Can You Plagiarize Yourself?

by Steve Laube

Recently John Lehrer of “The New Yorker” was discovered to have reused past material for his articles and his bestselling book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  Here are links to the articles unveiling the controversy. From Jim Romenesko, Jacob Silverman, and Edward Champion. There has been considerable outrage and a genuine apology from John Lehrer.

This incident begs the question, “Can you plagiarize yourself?”

First you have to define plagiarism. The traditional definition is copying someone else’s words word-for-word without acknowledged of some kind, intentionally or not. In the United States this is actually illegal.

But what if the words are your own?

In magazine writing it is a common practice to sell an article’s “First Rights” to one publication and then sell “Reprint Rights” to other magazines. I jokingly say that you can use the same article multiple times by selling it to the Baptist’s denominational magazine, then the Presbyterians, then the Methodist, and then the Nazarenes…because those groups don’t read each other’s material! I met one man who sold the same article over 100 times over a number of years to over 100 different periodicals. The difference here is that this is not plagiarism because the writer is openly offering “Reprint Rights” and the magazine knows they are buying something that showed up elsewhere.

But can you “repurpose” a blog post or an article and reuse it? This starts to get trickier. John Lehrer of “The New Yorker” did not “repurpose” something, he simply lifted full sections and reused them without telling anyone.

If I were to be asked to write three separate articles on the topic “How to Fix a Flat Tire” I would be hard pressed to be completely unique in all three articles. The principles for fixing a tire are the same no matter how you approach the task. But maybe I could find a nuance to make each article unique. And I would have to be careful not to simply lift paragraphs and reuse them unedited. Otherwise I would be plagiarizing…or being sloppy.

In a book contract there is a Warranty clause that reads in part “the Work is original, has not been published before.” And if a chapter had once been an article or a blog post (yes, a blog post is “published in that it is freely available on the Internet) your contract would have to then be adapted to read “Portions of the Work have been previously published in periodicals. The Work, in whole, has not been previously published and is not in the public domain.” This fact is then revealed on the copyright page of the final edition of the book. Many professional columnists do this when converting their work into book form.

In a recent case we had to negotiate with the publisher because much of the material for the book was on the author’s blog. He did not want to have it removed from the Internet, so we negotiated accordingly to make sure the material was different in scope, citation, and expression. Such that it would still “feel” new to a reader who had already read it on the web. The publisher of course was concerned that a reader could get the material for free so what would be the motivation to purchase a copy? Often a publisher will ask the author to remove the disputed article from their blog to avoid any trouble. But this shows the difference from the John Lehrer case. Mr. Lehrer failed to tell his editors that he was copying phrases and content from previous material.

You see the difference? One used full disclosure and cooperation of the editor and publisher. The other did not.

So what is the bottom line?

The question is “can you plagiarize yourself?” Of course you “can.” A better question would be “Should You Plagiarize Yourself? My answer would be “Not if you can avoid it.” If you are converting a blog, columns, or articles into book form be sure to have an open conversation with your editor, agent, and publisher. If you plan on trying to sneak by with a shortcut…you may suffer the consequences of a ruined reputation and a loss of trust by readers, editors, publishers, and even your agent. Just be careful.

UPDATE:
On February 12th, 2013 Jonah Lehrer made an apology as part of his speech at a Knight Foundation Seminar. (link to story here). Two weeks later his publisher pulled another of Mr. Lehrer’s books off the shelves and is offering refunds to anyone who purchased it. According to this linked article from The Daily Beast, “an internal review uncovered significant problems with the book.” The article goes on to show material from the now discontinued book that could possibly have been drawn from Wikipedia.

UPDATE 2:
On June 6, 2013 it was announced that Simon & Schuster had contracted Mr. Lehrer’s new book on the power of love. Slate magazine journalist Daniel Engber wonders if the proposal content had plagiarized content in it. (Click here for the details.) In the second half of the article Engber cites Lehrer’s use or adaptation of lengthy quotations from another author’s essay.

UPDATE 3:
On September 13, 2013 a plagiarism controversy struck the Australian poetry community. Read about the scandal here.

