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Self-plagiarism definition: Can you plagiarize yourself using AI?

Let’s examine what constitutes self-plagiarism (definition included), how it arises, and discuss solutions that relate to the broader dialogue in education on authorship and development of ideas in an AI world, to seize learners’ full potential.

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer, Turnitin

Students, in their adherence to academic integrity, often misunderstand the concept of self-plagiarism. A lesser-known subset within the plagiarism spectrum, the idea that you can in fact plagiarize yourself, is often met with incredulity by cohorts of students that have hinged their understanding of plagiarism on taking credit for other people’ s work.

A common student objection is if it’s their own intellectual property, it’s fair game for reuse; however,it’s not that simple. We’ve previously written about self-plagiarism in an effort to dispel confusion around the practice; however, it bears repeating, especially in the current climate where artificial intelligence, and specifically, generative AI is changing the parameters of academic writing and our expectations of originality. Let’s examine what constitutes self-plagiarism (definition included), how it arises, and discuss solutions that relate to the broader dialogue in education on authorship and development of ideas in an AI world, to seize learners’ full potential.

What is self-plagiarism? Self-plagiarism definition

To distinguish self-plagiarism from plagiarism more generally, Merriam-Webster provides the following definition: “the reuse of one's own words, ideas, or artistic expression (as in an essay) from preexisting material especially without acknowledgment of their earlier use.” This covers students duplicating their work in its entirety for a related assignment, or more commonly, copying large sections and blending it with other written material.

Immediately apparent is self-plagiarism’s change in author from others to oneself, but what doesn’t change in the definition is the reference to pre-existing ideas, words, and expressions without acknowledgment. Emphasizing the latter is an important focal point for students in understanding and avoiding self-plagiarism, as it goes beyond ownership and gets to the heart of why originality in their own portfolio of work matters.

Another limitation in understanding self-plagiarism stems from different cultural interpretations of academic integrity with respect to plagiarism as a Western conceptualisation. Although anti-plagiarism guidelines have been steadily embraced outside the West, there are regions in Asia, for instance, that don’t formally recognize the issue of plagiarizing one’s own words and body of work.

Why do students self-plagiarize?

The academic community’s perception of self-plagiarism as less severe than stealing work from a different author is warranted, but an unintended consequence is that it can get overlooked by students or even educators themselves when screening and evaluating student work.

Depending on the robustness of an institution’s honor code, most students are aware that submitting the same content for two different assignments is, at best, lazy, and at worst, will implicate them in a misconduct case. Of course, awareness of the punitive response doesn’t necessarily equate to an understanding of why recycling their work undermines their learning goals. Just as there are students oblivious that reusing one’s work word-for-word counts as misconduct, there are those that seek to justify it.

5 key reasons a student may self-plagiarize:

  • Poor time management for assignment deadlines
  • Dependency on work/ideas that previously achieved a high or passing mark, indicating an obstacle in their next steps for learning
  • Belief that their own intellectual property is not subject to plagiarism guidelines
  • Apathy and lack of engagement in the assigned assessment
  • Inexperience with idea development, attribution, and importance of presenting original research

Building on one’s own bank of ideas and written work from previous assignments requires the skill of self-displine to raise the bar in subsequent assessments. Without grasping the benefit of this self-discipline in their coursework, students can carry the behavior into higher degree research, which can manifest in self-plagiarized research.

In a previous blog, we unpacked the implications of self-plagiarism in a research context, where postgraduate students must learn to build on existing ideas and research papers in order to contribute something new to the scientific record. The stakes are particularly high for postgraduate students, where misrepresenting something existing as ‘new’ carries additional harms, including rejected or revoked publication and even copyright infringement.

Whether robbing yourself of the chance to master course material in the case of undergraduate students, or missing the opportunity to strengthen the scientific record as a postgraduate student, the risks of self-plagiarism can be offset with awareness and good habits.

Can you get away with self-plagiarism?

As we’ve explored above, self-plagiarism refers to the act of reusing one's own previously published work without proper citation or acknowledgment. While the concept of plagiarism typically involves the unauthorized use of someone else's work and is more likely to generate attention and publicity, self-plagiarism is still considered an ethical misstep in academia and other professional fields.

