What's Wrong With Students Reusing Papers?

from the double-standards dept

Copycense points us to a story by English professor, James Lang, who notes that many universities and professors say that it's unethical or against school rules for students to reuse papers for multiple courses, but the more he thinks about it, the more he wonders why this is wrong, noting that professors do this all the time, reusing papers, presentations, research and lesson plans. Even if the idea is that students are supposed to "do work," it's not clear that there's anything wrong with a student reusing a paper, as long as it suffices for the assignment:
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.
The article is based around the question of whether it's okay to "plagiarize yourself," but I worry that even that's a bit misleading. You can't plagiarize yourself. Plagiarism is about passing off someone else's work as your own. Reusing work is not the same thing at all, but is a separate issue -- and one that doesn't really seem to be much of a problem once you think about it.


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  1.  
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    MrWilson, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 9:27pm

    When I was in school, I reused a paper once or twice. Of course it was necessary to tweak the paper for the second usage since instructor requirements might vary. But since everything a student creates ultimately comes from research they've conducted or experiences they've had and is filtered through their brain, why does it matter if the particular ideas happen to be viable for more than one assignment or have previously been articulated by the student in written form prior to the assignment being assigned?

    Instructors sure as hell reuse ideas. In fact, a lot of my instructors reused obsolete ideas. Try taking a computer science class from a guy who stopped learning new technology when he quit working at IBM twenty years ago in order to teach.

     

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    Andrew (profile), Oct 14th, 2010 @ 9:30pm

    I've done it

    My freshman year my history and English classes both assigned an open topic research paper for the end of the semester. I chose the same topic for both and used the same paper as it met the requirements for each. I did ask the professor for the class which had a later due date if it was acceptable and he saw no problem with it. I think most professors would understand that as long as the student did the work it doesn't matter whom it was done for. Students have enough work as it is, if they can find a way to knock out two papers with one stone why not?

     

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    Robert Ring (profile), Oct 14th, 2010 @ 9:31pm

    Yeah, I actually did this once in college, using just a paragraph or so from one paper in another paper, not realizing it was even considered "self-plagiarization" until I read about it a few months later in the MLA handbook.

    Guess I got a way with it.

    I can actually see the argument against this for academic purposes, though -- that it lessens the student's ability to learn from the class. But, as the article says, people do this frequently in the professional world, so I would think it should ultimately be considered okay for students, since part of college is preparing students for careers.

     

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    Robert Ring (profile), Oct 14th, 2010 @ 9:31pm

    Re:

    Oops. "away with it" -- not "a way with it"

     

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    MrWilson, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 9:47pm

    Re:

    "that it lessens the student's ability to learn from the class"

    This is where my problem lies with a lot of what goes on in higher education.

    It's all based on assumptions.

    There's an assumption that you actually learn something in a class, but this doesn't account for the possibility that you had already learned what you might have otherwise gotten out of the class. If you already learned what you needed to know to write a paper that fit the requirements of the course because you'd already written the paper, why should you have to "learn" what you already know?

    There's a grand assumption that you will have gained something valuable after taking so many courses. There's an even grander assumption that having a piece of paper that indicates that you took a bunch of classes means you're competent on some level. I've met people with masters degrees and even PHDs who have no common sense and all the book-learning in the world won't help them to function in society.

    The greatest value generated by college is that of the value of the student loan debt you've taken on for someone else's financial benefit.

    The piece of paper gets you the interview. Your future boss' incompetence gets you the job. And then you realize that if you could have gotten away with lying about having a degree, you could have done just as well in the job 4-6 years ago and saved yourself the hassle and debt.

    /rant

     

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    Aerilus, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 10:27pm

    Yea but

    Can I site Wikipedia?

     

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    Jesse, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 10:31pm

    This is something I've said for a long time now.

    A) You can't plagiarize yourself. At least pick another word.

    B) If, by some chance, you can reuse a paper, what does that say about the course, that overlaps so much with other courses that a student could use the same assignments? And you are calling ME unoriginal? I'm just supposed to pretend so that you can get away with lazy assignment creation?

     

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    Aerilus, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 10:31pm

    Re: Re:

    the assumption is that higher education is about education and if higher education has taught me anything its that higher education is about assimilation.

