Self plagiarism and self protection

My dog on the beach in West Wales
My writing companion

I was away last week in a cottage in West Wales, trying to get some momentum on a book I am writing. The book is something around Metaphors of Ed Tech. It will be no surprise to anyone I’m sure that it will involve working up a lot of existing blog posts. Some of my friends (looks at Jim Groom and Dave Cormier) like to rib me about rehashing blog posts to make books, but there’s a lot to be said for it. So here is my “protest too much” justification.

Jesse Stommel had a good thread on “self-plagiarism”:

I agree with this, repurposing is a very useful thing to learn. I often use, adapt and repurpose content I’ve written. For a start, not everyone has read everything I’ve written (shocking I know), so taking that blog post from two years ago and adapting it for a book may well give the idea a new audience. Secondly, I usually change and adapt it to a new context, so the ideas extend. That’s kind of how humans work, we don’t start with a tabula rasa every morning. Thirdly, it allows for linkages and intersection with other content in the book or essay so it becomes a different thing.

So that is the intellectual justification for self-plagiarism (I do use the phrase sometimes, but in a self mocking way). There are some practical benefits also. Writing a book is a daunting undertaking: All those empty pages; All those words waiting to be transmuted from your little grey cells to the screen. I mean, I can write the dedication, but beyond that, it’s a struggle. Last week I went to my cottage, and took with me a document that had 20,000 words I had culled from past blog posts. Over the course of the week I got that up to 35K, of which about 25K are reasonable. I had to rework nearly all of the existing words, but having a structure, having inertia made it a much more manageable task than starting from scratch.

Another reason I would contest that using blog posts to build up to a book is useful is one of self protection. You get to test out your ideas in public and if they’re really awful, people will tell you. Many of you will have heard the Naomi Wolf interview last year in which the premise of her new book was shown to be based on a misunderstanding on her part, live on radio. I don’t comment on this to dump on Wolf, she’s done important work, but rather that it is the most tangible example of something I think all researchers fear – that they have made a mistake and it will be exposed too late. PhD students I supervise often express a version of this anxiety after their thesis has gone to print. If you’re a big hitter like Wolf then you are probably obliged not to make your work public before the book comes out, so that you can do the publicity tour and unveil the key ideas. But for us little leaguers there is a definite benefit in testing ideas out publicly before hand.

4 Comments

  1. Surely no one is arguing against revising and repurposing previous work, but against doing so without citing the earlier work. Apart from anything else, it identifies thee source of ideas and promotes their priority.

    1. Hi Gavin, yes i think it’s a bit more subtle than that – I often don’t cite a previous blog post if I work it up into a paper, as it’s often very different. It’s not like a previous publication, more like a public draft I guess?

  2. In my experience, many concerns about “self-plagiarism” are not so much because of ideas about “academic honesty” that educators fuss about (citing your sources and whatnot) but rather due to clauses in the legal paperwork we sign when something is published — typically something to the fact that this is original content. So yeah, if you’re being paid to write something new and you submit something old, that’s shady.

    1. Hi Audrey! Yes you’re quite right, being paid does make it different, although even for academic publishing we often have to sign the same rights. There is a slight tension for many publishers i think though in that they also quite like a book to have momentum and marketing done already, so are quite happy if it builds off a blog series which has gathered attention – it reduces risk for them.

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