23 Responses to Can You Plagiarize Yourself?

  1. Jennifer Dyer July 9, 2012 at 4:55 am #

    Good info. Thanks. I had heard an author state she resisted blogging until she realized each blog was a prep for a chapter in her books. Though she probably knew the finer details of what that entailed, there are a lot of bloggers who don’t. I do agree simply cutting and pasting, especially without referencing, is lazy and sloppy, but I’d never thought about it being termed plagiarizing. Wow.

  2. Timothy Fish July 9, 2012 at 4:55 am #

    By the legal definition you linked to, it is not possible for an author to plagiarize himself. Even if he could, there would be no legal remedy for his action because he cannot sue himself. This appears to be more an issue of fraud.

  3. JennyM July 9, 2012 at 5:32 am #

    My husband *gets to* review scientific papers for peer reviews prior to journal publication.

    Envy him, all who dare…

    Last year he reviewed Paper A and later in the year(or when he woke up) reviewed Paper B, both by the same author.
    And both were the same paper, with data reorganized, new titles and tweeked to look different.
    Hello massive career fail. The guy was called on the carpet and told in no uncertain terms, that he was committing a huge fraud and was plagiarizing.

    *IF* Paper B had been a second part to Paper A, it would have been a case of sloppy writing and sad data collecting and analysis. But because he tried to pass Paper B off as a stand alone, he crashed and burned.

    Gone are the days when 5 people read a scientific journal, or maybe not, but hello? Google? Any search engine can find almost anything!!

    What is that saying? If you always tell the truth, you don’t need a good memory.

  4. Meghan Carver July 9, 2012 at 7:59 am #

    Of course, Michael Hyatt can turn blog posts into a book with wild success. For the rest of us whose blogs barely qualify as Michael Hyatt’s navel lint, it’s good advice. Thanks.

  5. Diana Harkness July 9, 2012 at 8:27 am #

    So true. However, I had heard at a writers’ conference (I think it was last year’s Indianapolis Christian Writer’s Conference) that blog posts were not considered “publishing.” Does that mean that my posts can never be turned into a non-fiction book of essays or poetry because i have already given up first rights by blogging them? Of course the essays would need to be polished for a book, but they would still be sufficiently similar for plagiarism to occur. If that is true, how can I maintain a blog which I need to do to build a platform? Sounds like a Catch-22 to me.

    • Steve Laube July 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

      Blog posts are not “publishing” per se, but they are, by virtual of putting them on the Internet, now public and available for anyone to use.

      Imagine you are the big NY publisher and you want Steve Laube’s book on theology. Then after the book is published someone writes a review that says, “Don’t buy the book, you can find the whole thing on Laube’s blog. Save your dough and visit his site where it is free.” That is what publishers object to.

      In the “New Yorker” case cited in the blog the writer re-used entire sections of previously published material without telling anyone they had been previously published. As was mentioned by another commenter above, this is tantamount to fraud.

      • Diana Harkness July 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

        Thanks for the clarification. Would a publisher be likely to agree to a clause in which the writer would agree to redact or remove the post(s) on or before publishing date?

  6. Peter DeHaan July 9, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    It is a dicey world we live in. Thanks for the insight.

    • Lisa Cunningham February 14, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

      When in doubt, ask a lawyer or another expert. Your reputation is all you have. Once you lose your credibility, you have nothing. Game over.

      Blog posts, to me, are published on the Internet. Don’t see how you could make an argument against that.

  7. Charles Bailey July 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    What’s the situation then if a writer later publishes a book that had prevously been submitted, chapter by chapter, to his critique group?

    • Steve Laube July 9, 2012 at 3:21 pm #

      Charles,
      Showing chapters to a critique group is not publishing it.

      What my post is discussing are a situation where an author re-used their own material and called it original. Thus if you post something on your blog and later publish it without telling anyone that it can be found for free on a blog somewhere, that could spell trouble.

  8. sally apokedak July 10, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    Fascinating. I’d never thought about this, before. But it does make sense for you to tell your publisher you are cobbling together published pieces.