     

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    Ryan Diederich, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 10:42pm

    Re: Yea but

    Lol

    I use Wikipedia every time I write a research paper. You can never cite wikipedia, but cite the sources that wikipedia cites. It is, by far, the most complete collection of topics and citations and information. I hate when teachers tell people not to use it.


    The situation has not yet arisin for me to use a past paper. Even if it did, I doubt I would be able to find it anyways.

    Different classes do have different requirements. As long as you are doing the things required, it doesnt matter.

    For example, my english class requires me to write a narrative essay on the topic of my choice. Obviously, the goal is to get experience writing a narrative essay. I wouldnt (and shouldnt) turn in a narrative essay that I had already written on a topic, where the goal of the assignment was to learn how to use dialogue, for instance.

    Then again, if it is college, you should simply do whatever you please. It is your money, and you decide how much you get for it.

     

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    Ben Strom (profile), Oct 14th, 2010 @ 10:44pm

    used the same paper at least 5 times

    i wrote a paper on the tuskegee airmen that i used in high school history (12th grade), high school english (12th grade), college composition, college history class, and adapted it to a speech for speech class.

    Each time i added to it and changed things, but the basic framework was there.

     

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    CharlieM (profile), Oct 14th, 2010 @ 11:08pm

    You 'can' plagurize yourself... sort of

    Mike, while you may be correct in that plagiarizing "is about passing off someone else's work as your own". It is also understood to have an additional component, in that the work you are presenting is ‘original’.

    Take for example a paper where I prove ‘fact A’, and publish that fact. Five years later, I do additional work on the subject; if I was to represent the work as proving ‘fact A’, without citing my previous work, then that would be ‘self-plagiarizing’, as I would be taking credit for proving the same thing twice.

    Now, the simple way around this (and would work for the academic examples presented in your post) would be to simply cite your previous work. Even if it was not published, you can still cite yourself.

     

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    Yogi, Oct 14th, 2010 @ 11:18pm

    Why not?

    If I am interested in a certain subject than obviously I will try to learn about it and write about it every chance I get, and sure, some of the papers will use the same material, adapted to the requirements of each specific course.

    I did this constantly and I have no idea how this could be a problem.Certainly no one ever said anything to me and my papers were always very well received.

    Not to mention that if researchers could not recycle their work they would probably be out of work.

    The whole issue is academic nonsense.

     

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    Steve, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 2:55am

    Because...

    The problem is that self-plagiarising leads to being a bad academic.

    Lecturers at a good university aren't preparing you to be a . They're teaching you skills that will make you a good academic in your field. Any real world competence gained is a side effect.

    Self plagiarising is bad for many reasons. Consider a freelance journalist who breaks a story in the NY Times. They get recognition for producing it. Great. Then they break exactly the same story - not a follow up piece, literally the same thing - 6 weeks later in the Wall Street journal (for some reason, the editors haven't been reading each other's papers). Then they do it again elsewhere...

    Is this a good journalist? Well, they clearly wrote a good story originally. They did find a good market for it, something they could make a profit from repeatedly. But, like a comic who steals jokes, they aren't really adding anything new to the conversation.

    Apart from the loss of reputation they should suffer for this, it's an unnecessary waste of reviewers' time, and placing strain on an already overworked peer review system.

    Publishing a follow up piece is fine, but passing the same work off over and over again is just a lazy way to boost your publication count, and not something any good academic would respect.

    When you discuss the functional benefits of repeating paperwork and discussing self plagiarism like we are living in the real world, instead of in a university, you are missing the point of the university.

    I used to think that self-plagiarism was fine. Learning why it wasn't was an important step in becoming a good academic.

    The idea of making revisions and updates makes sense, but blatant copying of previous work is academically dishonest. Real world be damned - this is the realm of the ivory tower, and here we set rules for our benefit.

    Of course, conceding that we were talking about the real world, you have only your own reputation to consider, and in some, maybe even many, cases it makes sense. But we're at uni - at least try to understand the logic behind it before you criticise it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 3:32am

    Lots of students use wikipedia and do not cite it -- or cite the sources it uses, instead. But it's usually pretty obvious (at least in my field) since wikipedia rarely cites the most important, expert, or influential sources in a field. Instead, it offers a collection of oddities not matched by the contents of your local library....

