I was going to write about e-readers today. Then I opened my school email and received back from my professor a paper that I had recently submitted. There was a friendly reminder from my professor to avoid plagiarism. Sound awful doesn't it? What did I do?

Did I copy someone else's work and pass it off as my own? Did I quote someone and fail to cite them? Did quote someone wrong? Nope.

What I did was I used one sentence in two separate papers. Now, please understand I'm not railing against my professor. He is just fulfilling his job requirements. He's enforcing a bad rule.

I have often said that I think Academia has lost touch with reality. The stereotype of an Academic is a stereotype because there are too many rules, and regulations that make no sense. They create confusion and cause people who live in "the real world" to scratch their heads and wonder what in the world just happened.

Think about what I just told you. Writing the same sentence twice in two separate papers could be plagiarism. Well, let's look at the definition of plagiarism.

According to my school's own webpage:


Plagiarism is when an author represents someone else's intellectual property as his or her own work (Emphasis mine).  Authors are most commonly at risk of plagiarizing when they fail to adequately cite the original source material from which they took words and ideas. Plagiarism can occur in many forms and can range from a lack of citations to incorrect paraphrasing or actual direct copy and pasting of a source's phrasing into another author's own paper.

According to dictionary.com


the unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work, as by not crediting the author:

Then how does one self-plagiarize? Well, evidently you can’t but according to this writer, it violates the “spirit of scholarly research."

Say what?

Now, what is interesting is that I am guessing that almost all academics don't actually follow this rule when they are presenting their ideas. They're presenting those ideas over and over again in many different venues.

And I want them to keep doing that. Ideas are not concrete. They change shape over time. They never leave an interaction the same way they came to it. They evolve. We need them to do that. One paper submitted to me will elicit different responses than the same paper submitted to you. Learning is not an assembly line production, no matter how much we may try to make it be one. It is a living breathing interaction.

The problem is that this rule is saying that ideas cannot change. Moreover, they are attempting to pretend that courses and classes are not alike. That too much of time spent in school is looking at the same material over and over again. How else could a student offer a paper in two classes and the paper be of value to both classes if we take this "infraction" away? What's interesting to me, is that in my case it wasn't even one paper for two classes. It was one sentence for two assignments on the same topic!

Who is being stolen from? Who is being protected by this rule? Academia's own self sense of importance is being protected and that's about it, in my opinion. Thankfully, I am not alone. This writer agrees with me.

Here's a long quote from the piece:

But—practically speaking—the opportunity to reuse a paper might arise only once or twice in a student's career, thanks to the diversity of our course assignments and disciplines. A paper assignment that a student gets in my English class on 20th-century literature won't be anything like her assignment in Renaissance literature—much less from psychology or sociology. Because the content of courses differs so much, the opportunity to use the same paper will happen only rarely.

But when it does, why not allow a student to take advantage of the opportunity? Suppose a student writes a final research paper for an introductory psychology course in the fall semester of her freshman year, and receives helpful suggestions on it from the professor. That same student then takes an English-composition course with me in the spring, and I assign an open-topic research paper to finish the semester.

Why should I not encourage the student to revise her psychology paper, according to both the guidance she received from her previous professor and the new writing principles she has learned in my course? She couldn't merely turn in her old paper; it would have to fulfill the requirements of my assignment. The student would not only get the opportunity to return to a set of ideas she thought she had finished, but the assignment would also reinforce the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge and the curriculum.

No doubt, she might end up doing less work than a student who wrote a paper from scratch in my composition course. But does that really matter?

To borrow a phrase from the late eighties, we need to "stop the madness!!! (uncited)"

So of course, the question is what will I do. Obviously, I want to graduate my program. I've contacted three different people from my school expressing my frustration with this rule. I have written an email to the in house "expert" on plagiarism and cheating. I am waiting to hear back from him. I have written the official APA guidelines page and they have responded that they are unclear about this application of the rule. I will look up the rule in own APA guide manual when I get home tonight.

All of that to say I don't see much I can do except start conversations like this one. Some day, I'll have my degree. Things change because ideas get shared. I hope that my daughter's can go through school without having to deal with this type of absurdity.

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  1. Agree! I laugh at the idea of original thought. Is there such thing? Academia has taken things way to seriously!

  2. I submitted my research paper on nuclear facilities and their vulnerability to human error, natural disasters and terrorism. 4 seperate sentences were borrowed from a paper I wrote 4 years ago while creating a fake nuclear disaster scenario. 2 sentences were facility facts, the other 2 were my topic drivers in my own words. So, turnitin.com gave me a 3% similarity rating to the previously submitted paper. This is my last master’s class before my thesis. As you noted, our classes can have repetitive themes, so reusing some of your own work can happen. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with borrowing 4 sentences. In a side by side comparison, these are far from being the same paper. I guess I’ll wait and see what the teacher says. I figure if it becomes a major issue, I’ll just give her the other paper to show that this paper was new research. I

  3. Hi Georgie,
    I think you should be good to go at 3%. My understanding is that normally 20% is what tips the scale. Still, the idea of self-plagiarism is just silly.

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