Monday, February 6, 2012


Is it really plagiarism?

One of my daughter’s friends came to me the other day with a problem. The 4000 word essay she had written was found to be 12% plagiarized. Her first reaction was that it must be the literary quotes she used, but the teacher told her that found that she had plagiarized another student’s work. The other student turned out to be her.

So how can it be plagiarism when you are using a paper you have previously written? I did a little internet searching to understand the problem better. It seems that much of the concern in centered on academic articles and journal publications. The understanding when reading these articles is that what is being published is new information and some people feel it is fraud to use your previously published work and present it as new.

Another concern is that of college professors, who object to a student using a paper previously written for another class for a paper they have assigned. Part of me agrees with this and understands the rationale but part of me feels like if a student has done the research and already written a paper that answers the question assigned, why not use it again?

My daughter’s friend’s situation was somewhere in between these two possibilities. She had used parts of a paper she had written two years earlier to answer a bigger, different question. The research was very relevant to her topic and she thought it made sense not to recreate the wheel. And when she told me about it as she was writing, I thought it was very logical—why not use the research she had already done?

Her advisors told her she needed to change the words enough so that they would not appear to be plagiarized. She could not use parts of her original paper, even if she credited it to herself. With a little creativity, she was able to do this.

I still don’t think this is plagiarism. Shouldn’t we have the right to use our thoughts and ideas again?

What do you think?

Writing prompt: Take the 1st few paragraphs of a fairy tale or other familiar story and try to tell the same tale, using entirely different words. Send it to us at by Wednesday, February 15th (my birthday!) and we will publish the best ones on Friday, February 17th.



  1. I can see how an teacher wouldn't want their students constantly recycling old work. However, as an ex-college student who studied literature and often took multiple lit classes in one semester, I frequently used bits of papers from one class in another if it fit. For example, one semester I took a class on Chaucer. Then in a lower level general British Lit class, we studied Chaucer. I used the work I'd done in one class for another and didn't feel bad about it. It was, after all, my work. And in college, being pressed for time often means maximizing your time in creative, but ethical ways.

    Short answer: I think your daughter's friend's teacher was a little unreasonable. Especially since she only used parts of one paper in another and not the entire paper.

    As a writer, I frequently plunder my own dead stories for their best lines and use them in my current books.

    1. Shaun, thanks for this. I like the line, "maximizing your time in creative, ethical ways."

      Unfortunately, because this class is for the International Baccalaureate Program, it is graded in Europe or Dubai or somewhere out of the teacher's control, so I guess they are being extra careful.

      I will think of you next time I'm plundering my dead stories, too!


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  3. I still think it's crazy, Shari. How can working with your own thoughts, ideas, research, be plagarism? I like Shaun's line, "...plunder my own dead stories for their best lines..." - Joe

  4. I completely agree with Shaun. Besides, relying on software, however crafty it's algorithms may be, to make this kind of judgment call just seems silly. If the work was her own, and it applied to the subject, I would think any reasonable teacher would see the logic in using it again.

  5. Any computerized (=mechanical) search requires that a human make the final discernment. Students have learned to get around these sort of programs by changing the wording/names just enough. There is no substitute for a thinking human coming in at the end and making a judgment.
    I can’t see how taking YOUR own paper and using a small part of it to answer some of a different paper is plagiarism.

  6. Over the years, I've read articles for non-fiction writing that encourage the writer to use research on a subject and find new angles/slants to produce different non-fiction articles. There are some masters of this who really know how to earn from recycling.

    A few years ago, I researched one room schoolhouses. I could write an article about games that kids played at the turn of the century or what it was like for young teachers to live with a host family in the community all from the same research. There might be some overlap but as long as each article is focused and different enough; it works.

    12% doesn't seem like it should've even sent up a red flag.

    I hope in the end Shari's daughter's friend got an A.