     

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    abc gum, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 5:24am

    The concept of self plagiarism is ridiculous.

    I assume this concept is limited to certain courses and is not prevalent in other areas of study. For example, there is a limit on the number of different ways one can derive the equations of motion.

     

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    Little Eddy, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 5:38am

    It works for math...

    I had a brilliant math teacher once, whose strategy for educating kids was to mark their assignments, ad then allow them to turn the same assignment in again as long as they showed the work they did on their corrections.

    What this meant was a 13 year-old could hand in a math assignment, get a C-, and then once they were shown what they did wrong they could re-submit the same assignment and raise their mark to an A.

    I learned more from this teacher than any other, because when I was told I was wrong, I knew I had a chance to improve myself. This is really important for kids - to know that they don't just have adults saying "you did badly", but instead to know that they can do better if they look at their mistakes more carefully.

    The teacher was, of course, let go - pressure from the parents of kids who already got hight marks.

     

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    Andrew (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 5:41am

    Re: You 'can' plagurize yourself... sort of

    Even if it was not published, you can still cite yourself.

    This isn't necessarily true. For my thesis, I was only able to cite my published papers.

    And I'm not sure I buy your taking credit twice argument. The context of the article is different (getting marks twice for the same work), but in your example I have only proved that thing once, no matter how often I talk about it. To me, it seems more like self-promotion than appropriation.

     

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    Eric Goldman, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 6:08am

    I'm OK with this

    When I supervise student papers, I give students the option to recycle a paper they have written elsewhere. I ask them to disclose the preexisting material and then we negotiate about the scope of additional work the student will complete for my class. Eric.

     

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    mikez (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 6:12am

    old school thoughts

    I think part of the problem with this is the thought that submitting a paper is akin to publishing it, therefore, once it's been published you wouldn't submit it to another source to re-publish it.

    What it leaves out is that revising a paper from one class and submitting for an assignment in another class is really an extension of the writing process. Especially if the author is doing new research or updating their thesis. Writing is a constantly evolving process.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 6:44am

    I've never heard the problem being any sort of moral or ethical problem involving "self-plagiarism". The problem is how much the student has learned. If I were told to write a paper on the exact same subject as the one I wrote last year, it would be different because in that year I've added new perspectives and new information. If I were to simply hand in the old paper, it would demonstrate that I have learned nothing.

    Techdirt blasts people all the time (and rightly so) for having outdated ideals, relying on old business models, coming up with "draconian" laws and the like. Why would it therefore be acceptable for the student to do the exact same thing? If they happen to get the same topic and revise their old essay then there isn't a problem. If they simply hand in their old essay, that's laziness and a sign of a poor student.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 7:02am

    The concept of self-plagiarism always bothered me. It seemed completely contradictory to what plagiarism was, and made it seem like plagiarism was a normal thing thats done often.

     

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    Ben Matthews, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 7:27am

    Purpose of the act

    I think we are ignoring the purpose of writing the paper. In real world terms, if the paper is a finished/used product, reuse would be fine!

    In education though, the paper isn't being written for it's use, but to make the student go through the process of researching, collecting thoughts on the matter, and then communicating them clearly. Reusing a paper defeats this purpose. Rewriting an old paper takes smaller elements of the second and third point, but I see why it would be discouraged. The process is the goal of the assignment, not the actual finished good; thats just a reflection of how well you utilized the process.

     

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    Zach Evans, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 7:33am

    Work, Recycled

    I re-used papers quite a bit in graduate school but always tweaked them for the class I was in.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 7:36am

    At the college I attended, it was called simply "multiple submission" rather than "self-plagarism"; the rule was simply that if you wanted to do it you needed to ask for permission from the current professor (who in the sciences would usually grant such permission; I don't know about the humanities, but I'd guess they'd be less likely to allow it).

     

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    wenhaver (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 8:46am

    Re: Yea but

    Yeah, but can I cite Wikipedia.

    Apologies if I ruined some attempt at irony.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:17am

    Re: Because...

