Self-plagiarism? Are you serious?

So the charge has been thrown down: Denver Post political columnist Mike Rosen is a plagiarist. Of whom? Himself.

I am not making this up.

The charge is that Rosen copied columns he had written in the past nearly word for word and simply recycled them. My thoughts on this pretty much parallel what Rosen said:

When contacted about the columns, Rosen responded via e-mail with this: “So what? I’ve been writing columns for 30 years. What’s his point, that I’m plagiarizing myself? No need to reinvent the wheel when the same issues resurface. Presumably, some new readers haven’t read all my past columns. As William F. Buckley, Jr. once said, ‘Repetition is the price of mastery.’ I’m flattered that your ‘tipster’ follows me so closely. Sounds like someone who disagrees with my views wanting to be a nuisance.”

As some commentators note, you can’t plagiarize yourself. It’s by definition impossible. Plagiarism is taking the ideas of others without citing them, and you’re not a separate person from yourself. (Unless we’re in some bizarre posthumanist fiction where you can multiple copies of yourself and consider them the same person. Food for thought.) So then why is this a problem?

My father went to seminary to get a Masters of Divinity–essentially he went to grad school for preachers. One of the things that they drilled into him there (and which he told me; he loves telling me stories about seminary) is that you have to cite everything, which amazingly includes yourself. Otherwise you then commit the sin of self-plagiarism, and apparently have to go through the same judicial process as if you plagiarized someone else. (Unless you plagiarized Chuck Norris, in which you just die. Horribly.)

Just look at some of these academic sources; The Scientist writes that some journals who “have retracted papers in response” to self-plagiarism, which is the academic equivalent of being crucified. A PhD at St. Johns University has a whole section about avoiding it. And there’s even a tool to help find self-plagiarized papers.

Notice a pattern; this problem only seems to exist in the realm of academia, a place that, from my experience, is quite divorced from reality. Such as with this. They’ve made up a false “crime,” one that is impossible to commit by definition. In the academic world, they’re trying to cut down on people who are trying to “cheat” and boost their publication history by trying to get papers, although I would quibble as to if that is actually cheating and instead just good business sense. (And what is getting higher publication numbers to boost your career if not a business?) But in the real world, it doesn’t hold any water whatsoever.

Is it lazy? Sure. And while we should always avoid laziness in writing, sometimes, good ideas bear repeating. Rosen should have noted that he wrote the column before, and was recycling text; that’s just plain courtesy to one’s readers. But is it unethical? Hardly. If repetition was truly unethical, then we should all be condemning Micky D’s not for their burgers making us fat, but because the burgers are all the same.

This brings up another question, though: do Rosen’s readers deserve to know that he’s running a rerun (as one commentator put it)? I’m rather mixed. As I stated above, it would be a courtesy, and it certainly couldn’t hurt. But do readers deserve it? I think not. On the web its less important, but in print there’s limited space, so you can’t, sometimes, fit in disclaimers. (Online, the same guideline applies to Twitter and other microblogging platforms. And yes, I have seen that come up.) And if readers haven’t seen the previous material anyways–what’s the problem?

Self-plagiarism is a joke. A bad one. And people who “call in” to “snitch” on columnists doing it need to be told to go sit in the corner while the adults actually work on getting things done.

  • Rasilio

    Ah not true, It also exists in the realm of copyright law…

    http://www.spinner.com/2010/05/14/john-fogerty-creedence-clearwater-revival/

    True Fogerty did eventually win the case, however the fact that it was not instantly thrown out as being without merit shows that it is considered a valid legal theory.

    • Jeremy

      I think we need to be careful here. Just because someone sues doesn’t mean they really have a leg to stand on. You can sue anybody for literally anything, and I guarantee you that out there, you can find an attorney to represent you. (Remember that woman who sued McDonald’s because their food made her fat?) Legal theory is really only the theory of hoodwinking others, at least in this day and age, and I think we both know that.

      There is some question over whether the Rocky Mountain News has the copyright to some of his older columns, but since the News went under I’m not really sure.