
So, the essential piece is to ensure the integrity of the work. That will always be a matter of circumstance. Lawyers recycle legal positions. It is an age-old practice. Researchers do not. It is a rare practice. In academic research, self-plagiarism is an ethical challenge. In genre fiction, especially horror stories, it is welcomed.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.