Who’s the Victim of Self-Plagiarism?

Self Plagiarism_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

Recently, in Simon, Schuster, & Shame, I decried a major publisher’s recent acquisition of noted plagiarist and fabricator Jonah Lehrer’s newest project, a book about love, which has already received questions about its originality. Of all the examples of dishonesty in publishing I’ve discussed on my blog,** from Kaavya Viswanathan’s borrowing from “chick lit” novels to Jane Goodall’s lifting from Wikipedia, I find Mr. Lehrer’s transgressions to be among the most egregious, both for his fraudulent “invention” of Bob Dylan quotes and for the sheer volume of his dishonest actions.

The majority of Mr. Lehrer’s infractions appear to be self-plagiarism, where he lifted portions of previously published materials and inserted it into “new” publications without disclosing it. This type of plagiarism usually doesn’t generate the same level of outrage as other forms of dishonesty in writing, such as plagiarism of other people’s works and fabrication.

In cases of self-plagiarism, plagiarism of others, and to a lesser extent, even fabrication, we can see how even well-intentioned authors can fall prey to temptation in our time-pressured publishing culture. We can even see how questionable examples of plagiarism happen by accident, such as when an author copies a couple of paragraphs verbatim from a previous publication (their own or someone else’s), intends to re-write it or build on it, but fails to tweak it enough and forgets to cite it properly.

Even when the intellectual dishonesty happens purposefully, as opposed to negligently, self-plagiarism doesn’t have quite the same level of intent to mislead readers for personal gain in comparison to a plagiarist who falsely attributes other people’s content to himself or a fabricator who makes up material and passes it off as non-fiction (as Lehrer did–this outright lying is particularly terrible).  With these latter two forms of dishonesty, there are often clear victims who might have claims under copyright or defamation law: the author whose work was lifted without proper attribution or royalties, and the public or private figure who never said the words attributed to them.

It’s harder to see who is victimized by self-plagiarism. The author whose work was lifted is the one who did the lifting! It’s also probably not the reader, except to the extent she paid money for recycled content she may have previously purchased. Rather, the victims of self-plagiarism are the publisher who contracted to have a new publication from the author and the publisher of the old publication, who no longer has an exclusive. These victims may have legal recourse under contract law or, if they hold the rights, under copyright law. Then there is the issue of how an author lists recycled publications on a resume, bibliography, or biography. It would be misleading to list them separately if they are substantially similar, and it could be problematic if an author fails to disclose recycled material to a hiring or tenure committee in a field where publishing is central, such as in academia or journalism.

So, writers need to be careful about self-plagiarism. What may seem like “stealing” content from themselves — which doesn’t sound so bad — could really be stealing from someone else (the publisher of the previous work) and often requires lying by omission to others (their new publisher or a hiring committee) about the originality of those words and ideas. Even if self-plagiarism doesn’t really change anything in the essential relationship between authors and readers, it may change everything in the relationship between authors and publishers.

**Relevant previous posts, in addition to Simon, Schuster, & Shame (linked above):


  1. Wow! I didn’t even know you could self-plagiarize. But I’m glad to read your response to the last commentor because I’ve done the same thing. And I was wondering who would be hurt, anyway, in that instance.

    1. Yeah, I doubt it’s a problem for most bloggers because we don’t usually have publishers or contracts for the material we post on our blogs. It’s just something to keep in mind!

  2. Interesting point – I never thought about self plagiarizing and its effect on the publishers. I always viewed self plagiarizing as more of a victimless crime – still not a good thing to do, but not really hurting anyone, but I see your point here. And I agree it’s a shame Jonah Lehrer is getting this huge book deal so soon after he was discovered to be plagiarizing, not only himself, but also making up quotes. I guess it’s one of those any attention is good attention kinds of things.

    1. I can’t understand what Simon & Schuster is thinking! It’s hard to believe that they would do such a thing when there are so many deserving new writers out there. I hope Lehrer’s book doesn’t sell.

  3. Self plagiarism happens all the time, especially on blogs, but I guess there isn’t really anything wrong with it if there isn’t a copyright or contract violation. I don’t like reading the same thing over and over again, though.

    1. Yeah, it does happen often on blogs (and I believe some of Lehrer’s self-plagiarism was related to blogging). However, for most independent bloggers, I doubt it’s a problem because they don’t have publishers or contracts for their work.

  4. This is very timely for me as I was just discussing self-plagiarism with the head of our PhD program this week. Apparently this is an issue for many PhD students, as they will submit an article to multiple journals at the same time without realizing that they can’t ethically do so. Seems as if writers at large need to be more aware of this issue.

    1. Yes, self-plagiarism is particularly risky in academia. I hope your department comes up with a good way of explaining it to your PhD students.

  5. I guess it is good that I don’t write for money, because I have done this in blog posts. I rarely can turn a phrase like a good writer, so when I say something that has profound meaning or strings together a flowing phrase… of course, applicable to my story… and heck, just sounds good to the ear… I will use it again. I never noticed an author doing this in novels. I just am not that avid of a reader I guess. It seems not an issue to be bothered with, but I really do see your point from the publisher’s view.

    We do this in architecture all the time in building design. The CAD detail, specifications, the type of fenestration, even entire wall facades…all cut and paste. All drawings are contractual too. Computers allowed this so easily. It did not happen as frequently (tracings) with hand drawings, so I see this as the reason for writer’s as well. Hand drawing is a slow process, allowing one to think things through more easily. Not that writers hand write a story or ever really did, but on a typewriter, mistakes were not as easily erased. Now alterations and corrections are instantaneous. So is plopping in a few paragraphs of text.

    1. I think you’re in very good company–just about everyone has cut and pasted material from a previous work into a new document. It really isn’t a problem unless someone other than the author holds the copyright and/or there’s a contract. So, bloggers don’t really have anything to worry about. Besides, having read your blog for quite some time now, I think you build on previous posts and always add stunning pictures. That makes it different, at least to me.

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