Corbett: ‘I think we should all stop using the term “self-plagiarism” ‘

Most, if not all, the many articles about Jonah Lehrer this week have described what he did as self-plagiarism.

Lehrer reused previously published sentences and paragraphs form his work and presented them as new in the New Yorker and other places. At least 13 times, according to the latest count.

But the Lehrer incident led several journalists to suggest that self-plagiarism is an inaccurate term, and in some cases to propose an alternate.

First was Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple with a post this morning:

Enough with “self-plagiarism.” Plagiarism means taking someone else’s work and representing it as your own. Lehrer took his own work and presented it as his own (fresh) work. That’s bad, but it’s not so bad that it should be described with any variant of the term “plagiarism.”

During a Poynter chat today (scroll to the bottom for a replay), Mallary Tenore asked participants, including me, if the term fits the crime. Reuters Jack Shafer said it doesn’t:

The writer in me rejects the term. Am I stealing from myself when I withdraw money from my bank account? No. So it’s not plagiarism … it’s something stranger. But what?!

I also received a comment today from Phil Corbett, The New York Times associate managing editor for standards.

“I don’t mean to split hairs, but I think we should all stop using the term ‘self-plagiarism,’” he wrote in an email. “It confuses the issues, and it’s a contradiction in terms. Plagiarism by definition is passing someone else’s work off as your own. You can’t plagiarize your own work.”

He continued:

Recycling previously published material, without letting readers or editors know, may be bad; it may be lazy; in many cases it may be completely unacceptable. But it ain’t plagiarism.

So of it’s not plagiarism, what is it? Shafer offered his preferred term in the chat:

What Lehrer did is clearly an act of onanism.

Let me save you the time of looking it up (I had to), and just note that it means masturbation.

A crafty word, but will it resonate with people who didn’t receive Jesuit schooling?

Wemple half-jokingly offered another term: Recycliarism.

I replied to Corbett to see if he thought  “recycling material” was preferable, since he used it in his email. But I also noted that, “as a term it may lack the element of deception when applied to people who do this and do not properly disclose it.”

Would that mean we use “recycling material” and “recycling material without disclosure”? Or “onanism” and “abusive onanism”?

There seem to be levels of severity with the recycling of material. One key element is whether it was done deceptively; another key element, whether it was done repeatedly.

Rather than focus on a new term, however, Corbett suggested we should strive to be more clear about what happened.

“You’re right that ‘recycling material,’ by itself, is probably inadequate since in some cases recycling might be O.K., whereas in other cases it’s clearly not,” he wrote. “Maybe we just need to use a few more words to explain what actually happened. But I do worry that ‘self-plagiarism’ muddies the waters.”

Related disclosure: Craig Silverman was a candidate for The New York Times Public Editor job when he wrote this story.

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    In science it’s called “salami slicing”, when a research group unethically repeatedly publishes slightly different reports on the same basic experiments to increase their publication rate.

  • Gary Warner

    As an editor who has purchased freelance material in the days before and after digital, it’s clearly what we used to call “shotgunning” or “double dipping.” You rework articles so they are slightly different enough from what you sent to another publication, making changes in substance and style to match the publication. It didn’t used to matter to anyone who didn’t have a Nexis Lexis account and could compare something in the Miami Herald with something in The Orange County Register. But today it is all out there (as is much of the old stuff through Google’s archival efforts). I am more concerned with what seems to be indications that Lehrer is taking quotes from others works and passing them off as his own reporting – or at least not making the point clear. That’s not just sloppy or expedient  - that’s wrong. 
    – Gary Warner, Travel Editor, OC Register

  • aperobot

    In editorial/freelance circles, I’ve heard it referred to as “double dipping.” Basically, you get paid twice for the same work in passing off the same story as an “exclusive” to multiple publications.