Content Kidnapping

Plagiarism is, by definition, an offense one person commits against another person.

To plagiarize is to take someone else’s creation and to claim ownership of it. The word, in fact, comes to us from the Latin plagiarius, a noun that was used in antiquity to refer to a person who abducted the child or slave of another. A plagiarius was a kidnapper. That sense of the word lives on in our current understanding. Though we often call it intellectual theft, intellectual kidnapping might feel more appropriate to those who cherish and nurture their work like parents cherish and nurture their children. Either way, plagiarism is an interpersonal transgression.

Thomas Leth-Olsen 1

Kidnapping content is a fairly common practice in 2015. Aided by the internet, the plagiarii of the world can plunder the genius of others in numerous ways. Fortunately for the creators among us, the internet also aides us in detecting and responding to plagiarism—for the most part.

Turnitin, the widely used internet-based plagiarism-prevention service, outlines ten types of “unoriginal work.” Most of these are variations on the theme of theft. “Submitting another’s work, word-for-word as one’s own” is called cloning. A mashup is “mixing copied material from multiple sources.” The list goes on, providing cleverly adorable names for every type of intellectual kidnapping I could think of—and then some. But one type stood out among the rest: recycling. Turnitin defines recycling as “borrow[ing] generously from the writer’s previous work without citation.”

Recycling, as Turnitin terms it, doesn’t fit the definition of plagiarism. Though, to be fair, Turnitin lists recycling as a form of “unoriginal work” rather than plagiarism, they aren’t the only major company concerned with the issue. What is most often called self-plagiarism has been in the news before. Jonah Lehrer of The New Yorker and Zygmunt Bauman of the University of Leeds were high-profile cases, but I have heard stories from more than one classmate who has run afoul of university policy for inappropriately recycling work from one class into another.

Thomas Leth-Olsen 2

I can’t help but wonder though: Can we kidnap content from ourselves? Is the question of originality moot when the work we took was our own? And if it’s not, if there is a point at which our un-referenced self-reference becomes unethical, where is that point?

I have used the full text of discussion posts as seed for term papers. Was that wrong? I have twice-used entire bibliographies for papers with different prompts on the same subject. Did I overstep the mark there? What about when I cut a long paper into shape for use as a short paper in a different class? Dishonest? Or was it just savvy use of my own intellectual property?

I hope you’ll post your own thoughts and stories below. This is an issue that needs hacking. None of us have time to spare, but we all value academic integrity. We need somehow to find the line between smart, economical use of our own work and deceptive intellectual fraud.

Thomas Leth-Olsen 3

4 replies

  1. In college, I turned in the same paper to three different professors, because it fit the prompts. What was interesting was that each professor gave me completely different critiques; one on tense usage, another on clarity.

    I probably wouldn’t do it again today, but it was actually valuable to have the same paper edited by different professors.


    • Interesting topic. I too used my own papers I had written for different classes in undergrad. (As an English major, I read Jane Eyre 3 or 4 times). I never felt guilty about since it was my own work, but I had interesting conversations with classmates who told me I should have credited myself in the Work Cited page. According to them, I was technically plagiarizing myself. It’s an interesting topic for sure.


      • I’ve been hearing about self-citing a lot lately. But with many professors tagging students for submitting work to more than one class, it can feel like a risk. Like: Keep quiet, lay low, and everything will be fine. Cite yourself, and draw attention to something a professor is going to hate.

        Then again, if you’re doing something you’re afraid to be caught doing, aren’t you already over the line and into unethical territory?


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