  9. Everett Vinzant January 5, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    First:

    B.S. That is what this work amounts to. You mentioned sloppy writing in your article, and then executed it. Example:

    This incident begs the question, “Can you plagiarize yourself?”

    Learn to use “begs the question” correctly. Begging the question has to do with circular logic and asking a question with an assumed answer in it. Example:

    Do your parents know your a terrible writer?

    That would be begging the question.

    Second, the LEGAL definition (and one that counts, not B.S. opinion like yours) of plagiarism involves copying SOMEONE ELSE’S work. You CAN NOT get there by copying your own work. Saying you can is a lie. End of discussion.

    A real article on this subject:
    http://matthewemay.com/2012/06/21/jonah-lehrer-brouhaha-crap/

    Last, you HAVE NOT substantiated that you CAN plagiarize yourself. You jump to, “yes you can,” by going through, “because I said so.” WRONG! Provide SOME modicum of proof.

    Have a nice day.

    • Steve Laube January 5, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      Mr. Vinzant,
      I appreciate you taking the time to critique the blog post. I’m sorry that my words have angered you.

      The paragraph in my post referring to the Warranty clause in a book contract is where I was trying to focus. If an author signs a contract that guarantees originality and fails to acknowledge that the content was previously published then that author is potentially in violation of said contract. Is that plagiarism of oneself? Not according to the strict definition you have cited, but in a loose sense it can be described as such. It is copying one’s own work without revealing that fact. And, if I understand the story correctly, that became the issue with Mr. Lehrer.

      As for my use of the phrase “begging the question”? Point taken. I’ve never claimed to be a writer and my mom, an English teacher, tried her best when I was in school. Any failings are my own.

      • Everett Vinzant August 15, 2013 at 8:48 am #

        Mr. Laube,

        I owe you a huge apology. I was doing some work regarding plagarism and found my tirade above. I have no idea why I behaved so poorly, and documented such foolishness on my part. I hope you will leave what I said with this on your site. I do not know why I was angry, but wish that I had handled myself differently.

        Everett

      • Steve Laube August 15, 2013 at 9:20 am #

        Everett,

        Thank you. Apology accepted.

        Steve

    • Roy January 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

      “Do your parents know YOUR a terrible writer?”

    • Kathy January 15, 2014 at 6:19 am #

      Wow! I bet you are a real joy to be around!

  10. Jeffrey Crabtree July 26, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    Colleagues and I have submitted a grant application to the US Department of Education. We are also finishing a manuscript that addresses the same issues as discussed in the grant proposal. The ultimate purposes of grant application and paper are somewhat different, but many of the arguments and supporting literature (citations and references) are the same. Considering this very brief description, am I possibly plagiarizing myself?

  11. patti iverson September 7, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

    Mr. Steve Laube, YOU are a class act.

    • Shulamit January 17, 2014 at 8:25 am #

      Indeed, Steve, you are.

      I will add, that it is absolutely possible to plagiarize ones self, at least in the area of academia. Pick up any book off the shelf that has citations, and if the citations are all at the end (rather than after each chapter) it will be clear that the expert who wrote the book carefully cited themselves each time they used their own previous work.

      In university, if a student uses passages from their own previous papers, this will usually show up, since most universities now have students run their papers through an online process to filter for plagiarism, and self-plagiarism is absolutely considered just the same.

      The student is allowed to cite themselves, like they would cite anyone else, but uncited writing is expected to be original in all ways. Students complain about this every term. And every term are told the same thing: if the words are not your own original words for this paper, and you do not cite where they came from, it is plagiarism, even if you wrote them the first time.

      It actually makes sense. Imagine a future scholar trying to cite a particular passage, and not being able to pin down its origin, because the author self-plagiarized? It is exactly the same problem as not citing in the first place. Except in self-plagiarizing, there is the added sin of fraudulently trying to get paid twice for supposedly original writing.

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    [...] Fabricates Bob Dylan Quotes – A few weeks ago I did a post asking “Can You Plagiarize Yourself” because of certain discoveries found in the book Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah [...]

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