Self-plagiarism: What it is and how to avoid it

Introduction

Self-plagiarism sounds like a paradox. If you’re reusing your own words, that can’t be plagiarism, right? That’s not entirely true.

When you resubmit an old paper to a new course or use a subset of data from a study you previously published, this is self-plagiarism. This article is in depth, so you know what to look for to avoid self-plagiarism.

What is self-plagiarism?

Self-plagiarism is the act of either presenting a previously submitted work or large chunks of a previously submitted work as completely brand new.

In the broadest sense, self-plagiarism goes against the expectation of your professors or readers that the work you are presenting is completely new and original.

McGill University states in their student handbook that:

One of the objectives of your studies is to build on your education by applying concepts and knowledge acquired in previous courses to current ones…the work produced for each course must be original, and the resubmission of an old paper does not build on previous knowledge; it recycles it.

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How to avoid self-plagiarism

For students

  • Do not reuse your old assignments. On occasion, you might be assigned a topic that you’ve already written a paper on. What then? Consult your university’s academic code of conduct or plagiarism policy.
  • Talk to your professor. This is particularly important if your university does not explicitly state whether or not self-plagiarism is acceptable. If your professor gives you the okay to use your old paper, make sure you cite yourself properly in whatever format you use.

For researchers/academics

  • Check the publication’s guidelines on this topic. Like universities, journals have varying guidelines on how they view self-plagiarism. Some are against it outright, while others will allow a minimal amount with proper citation. This is incredibly important if you are in the biomedical field.
  •  Many journals will not publish articles that have been previously published.

Possible consequences of self-plagiarism

For students

Self-plagiarism is not as serious an offense as traditional plagiarism, but most universities will likely have a policy on how they view self-plagiarism. If your university does not allow self-plagiarism, never submit a previously submitted work.

At most universities, violation of the plagiarism policy results in an automatic zero and possible suspension or expulsion.

If your university allows you to reuse your old work, be sure to check in with your professors and make sure you get permission before doing so. Most university departments will allow minimal reuse of work, but to ensure you don’t lose points toward your grade, always check with your professors.

For researchers/academics

The two biggest consequences for an academic or researcher who self-plagiarizes are delayed/blocked publication or, in the worst case scenario, copyright infringement.

If your article is too close to one of your previously published works, the publication may delay your article or block it altogether. Most journals will list their plagiarism guidelines along with their submission requirements, so make sure to read them over.

According to the folks at the Office of Research Integrity, reusing large chunks of previously published material or publishing an article twice can result in copyright infringement.

Maybe you’ve tweaked the article a bit, but the ideas, overall structure, and data are all the same. You’ll need to double check and see who owns the publication copyright. Once you know whether or not you won’t be infringing on any copyright, make sure the publisher you’re submitting to allows previously published work.

Examples of self-plagiarism

A real-world example:

In 2012, it was discovered that then rising “pop-neuroscience writer” Jonah Lehrer had recycled large chunks of his own writing across most of his previous works, including blog posts for Wired and NewYorker.com, as well as in his book. Wired conducted an internal review when they heard about the allegations and left it up to an independent writer at Slate to publish the findings.

What was found was this: In the sample of 18 articles Lehrer had published at Wired, all but one had journalistic issues, and 14 of them included self-plagiarism. About a month after the accusations, Lehrer resigned from his position at NewYorker.com.

Some hypothetical examples:

You receive an assignment and you realize you have already written a paper that would fit well for another class. You decide to use paragraphs here and there from the previous essay when writing the paper, without attribution. You figure your professor won’t notice, so you turn it in without consulting them.

Is this self-plagiarism?
Yes. Since you didn’t consult with your professor, this could be considered self-plagiarism.

Your Master’s thesis builds on some research from your Bachelor’s thesis. You decide to save yourself some time and use your old literature review. The theoretical framework for your Master’s is based on this literature review and you will build upon it by conducting interviews.

Is this self-plagiarism?
Maybe. Double-check your Master’s thesis guidelines as well as with your undergraduate university to see if this violates any policies. Generally speaking, a certain amount of previously graded work is allowed in a Master’s thesis, but be sure that includes undergraduate work before submitting your paper.

In a Master’s program, you’re required to take a class on research methodology, after which you draft the first chapter of your thesis. You end up using the draft you create in this class in your final thesis.

Is this self-plagiarism?
Generally, no. Most Master’s programs allow students to include a certain amount of previous research in their final thesis. Check with your program’s requirements to see exactly how much is allowed.

While conducting research, you build upon a previously published study you authored. You decide to use a few quotes in your new article to help explain the previous study and provide context. You cite yourself accordingly.

Is this self-plagiarism?
No. Sometimes citing a previous study is necessary and, as long as it’s properly done, this is perfectly fine.

You are working as a researcher and are getting ready for a review of all your publications. You need to reach a certain number of publications in order to be promoted. You send an article using a subset of previously published work to a journal, with no acknowledgement of the previous use of the data.

Is this self-plagiarism?
Yes. Not only is this self-plagiarism, this could potentially be copyright infringement.

Conclusion

Self-plagiarism exists in a confusing grey area, but once you’re familiar with the concept, it’s easy to navigate. As long as you double-check what the policies surrounding plagiarism are, you’ll be able to avoid any possibility of committing self-plagiarism.

If you’re still unsure about plagiarism, read more about the types of plagiarism, use our plagiarism checker or take a look at our in-depth comparison of the best plagiarism checkers for students.

Still have some questions? Here are some sources we found helpful:
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Lorenza Shabe

Lorenza is an academic writing expert. She has a Master's in English Literature and Creative Writing and a background in Political Science. She works tirelessly on improving Scribbr's Knowledge Base content.

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