The Repetition Compulsion

Scott McLemee explores various scholars' rationales for self-plagiarism.

January 10, 2020
 
 
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Last spring the American Society for Engineering Education's magazine Prism ran an opinion piece titled "Plagiarism Is Not a Victimless Crime" by Adrian Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University. It ended with an admonishment to scholarly editors and publishers: "Exposing plagiarists without implementing an unforgiving policy (punishment) that terminates the practice is to do nothing." So far, so punitive. But in an interesting detour, Bejan threw down the gauntlet at publishers who "playact as enemies of plagiarism" by accusing authors of "self-plagiarism" when they recycle portions of their own work.

"The term is nonsense," Bejan wrote. "One does not steal from oneself; one owns what one creates. Accusing the creative author of self-plagiarism is like accusing Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi of thievery because they sold many pieces of art that looked like their own art from a few years back." The first part of his complaint -- what we might call the argument from oxymoronicism -- is sure to be raised whenever the concept of self-plagiarism comes up.

Less familiar, perhaps, is the notion of self-copying as one of the privileges of creativity. Bejan may be responding to an essay by David Goldblatt called "Self-Plagiarism" (the top JSTOR search result on the topic by relevance) that appeared in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1984. Goldblatt's understanding of originality is stringent, almost punishing. Artists who "ride on the coattails of their previous successes" -- who "mak[e] no aesthetic progress" and resort to "insignificantly repeating features that have been created at some other time, even if those features were created by the artist him or herself" -- are guilty of "enjoying the status of 'artist' when that status has expired." Aesthetic progress, it seems, is a jealous god, and vengeful in his wrath. Bejan's remarks on Picasso et al. seem a lot more generous.

If the fate of genius is self-plagiarism, what chance does anyone else have? Reading around in the academic literature on the subject, you find the occasional sign of indulgence -- self-plagiarism treated as necessary, tolerable or even something that can be done impressively in its own right.

I've come across various references to a "rule of thumb" that an author may reuse up to 30 percent of a previously published article when preparing a new one. The details as to what fields or journals allow for this practice are a little vague. One paper noted that The British Medical Journal uses a baseline of 10 percent, "requiring authors to send previous publications that overlap by more than [that] with the article being submitted for review." The notion of it being acceptable for more than a quarter of a manuscript to be recycled from the author's earlier work sounds to me a bit like the academic equivalent of an urban legend.

Textual recycling as an all-but-inevitable practice comes up in a symposium on reference books that ran in The Modern Language Journal in 2011. The linguist H. G. Widdowson identifies "contributor fatigue" as a problem for scholars who prepare entries for such works -- especially considering they may be asked to write on a given topic repeatedly. When your 500 words on Mesopotamian aesthetics for a handbook on Mesopotamian studies makes you the obvious person to tap for an entry on that topic in a dictionary on ancient history, putting much the same information in completely different words could be difficult. By the time an encyclopedia editor comes calling, it may be impossible. (Which is not to say you shouldn't try, especially if the respective copyrights are held by different publishers.)

The occasions are rare, but an argument can be made for self-plagiarism as a kind of higher originality. If that is a paradox, then all the more fitting that prime examples come from Oscar Wilde. The author "was in the habit of borrowing from his own work," write Donald L. Lawler and Charles E. Knott in their paper "The Context of Invention: Suggested Origins of 'Dorian Gray.'" Wilde's novel incorporated "almost a page … [copied] from a review he had written in November 1888 when he was editor of Woman's World. In turn, Dorian Gray was mined by Wilde for some choice epigram which he incorporated into the plays." A more contemporary example: Martin Scorsese's recycling of the very long-take tracking shot from Goodfellas -- a technique turned icon in its own right -- in Casino and The Irishman. No comparable cases involving scholars rather than artists come to mind, though there must be some.

In a column from 2007, I wrote about a new online journal called Plagiary: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification. It was active for just two years (the archive remains available), but in that time, it offered a venue for Patrick M. Scanlon's "Song From Myself: An Anatomy of Self-Plagiarism" -- a fine essay, overlooked, it seems, by just about everyone else writing on the subject and so coming to my attention late in the work on this column. More than any other author, Scanlon conveys the uneasiness that can take hold of you after many years of publishing.

"A writer may suffer continually from the anxiety of influence," he says, "from the suspicion that he has inadvertently or subconsciously copied from another. Such anguish can only be exacerbated if self-plagiarism is thrown into the mix. The more we write, the more likely we will reuse something -- imagery, phrasing, a sentence, an anecdote, an entire argument -- that has served us well in the past and which has become a part of our writing vocabulary. This self-copying could be more or less unconscious, but probably it is often an intentional part of the composition process, as we cull back through previous work for relevant matter. Word processing has no doubt increased this practice, as on our computers’ hard drives we keep folders of apposite notes and manuscripts within larger folders devoted to writing projects."

But search tools also make it possible to minimize the risk of repeating yourself inadvertently. "One of the most disheartening experiences of old age," wrote B. F. Skinner, "is discovering that a point you just made -- so significant, so beautifully expressed -- was made by you in something you published long ago." And the odds of making the discovery are likely to increase each time you go to the well.

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