It’s important for students to understand that there are lines to be drawn when it comes to handling previously written work. Avoiding self-plagiarism does not mean a ban on resurfacing any relevant, previously submitted or published work.

In fact, it is common for researchers to reuse portions of their previous work, such as methods, descriptions or background information, in subsequent publications. As long as the content’s source is clearly referenced, necessary permissions are sought, and it's used in the spirit of building on an idea, you will not be guilty of self-plagiarism.

However, if you do attempt to present the same work as new or original without proper attribution, it is considered unethical and may have consequences, such as damage to your reputation, academic penalties, or legal implications. Asselta Law, P.A. (2017) explains, “While many students feel self-plagiarism is ridiculous, colleges and schools believe that your work should mostly be original with any sources including ideas of others cited. This includes you. If you have previously used the work, you must cite your previous work.”

To ensure your commitment to academic integrity, it is always advisable to consult the guidelines and policies of your specific institution, publisher, or organization regarding self-plagiarism. When in doubt, it is best to seek permission, provide proper attribution, and maintain transparency about the reuse of your own work to avoid any potential issues.

Why should self-plagiarism be avoided?

Self-plagiarism should be avoided for several reasons:

1. Academic integrity:

Self-plagiarism undermines the principles of academic integrity. The purpose of academic and scholarly work is to contribute new knowledge and ideas to the field. By reusing your own previously published work without proper citation or acknowledgement, you misrepresent the novelty and originality of your current work.

2. Duplication of effort

Self-plagiarism can lead to the duplication of content across different publications or assignments. This can mislead readers or evaluators who may assume they are encountering new material, potentially wasting their time and resources.

3. Misleading the audience

When you present reused content as new or original, you risk misleading your audience. Whether it is readers, colleagues, or supervisors, they expect to encounter fresh insights and updated information when engaging with your work. Failing to disclose the reuse of your own work can be seen as a breach of trust.

4. Incomplete citations

When self-plagiarism occurs without proper citation or acknowledgement, it can create confusion and ambiguity regarding the origin of ideas, methods, or data. Accurate citations are essential for providing transparency and allowing readers to trace the evolution of ideas and evaluate the validity of research findings.

5. Ethical considerations

Ethically, it is important to understand the impact of self-plagiarism and respect the intellectual property rights associated with your own work, just as you would with the work of others. Taking credit for your own previously published work without proper citation can be seen as a violation of ethical standards and professional norms.

6. Reputation and credibility

Engaging in self-plagiarism can have negative consequences for your reputation and credibility within your field. Once discovered, it may damage your professional standing and impact future opportunities, collaborations, or publishing prospects.In summary, self-plagiarism should be avoided to uphold academic integrity, respect intellectual property rights, maintain transparency with readers and evaluators, and preserve your professional reputation. It is always best to adhere to ethical practices, properly cite and acknowledge your own previous work, and strive to produce new and original contributions to your field.

Self-plagiarism in an AI world

The dawn of AI in education is requiring students to be more conscious and deliberate in their thinking, in order to prime AI text generators for the required output, and ultimately, distinguish their thoughts from what is AI generated. Students demonstrating their ‘workings out’ has been suggested as the lynchpin in evaluating depth of learning in a time where authorship is muddied and co-creation of written content between human and machine will become the norm.

Up until now, students committing intentional plagiarism of themselves or others in the digital age have typically used word spinners when attempting to conceal text similarity. It’s reasonable to assume that such tactics will be replaced by a command to an AI generator to do the heavy lifting in reframing information. If education is to embrace AI writing, what does it mean for policing self-plagiarism from both a detection and deterrence standpoint?

Questions on responsible use of AI abound, and expectations for authorship and attribution are still being negotiated, but there is one certainty. In a world where AI is mainstream, originality will still hold immense currency, and the principles embedded in self-plagiarism as a form of misconduct will better position students in the genesis and development of their ideas.

Do AI language models self-plagiarize?

