Recycling your old assignments may be considered plagiarism
Kyle Jones was stealing.
He wasn’t worried though. He was only stealing from himself.
This was Jones’s second bout with the same class. Neither the topics nor the assignments had changed from the first go ‘round, and this particular aviation class was online.
Jones saw no reason why he shouldn’t recycle some of his past work for this class. After all, he had done the work before.
He didn’t know, however, that every assignment he submitted through turnitin.com, an academic plagiarism detector, was being flagged. He didn’t know that the professor wasn’t even grading his work. He didn’t know that he was technically plagiarizing – plagiarizing his own work.
Fraud. Theft. Counterfeit. In the discussion about plagiarism in schools, these words illustrate the severity of stealing someone else’s intellectual property.
But self-stealing is a gray area. It is also a potential trap for students like Kyle Jones.
To an overwhelmed student struggling to meet deadlines, recycling past efforts may seem like a shortcut – a lifeline, even – in crunch time.
To a professor, self-stealing may be a sign of a student’s laziness. It may even be seen as a show of disrespect that undermines the purpose of the assignment.
Online plagiarism prevention resources like Plagiarism.org have defined self-stealing as:
“The writer ‘borrows’ generously from his or her previous work, violating policies concerning the expectation of originality adopted by most academic institutions.”
The Turnitin website employs a content comparison technology that aids in the prevention of plagiarism, and identified Jones’ s work as unoriginal. Therefore, it was categorized as plagiarism. Though it is not plagiarism in the conventional sense, self-stealing may violate academic integrity policies.
Fortunately for Jones, Turnitin didn’t have the last say on the issue and his professor was more lenient with his policy. Jones passed the class and is on track to graduate.
According to Ashley Robertson, director of Judicial Affairs & Dispute Resolution at UVU, plagiarism in all its forms has become a serious academic dilemma.
“It’s super pervasive,” Robertson said.
The Judicial Affairs & Dispute Resolution Office deals with the disciplinary records of every UVU student. In extreme cases of cheating, including plagiarism, Robertson herself gets involved. For the most part, however, plagiarism prevention and disciplinary action for offenders lies in the hands of the professors.
“They (professors) have the autonomy to take whatever action they feel fits the crime,” Robertson said.
Many professors have failed students for plagiarizing.
Dr. Matthew J. Kushin, an assistant professor in the communication department, admits it is difficult to know what consequences befit the crime. He and Robertson agree that it largely depends on “extent and intent.”
“We live in a copy and paste and share culture,” Kushin said. “Everybody borrows, everybody is sharing and uploading things to their blogs.”
In a culture that blurs the line between piracy and sharing, plagiarism prevention becomes a conundrum. Certain forms of plagiarism are controversial in and of themselves. Self-stealing comes to mind.
Jones said he recently had a professor who allowed students to self-steal as long as they cited themselves in their reference list.
“The only problem with that,” Jones said, “is that none of my work is really published anywhere.”
Citing oneself in a paper seems strange to him, even if it were citable.
One of the best ways students can protect themselves from accidentally plagiarizing is to talk to their professor beforehand about research methods. That is the advice of Robertson, Kushin and Karen Merrick.
Merrick is the director of support services in Distance Education. Distance Education is responsible for the university’s numerous online classes. Online coursework seems like it would present a unique challenge for plagiarism prevention, but the format actually lends itself to easier prevention.
“We encourage all the online professors to use Turnitin,” Merrick said.
Her office rarely deals with plagiarism issues due to the fact that individual academic departments are cracking down on it themselves.
The suppression on plagiarism is university-wide. Robertson feels that a coordinated effort between individual departments and her office would significantly reduce the number of repeat offenders.
“Cohesion,” Robertson said, is key.
UVU’s policies on due process can protect students who, like the self-stealer, unintentionally plagiarize. Nevertheless, UVU professors around campus are adopting a zero-tolerance policy on intentional plagiarism, and due process does not protect the guilty.
By Spencer Healey