There is no self-plagiarism

- Pratyoush Onta | 2021-09-24

Pratyoush Onta

Nov 18, 2017-Plagiarism in intellectual work is stealing someone else’s ideas and/or words and passing them on as one’s own. For academics in many parts of the world, it is a career-ending moral crime because our enterprise of knowledge production relies fundamentally on trust between member practitioners.

As my PhD supervisor Dr David Ludden once put it to me, we engage in social science research to explain the complexities of the world. Those complexities have often drawn the attention of many past researchers. Our efforts are rarely original but more often than not build upon the insights of our intellectual ancestors and colleagues.

We academics often add a brick or two to our collective understanding of those complexities by acknowledging what others have said before us and then doing our small dance on top of that received knowledge. This simple trust drives honest research.

However, research in the contemporary world is also associated with peoples’ careers, funds, and academic prestige. The way to build academic careers for researchers is often through publications that have been reviewed by one’s peers.

Accumulated capital through publications makes academics more eligible for advancement in their careers. Since it is not easy to do honest research in a challenging knowledge environment that persists in our country, it is very tempting to pass off someone else’s research and writing as one’s own. This greed, in short, is behind acts of plagiarism by professional academics.

It is encouraging that of late, we have had some public discussions about plagiarism in Nepal. Major newspapers and magazines have reported on this theme and documentary evidence of plagiarism has been put out in social media. Amid this discussion, however, there seems to be some confusion about what some describe as “self-plagiarism” or re-publication of your own words published previously.

If plagiarism involves stealing someone else’s ideas and words and if you agree with me that you cannot steal from yourself, then the term “self-plagiarism” is an oxymoron.

Nobody describes your act of transferring a thousand rupees note from the pocket in your pants to the pocket in your shirt as stealing. Similarly, if you wish to include some of your own published words in your own new writing, it cannot be called plagiarism. Hence, self-plagiarism does not exist.

But do academics re-publish their own words sometimes? Sure they do. And there are legitimate reasons for doing so. Since we practice academia in a world full of intellectual, linguistic and social-geographical divides and differences, some re-publication of one’s own texts make a lot of sense. Let me explain.

First, academics work in many different types of social-intellectual environments. In some places, they double up as columnists for popular media. In such situations, some re-publication of texts written originally for popular media in one’s own academic writings (or the other way around) is legitimate in my view.

Let me give my own example. Some of the passages that make up my 2004 article “Democracy and Duplicity: The Maoists and Their Interlocuters in Nepal” (published in the volume Himalayan ‘People’s War’: Nepal’s Maoist Rebellion) were first written for the column “The Politics of Knowledge” which I used to write for this newspaper until 2002. When invited to a conference in 2001 that resulted in the above book, I wrote a paper by rejigging some of my older columns. The audience for the two types of writing I was engaged in at that time were mostly different and hence this republication was justified.

Second, many academics work in multi-lingual environments and write texts in more than one language. Here too let me give an example related to my research on janajati magazines published during the 1990s.

My first analysis of this subject, in English, was presented in a 2010 conference in New Delhi organised by French and Indian colleagues. The final revised version of that paper was eventually published in 2014 as “Expansion of the Public Sphere amidst Market Challenges: Janajati Magazines in Nepal in the 1990s” in The Politics of Ethnicity in India, Nepal and China.

That article was also published in Nepali as a co-authored piece in a 2013 volume titled Nepali Magazineka 25 Varsa. The Nepali version was not an exact translation of the English original but contained additional texts written by my Martin Chautari colleague Devraj Humagain. In this instance, the re-publication of the same passages was justified because the Nepali text would reach an audience unlikely to have read the English original.

Non-overlapping (circulation wise) academic journals provide the third justification for re-publication. Let me just give one example again related to Nepal. In 2001, the anthropologist Mark Liecthy published an article titled “Consumer Transgressions: Notes on the History of Restaurants and Prostitution in Kathmandu” in the journal Studies in Nepali History and Society (SINHAS) which he co-edits. Some years later, after informing his other co-editors, he submitted a more theoretical, shorter version of the same analysis to Cultural Anthropology, one of the leading international journals in his field.

That version too was accepted and published in 2005 under the title “Carnal Economies: The Commodification of Food and Sex in Kathmandu.” Both of these versions are now available online for free but the original SINHAS version was not available to many non-Nepal related students of anthropology initially and the version published in Cultural Anthropology was made fully open-access only as recently as 2014.

Liechty and I are tiny fish in the large ocean of international academia. But self-republication is also done by major academic figures for yet another reason: incubation of important ideas and theories. I will just give one example from the work of the famous British sociologist, Anthony Giddens. In April 1988, Giddens gave a series of lectures at Stanford University in California and they were later published in 1990 by Stanford University Press in the form of a book, The Consequences of Modernity.

In section four of this book, Giddens discusses what he calls the “transformation of intimacy” as an important characteristic of late modernity in the western world. This idea was further developed in some sections (especially chapter three) of his next book, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (1991, Stanford University Press) and ultimately, at much greater length, in his 1992 monograph, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Polity Press).

According to Giddens, the decline of the patriarchal family along with changes in associated dominant forms of gender relations and sexuality has transformed the substance of intimacy in very important ways. The democratisation of relationships to what he calls a “pure relationship— an ideal type sustained by the efforts intrinsic to those involved in the relationship—imbued with romantic love between men and women (in the case of heterosexual folks) under conditions of “plastic sexuality”—in which reproduction is relegated to the margins—is to Giddens a very important feature of late modernity.

Some of the passages related to the idea of the transformation of intimacy in the first two books mentioned above are the same or are very similar. As can be expected, many of the same ideas are subsequently repeated in the third book in an extended manner.

Together these three books show to us how Giddens developed a key idea of his over the course of several years. We need to appreciate the gradual incubation of such ideas in one person’s written works as integral to the academic enterprise and celebrate it as yet another reason why re-publication of one’s own words is justified.

A fifth legitimate reason exists when exact or slightly revised text from one’s journal articles is included in one’s own monograph on the same subject or in a volume of one’s own collected essays. Both of these happen all the time.

Before doing a lot of unnecessary chest-beating, we should learn to observe the international academic landscape and say that self-plagiarism does not exist. That clarity will allow us to concentrate on what matters in academia: the incubation of our original efforts to explain the complexities of the world.


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