If we are to adopt some measure of reliance on AI-generated content in academia, it’s important to understand any implications for maintaining academic integrity standards. AI language models like ChatGPT do not have personal experiences, individual thoughts, or ownership of the generated content. Language models generate responses based on patterns and knowledge learned from the data upon which they were trained. Therefore, the concept of self-plagiarism does not apply to AI language models.

However, it should be noted that by drawing from a large database of existing content, the responses generated by AI language models can contain text or information that may resemble previously published work by humans. The responsibility for ensuring the originality and proper attribution of content generated by AI language models lies with the users who employ the outputs in their own work.

Students and professionals should exercise caution when using content generated by AI language models and ensure that any reused or quoted text is appropriately cited and attributed to the relevant sources. While AI models can provide information and suggestions, it is the user's responsibility to verify the accuracy, legality, and originality of the content they use.

Do professors care about self-plagiarism?

Yes, professors and other educators do care about self-plagiarism because citing your own work contributes to the overall value of academic integrity. While practices and attitudes may vary among individual professors and institutions, self-plagiarism is generally considered an ethical violation and a breach of academic integrity.

Professors are responsible for upholding academic standards and promoting ethical conduct among their students. They typically expect students to produce original work that demonstrates their understanding, critical thinking, and ability to engage with new ideas and research. When students engage in self-plagiarism by submitting their own previously published work without proper citation or acknowledgment, it undermines the principles of academic integrity and the educational process.

Furthermore, professors are often well-versed in their respective fields and are likely to be familiar with the existing literature and research. If they come across instances of self-plagiarism, they can recognize it and view it as a violation of academic norms.

While consequences for self-plagiarism may vary, professors may take several actions in response to such misconduct, including but not limited to:

Assigning a lower grade or failing the assignment

If a student is found to have engaged in self-plagiarism, a professor may penalize the student by reducing their grade or failing the assignment, as it demonstrates a lack of originality and academic integrity.

Reporting the misconduct

In cases of severe or repeated self-plagiarism, professors may report the misconduct to the relevant academic authorities or academic integrity committees within the institution. This can lead to further disciplinary actions, such as academic probation or expulsion.

Providing guidance and education

Some professors may take the opportunity to educate students about the importance of academic integrity, proper citation practices, and the consequences of self-plagiarism. They may provide guidance on how to avoid self-plagiarism and encourage students to develop their own ideas and arguments.

It is important for students to understand that self-plagiarism is generally viewed as a violation of academic ethics and can have serious consequences. It is always best to adhere to ethical standards, properly cite and acknowledge previous work, and strive to produce original contributions in academic and scholarly endeavors.

How to navigate possible self-plagiarism

The acceptability of reusing your previous work can vary depending on the specific context, guidelines, and expectations set by the institution, publisher, or professional field. To determine when repurposing of your written work is permitted in a given scenario and conversely, when it strays into self-plagiarism territory, here are some key considerations:

Proper citation and acknowledgment

If you need to reuse your own previously published work, it is essential to provide proper citation and acknowledgment. Clearly indicate the source of the material and ensure that it is appropriately referenced. This helps maintain transparency and allows readers or evaluators to differentiate between the original and reused content.

Permission and copyright

If you plan to reuse substantial portions of your own work, such as entire sections or chapters, it is advisable to seek permission from the copyright holder. This may apply when the work has been published by a publisher or if there are legal agreements in place that restrict the reuse of the content.

Additional value and contribution

When reusing your own work, ensure that there is an additional value or contribution in the new context. This can include expanding on previous ideas, updating information, providing new insights, or presenting the work from a different perspective. Simply copying and pasting previous work without adding meaningful new content is generally not acceptable.

Disclosure and transparency

When submitting or presenting work that contains reused elements, be transparent about the reuse. Clearly indicate which sections have been previously published and provide appropriate references. This helps prevent confusion, promotes accountability, and allows readers or evaluators to assess the novelty and originality of the work.

It is important to note that guidelines regarding self-plagiarism can differ across academic disciplines, journals, conferences, and institutions. Therefore, it is always advisable to consult the specific guidelines, policies, and expectations of your field or the venue where you intend to publish or present your work.

