On the Morality of: Self-Plagiarism

In my last link roundup, I mentioned a damning story that leveled charges of rampant plagiarism against Chris Hedges, a left-wing writer who really loathes New Atheism. According to the story, which was published in the New Republic after other progressive outlets declined to run it, Hedges has lifted ideas, sentences and whole passages without attribution from many other people’s work, from fellow reporters at Harper’s to Naomi Klein, Neil Postman and Ernest Hemingway (!!).

Even though I’d probably agree with Hedges on most issues, I admit to feeling some schadenfreude about this. His ridiculously vitriolic and sloppily self-contradictory attacks on New Atheism had already convinced me that he wasn’t a thinker worth taking seriously. Then, the other day, I saw a new Gawker article that additionally charges Hedges with being a “habitual self-plagiarist”, reusing sentences, passages and larger chunks of text in his published work throughout the years.

I’m loath to sound like I’m defending Hedges, so let me make it clear that I’m not doing that. Plagiarism per se is a serious moral transgression, and the charges that Hedges cribbed from other writers seems well-substantiated to me, based on the evidence presented. But I have my doubts about whether this new charge is properly placed in the same category.

I think the concept of “self-plagiarism” is a contradiction in terms. Plagiarism is immoral because it’s a form of theft, appropriating other people’s work for your own benefit while denying them the credit they deserve. But, by definition, you can’t steal from yourself.

If I do the work of digging up a juicy fact, inventing a clever bon mot or assembling a well-honed argument, isn’t it legitimate to reuse it in different contexts? Most professional writers publish in more than one outlet, and it seems egotistical to assume that once you’ve said something once, everyone who needs to hear it will have heard it. I don’t think it’s wrong to repeat yourself if there’s a point you want to strongly emphasize or to disseminate as widely as possible. (Is a professional speaker engaging in self-plagiarism if they give the same speech multiple times?)

Likewise, if you write a short essay, it doesn’t seem wrong to me to expand on it or incorporate it into a longer piece, marshaling additional evidence to support your thesis or weaving it into a broader argument. (Full disclosure: I did just this in my book Daylight Atheism; several of the chapters are expanded versions of some of my favorite posts and essays.)

Now, obviously, this has limits. If you sign an agreement with a magazine or a web journal that calls for original work, it would of course be wrong to submit the same piece to two different outlets and expect to be paid for it twice. If you grant exclusive publication rights for an original piece, you also shouldn’t republish large chunks of it elsewhere. But I don’t think it’s wrong to reuse words, phrases or ideas from one outlet to the next. Granted, there’s a Ship of Theseus problem here – how much material can be recycled or repurposed from past work before the piece as a whole is no longer “original”? – which I don’t propose a definitive answer to.

The other criticism one could make, which I think has more validity, is that habitually repeating yourself makes your writing unoriginal and uninteresting – and if you repeat the same arguments in response to every critic, people will be justified in suspecting that no critical thinking or fair consideration went into them. But I don’t believe it’s justified to equate this to plagiarism, a much more serious ethical lapse.

Other posts in this series:

Atlas Shrugged: The Craft of Not Acting
Atlas Shrugged: The Rapture of the Capitalists
SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death
ISIS Is Bleeding Human History
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • kraut2

    Frank Zappa called it “conceptual continuity”. The term “self plagiarism” receives a AAAA+ in the utter nonsense category.

    “More often, this conceptual continuity surfaces in
    lyrical references and in musical phrases carried from one album to the
    next (and with more ease from one set of gigs to the next). For example,
    musically, sections of Lumpy Gravy re-emerge on Orchestral
    Favorites (Pedro’s Dowry), Weasels Ripped My Flesh (Oh
    No), We’re Only In It For The Money (Take Your Clothes Off
    When You Dance) and in numerous other places throughout his work.
    Where for most performers this would be derided as rehashing old
    material or at least ‘borrowing heavily from your own back catalogue’,
    with Zappa, this becomes Conceptual Continuity.”

  • Azkyroth

    This reminds me of “self-objectification” and “self-abuse.”

  • Alex SL

    I am seeing it in the context of science and academia in general, and I would also say that some minor (!) self-plagiarism, that is the re-use of individual expressions and phrases, is hardly relevant. Indeed it is sometimes hard to avoid: Imagine you are a biologist who has been studying the same model organism for their entire career. Writing the introduction to your 30th paper on the same study group, will you still come up with entirely novel ways of saying “Plantella is a genus of twenty species of shrubs restricted to South America”?

    The point of self-plagiarism as an offence is when the same paper is published twice in different journals to inflate one’s list of publications, and in those cases it is not a contradiction in terms but effectively fraud. But individual phrases should not matter much as long as the next paper contains novel DATA.

  • S. James Schaffer

    this bullshit idea is alive and well in academia

  • eyelessgame

    Molly Ivins referred to self-plagiarism as green writing: it’s recycling!