Dear Aristotle,

Is self-plagiarism ethical? Would I be doing something wrong if I did self-plagiarize?


Hello, Harrison. 

Let us start (as much of philosophy starts) with defining our terms. You didn’t say exactly what you meant by ‘self-plagiarism,’ and the concept is an ethically complicated one. ‘Plagiarizing’ simpliciter, is something along the lines of, ‘passing off the ideas/work of another person as your own.’ Hence, ‘self’ plagiarizing is almost contradictory when taken at face value: it seems to amount to passing off your own ideas as your own ideas. But “passing off” seems a strange way to describe things, since your own ideas cannot be the ideas of anyone other than yourself. 

Notwithstanding the above, at the core of the ethics of plagiarizing (regular plagiarizing) includes, (1) deception, i.e., the plagiarizer suggests that certain ideas are their own ideas when, in fact, they are not, and, (2) doing the first part without permission. Hence, ‘self-plagiarizing’ might be a term for situations in which an author uses his or her own work in a deceptive fashion, and second, doing this without permission from relevant authority figures. 

As a student, Harrison, you might have in mind using the work you did for a ‘Course 1,’ and turning it in for a different course, ‘Course 2.’ Perhaps you are taking Course 2 a few semesters after Course 1. There seem two ethical issues at the center of the just mentioned type of ‘self-plagiarism’ The first concerns justice. Justice consists in persons getting what they deserve, while injustice occurs when persons get more or less than they deserve. Students who use work from a previous course for a current course are likely getting more credit than they deserve, which would be an injustice. The point of a college degree is to demonstrate completion of a certain amount of educational training. And the point of taking different courses is a means to complete this educational training. Hence, by receiving credit twice for the same work, students are walking away with educational credit that they did not really earn. 

Second, it says a few things about an individual’s character when they self-plagiarize in the way described Self-plagiarizing is typically deceptive, because if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t really be plagiarism: if your professor gave you permission to use the same work as you completed previously, then you would still be completing the educational training as designed by the instructor. Most likely, self-plagiarizing students are hiding the fact that they are using the same work twice, because these students know that doing this goes against the design of the course. The students want to hide the fact that they are not completing the course as designed. This type of deceptive behavior might speak to a deeper problem involving a student’s consistent tendency to pretend that they are doing things that they really aren’t doing, or more generally, pretending to accomplish things that they really did not accomplish. Centuries after my death, philosopher Adam Smith wrote about a vice that he called vanity. Smith described vanity as the tendency to feel comfortable with praise, credit, and accolades that are unearned and undeserved. So perhaps even ethically worse than the act of self-plagiarism, would be if a student was comfortable with self-plagiarism. Being comfortable with self-plagiarism might be a sign of the vice of vanity. 



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