Saturday, April 19, 2008

Recycling and Plagiarism

When is using your own words plagiarism? Technically, it never is. Dictionary.com defines is as, “the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work.”

You can define plagiarism in many ways. However, the essence of plagiarism is using the words or ideas of another person and claiming them as you own. As such, anyone using their own words multiple times (regardless of how they cite it) is not really guilty of plagiarism.

Many scholars write dissertations. They often “recycle” this writing into a book and multiple articles. The “smallest publishable pieces” technique often results in the award of tenure to many academics. As we all know, this often is the only contributions to scholarship that some of our colleagues make.

Is this intellectually dishonest? Most of us would agree it is not. If you are using your own previous work, it is OK to build upon it and use your own previous writing in the process.

Why then do we hold undergraduate students to a different standard? Many institutions of higher education (and some secondary schools as well), consider the recycled works of undergraduate students as plagiarism.

Consider how The Australian National University treats recycled work. It says recycling “is the submission for assessment of work which, wholly or in large part, has been previously presented by the same student for another assessment, either at the Australian National University or elsewhere. In some cases, lecturers will specifically allow this practice. If no specific provision to the contrary is made, submission of work for assessment a second or subsequent time constitutes a breach of this Code.” I wonder if any Australian National University faculty have ever recycled their work in their scholarly endeavors?

Looking at hundreds of plagiarism codes around the world, you are likely to see something similar expressed. Undergraduates are expected to never use their own words a second time. Considering what the definition of plagiarism is, and how scholars often use their own prior work, this seems hypocritical.

I gave my institutions definition of plagiarism to undergraduate students to a class this spring. One of the students immediately challenged me. He said, “If it is my work, I own it. I have automatic copyright to it and I can use it however I like. How dare this university accuse me of cheating when I wrote it in the first place?”

This really got my mind working. Indeed, why is this considered plagiarism based on an honor code?

Good assignments can discourage recycled work. If instructors do not want recycled work, they can give assignments which do not lend themselves to recycling. Do not assign work that asks students to write about broad topics like abortion or global warming. Instead, ask students to write about these topics more specifically. Ask instead, how has abortion impacted your home town? Or, how might global warming impact the economy of the state you live in?

If the undergraduate can reuse the work they have used previously, more power to them. It is their work, good for them. They can use it however they please. Good and original writing assignments will minimize recycling but this will still happen sometimes.

I have some concerns about automated plagiarism detection systems. Since sites such as Turnitin.Com anonymously record the writing of students, they could easily provide a false positive. A student using a few paragraphs from an essay they wrote in the spring could be falsely accused of plagiarism from recycling some of his/her own work from the last semester. Is this really plagiarism?

Those of us in higher education need to rethink this issue. If we as scholars can recycle our work, why can’t our undergraduate students? After all, it is their work.

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