In general, it is best to err on the side of caution and strive to produce new and original contributions whenever possible. Ethical conduct and maintaining academic integrity should always be a priority. If you are unsure about the acceptability of self-plagiarism in a particular context, it is recommended to seek guidance from your advisor, mentor, or relevant authorities in your field.

How can institutions deter self-plagiarism?

The inclusion of self-plagiarism is an institution’s honor code and academic integrity policy is obviously paramount, and so too is bringing the concept to life for students. Elaborating with practical examples and lessons can help demystify self-plagiarism for students, and crucially, empower them to self-regulate when looking to repurpose their own ideas.

How instructors can offset self-plagiarism risks:

  • Writing exercises to test a student’s ability to render similar information in different ways
  • Starting sound research practices early, from the undergraduate level
  • Lessons on attribution and paraphrasing to avoid the blurring of ideas
  • Avoiding repetition of assessable tasks and question sets within subjects
  • Specialized software to identify self-plagiarism when it occurs and deter the behavior

In terms of writing specifically, honing their capacity to explain or apply the same concept in different ways, synthesizing new information with old, and elevating any given idea to meet the deliverables of the assessable task, are all important aspects in shaping student confidence and integrity, to reduce the chance of inadvertent self-plagiarism. But how might this unfold in an increasingly AI-enhanced education landscape?

Checking for self-plagiarism

It’s not feasible for educators to flag every instance of self-plagiarism (or any plagiarism for that matter) through manual grading of students’ work. Familiarity with a student’s written voice and assignment history puts them in a better position to recognise recycled content and repetition of ideas, but the behavior can get lost across courses and go unreported.

In the past two decades, technology to detect text similarity and surface potential plagiarism has become the norm to assist time-strapped educators with an automatic, ‘always-on’ defense against unoriginal work. Students have also come to rely on passing their work through such software in an effort to achieve a plagiarism-free submission.

However, comparing student submissions against an archive of existing content is usually confined to published works and is focused on plagiarism of other authors. In most cases, similarity checking software doesn’t cover a student repository that surfaces their prior submissions, meaning there is no avenue to capture self-plagiarism, specifically.

Tools for detecting similarity in student work

Turnitin’ s Similarity Report draws from an industry-leading database for comprehensive coverage of internet, scholarly, and student paper content, meaning our tools are capable of surfacing potential instances of self-plagiarism. Better yet, the iThenticate tool is dedicated to postgraduate students and the challenges they face in research and publication, supporting original manuscript writing and safeguarding against reputational damage.

Such specialized edtech tools add another string to the bow of students and educators in their due diligence, to ensure they are not caught out by self-plagiarism. Furthermore, this technology operates on a formative level to evaluate student progress against their portfolio of work and help them prepare for the new era of writing and assessment.

Overview: Self-plagiarism and AI

Self-plagiarism, a concept that arises in academic and publishing contexts, involves the reuse of one's own previously published work without proper citation or acknowledgement. Going beyond the recycling of one’s words, it also encompasses the duplication of ideas which undermines originality in the scholarly record. In light of the recent rise of AI language models like ChatGPT, safeguarding against self-plagiarism and other forms of academic misconduct has taken on a renewed significance.

As we have explored, AI language models do not engage in self-plagiarism in the conventional sense, but may exhibit similarities to existing works, and it reinforces the need for guidelines to address concerns such as originality, citation practices, and the delineation between human-authored work and AI-generated assistance.

Students, academics, and other professionals deploying AI-generated content must take responsibility for verifying the originality and accuracy of the information. If content generated by an AI language model is incorporated into academic or publishing contexts, proper citation and attribution to the relevant human-authored sources should be provided, as appropriate.

Given the evolving nature of AI and its impact on various fields, it is important for researchers, publishers, and institutions to establish guidelines and standards regarding the use of AI-generated content.

In summary, while AI language models like ChatGPT do not self-plagiarize due to its lack of personal ownership, users should be mindful of the origin and proper attribution of AI-generated content and adhere to established ethical practices in their respective fields.