The Limits Of Self-Plagiarization
December 11, 2008
Besides the very foolhardy or extremely thick, every writer knows that plagiarization is tantamount to professional suicide. Similarly frowned upon -- unless a syndication agreement is in place -- is the practice of writers selling on entire articles, or large unadulterated chunks of their writing, word-for-word to different publications under the pretense of having produced original, customized texts. But should the repurposing of a few sentences from one's own writing for later use in an entirely different context be treated with the same amount of derision as the writer who attempts to pass off an article written for another publication as a completely fresh work?
Last week, I had an interesting debate with an editor over the fact that I drew on information from a blog post I had written many weeks previously about an art exhibition in the lede to a review I wrote of a play.
The exhibition struck me as a good starting point from which to launch a discussion of the play, so I repurposed, with minor changes, a few sentences of the material I'd written in my blog post in the opening two paragraphs of my review, before going on to devote the next 800 words of my 1000-word piece to talking about the play.
After filing my story, I found out that the publication has a rule -- I guess I must have missed the memo -- about writers not using any of their own previous work at all in their articles for the paper. Every word a journalist writes for the paper must be 100% original -- whatever that means. By way of example, the editor told the story of a journalist who tried to pass off an entire article he'd written for a different publication as a new piece for this one. He was caught and given a stern lecture. Following our discussion, I re-wrote the lede, changing as many words and sentence constructions as I could in order to differentiate the opening paragraphs of my review from the original blogpost.
My changes didn't seem to settle the issue, unfortuately, and my entire lede ended up on the cutting room floor. By the time the piece appeared in the paper, it was considerably shorter, jerkier, and lacked the crucial thread that linked the play with broader issues I hoped to discuss. It was a pity.
What I think this points to is a gray area in terms of how media outlets should approach the issue of self-plagiarization. There is clearly a difference between trying to fool an editor into publishing an article that has appeared somewhere else before and drawing on a few sentences of a blog post to create a larger cultural context for an arts review on an entirely different subject. Part of my job as an arts journalist is to make connections between different things going on in the culture and draw out trends. It's a way of making sense of the world.
Interestingly, one question the editor asked was to do with economics. It seems that part of his reason for not allowing me to use my lede had something to do with the fact that he thought I had been paid for my blog post about the exhibition, which is not the case. Hopefully things will change one day, but so far, I have not received any revenues for blogging. When I told him this, he said, "well you are getting something out of it: exposure."
Does "exposure" in an arts blog put me in the same category as the writer who self-plagiarized a whole pre-published article and tried to pass it off as an entirely new piece of writing? If this is the case, then what happened to me raises some crucial questions about the future of arts blogging.
I mean, I'm out there experiencing and blogging about plays, films, art exhibitions, concerts, operas, dance shows etc all year round. It's my vocation. If I can't refer to the content of any of these blog posts in my formal articles for media outlets, then my writing going forwards may be seriously hampered. It'll probably be a lot more narrow and a lot less rich.
The alternative, of course, is to stop blogging and simply keep my daily thoughts about culture to myself in a private journal. I used to do this prior to starting my blog two years ago. That would be to take a step backwards though. It would be absurd.