    1. Knowledge is knowledge - its *all* "plagerised" from somewhere otherwise it wouldn't be knowledge it would be discovery. If you already had the knowledge, what's wrong with using yours rather than someone elses?

    2. Maybe this is a difference between academia and the "real world". In business there are whole methodologies dedicated to reusing your work products as much as humanly possible to increase efficiency. (See TOGAF for example) If you can meet the objective of the assignment with "recycling" parts of things you've produced before then lucky you... or well done for creating your answers using a robust methodology :-)

     

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    Robert Ring (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:28am

    Re: Re:

    Well, considering that the act of writing, not just obtaining knowledge, is part of what is involved in composing a paper, even if you do have previous knowledge, you still learn by developing your writing skills in forgoing so-called self plagiarization.

    I've met people with masters degrees and even PHDs who have no common sense and all the book-learning in the world won't help them to function in society.

    That's not news. Many, many PhDs, in my experience, lack common sense and social skills. That's not what the academic program is meant to develop.

     

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    btr1701 (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:28am

    Re: Because...

    > I used to think that self-plagiarism was fine.
    > Learning why it wasn't was an important step in
    > becoming a good academic.

    I didn't go to law school to learn how to be an academic. I went to law school to leanr how to be a lawyer. (And lawyers copy themselves and each other all the time.)

     

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    Silent Bob, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 9:45am

    self-plagerism

    the word "self-plagerism" is ill-chosen... perhaps it should just fall under the existing label of "double-dipping". Basically, you should not get credit multiple times for the same piece of work. And as for the assertion that professors "do this all the time", no, there is a big distinction between reusing lesson plans and resubmitting a slightly tweaked paper to get a second publication. For promotion and tenure, you get credit for actually teaching the class, not for making the lesson plan. So reusing is OK there. But professors get a bad reputation when they try to push the "least publishable unit" boundary, because promotion should be based on how many good ideas you've had, not how many times you published the same good idea.

    Self-plagerism in paper publishing is also frowned upon because you've typically assigned copywrite for the first publication to the organization that published it... you don't own the words anymore.

     

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    SteveG (profile), Oct 15th, 2010 @ 10:07am

    Re: Re: Because...

    Law school is vocational - like engineering or medicine. They aren't easy, but the purpose is to produce Lawyers, Doctors and Engineers.

    The purpose of other academic disciplines is often more abstract - what career is a philosophy degree preparing you for?

     

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    mike, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 11:05am

    plagiarism

    You absolutely can plagiarize yourself by copying text that was "published" elsewhere without citing it. Regardless of the source, you must always cite the source. Always.

     

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    mike, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 11:10am

    I encourage it when I teach

    I actually encourage re-use and merging of other work. I teach a class on network security and in trying to get students to look at the impact of security in a large context, I actively encourage them to join a project I assign them to other current or past projects. They can't simply re-use previous work, of course, but they can apply my project to existing work.

    What I care about is a) are the getting the point of the exercise and b) are they getting the point that there is a larger context to work in.

    I don't require them to to merge projects, however.

     

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    Gene Cavanaugh, Oct 15th, 2010 @ 10:54pm

    Reusing papers

    For grad students, I agree. My profs did allow me to reuse papers when I worked for my doctorate.
    For undergrads - think! One of the things school (especially college) teaches is DISCIPLINE, in the form of applying yourself! You don't get that with "cut and paste" papers!
    I had one prof (new prof in an undergrad class) who tried the "cut and paste" route - he was awful! He obviously had failed to learn discipline as an undergrad (and somehow didn't pick it up as a grad student!).

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 16th, 2010 @ 12:52am

    Re: Purpose of the act

    Even if that's true - and I'll grant it is a cogent argument - surely the burden should be in the lecturer to set an assignment that requires new learning? If the student already has the knowledge, they already have the knowledge whether they re-use the same words or find new ones. If the assignment isn't new why should the answer be expected to be?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 16th, 2010 @ 10:02pm

    In High school there was a mandatory school wide video on plagiarism. One of the parts was that you could plagiarize your own work. After the video was over the class had a short discussion on it. I asked how one could plagiarize their own work. It's not like you can sue yourself.

     

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    Colin, Oct 17th, 2010 @ 1:20am

    Re: You 'can' plagurize yourself... sort of

    The idea of 'original' content is sort of ridiculous in and of itself, isn't it? There are no truly original ideas, only further expansion of the work of someone else.

    Also, you cannot cite something that was not published or documented in some way, because the idea of citing sources is for others to be able to find it later and corroborate the idea. If I wrote a paper on a subject and cited 'My unpublished article' and said you can find it 'in my desk drawer' who would take that seriously?

     

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    Jesse Stryker, Oct 20th, 2010 @ 4:44pm

    Not Plagiarizing Yourself

    If you have written the work, then I believe you can turn it in. I agree that it would be rare to find multiple instances where a paper would be viable for another class.

     

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    Peter Quint, Nov 3rd, 2011 @ 6:30am

    How about this?

    I don't know why, but no one has mentioned this:
    Is it fair to allow a student to reuse material, if other students in the class can't? In essence, if one student is fortunate enough to have written a paper on the topic in question, they are allowed to do less work than others in the class who have to write their papers from scratch. That's absolutely and completely unfair.

    And to compare this to what professors do is completely erroneous. Yes, professors use the same lectures each semester for the same class, but that's the SAME CLASS. I suppose if a student failed Freshman Comp, and took it again with the same professor, it would be okay to allow the student to use similar work to what they had handed in the first time. This would not be unfair to other students, since the student in question actually, in a way, had done more work, having to take the same class a second time.

    It's all about holding all students to the same standards.

     

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    Brett, Mar 16th, 2012 @ 6:02am

    Re: You 'can' plagurize yourself... sort of

    well, if that were entirely true, authors of published books wouldn't come out with different editions or volumes of the same book to create a bigger revenue cap.

    They take the same unoriginal material, change around the order and add a very small portion of new material or edit various portions of the previous material.

    I never really checked, but do text books or other academic materials site previous volumes, editions, etc.?

     

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    Dave, Aug 25th, 2012 @ 6:56pm

    Re: Because...

    Sorry for commenting on a long dead topic but for any other future readers Steve is full of it.

    This happens constantly in Journalism... It is called the associated press. Journalist will write a story or article put it out "on the wire" and any or all news papers that are apart of the associated press can choose to use the store at their own pace be that now, 2 weeks from now, or 2 years from now.

    Granted that it is not likely to go into months or years in most situations because it is "old news" but it has happened on occasions. In particular there was a nuclear test site that was written about several years back and articles occasionally resurface about the site every blue moon.

    But to the point, it is not plagiarism to reuse your own work! Whether the work is still relevant is another can of worms.

    As far as academics go... The real issue is not plagiarism, it is academic honesty. Professors assign papers/topics/assignments for the purpose of a student creating new work. The problem is that reusing existing work is not fulfilling the purpose of the assignment though it may fulfill the requirements.

    That being said if a student speaks with a professor and they permit the student to revise/add-to/enhance a previous work it is perfectly acceptable.

    And to be honest any professor that would not allow a student to utilize their own work as a basis of creating more current/updated/improved work on a subject is just being a hard-ass because they can be.

     

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    KenW, Nov 5th, 2013 @ 2:23pm

    Re: You 'can' plagurize yourself... sort of

    Clever wordplay, but your argument is empty. Yeah, you're taking credit for it twice, but so what? Plagiarism is presenting someone else's material as your own. If I have an idea, I can use and re-use it as many times as I want - it doesn't go bad. If it's my idea, I'm not falsely presenting it as my own idea, because that's exactly what it is. Self-plagiarism does not exist, no matter how long you wait to re-present the idea.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 9th, 2014 @ 12:39am

    As it was explained to me when I became a teacher, the problem with turning in the same work (in school, anyway) is that the student is basically getting two times the grades - and sometimes even two times the course credits, which can be even more problematic - for one work. As one of my colleagues put it: "The student already got a grade for this paper."

     

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    janequads, Jan 18th, 2014 @ 12:43am

    Great Post!!! Recycling the paper is the good work instead of wasting the paper.Post is very good and informative.Thanks for sharing.

    paper recyclers

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 10th, 2014 @ 12:33pm

    Re: Yea but

    No

     

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