Self-Plagiarism: A Defense (By Ramona Emerson)

These things go for, like, $30 million.

The newly minted New Yorker staff writer’s June 12 blog post ‘Why Smart People Are Stupid’ copied, at times word for word, three paragraphs from Lehrer’s 2011 Wall Street Journal story ‘The Science of Irrationality.’ The New Yorker has now appended editors’ notes to all five posts on Lehrer’s new blog Frontal Cortex. Those notes acknowledge that ‘paragraphs,’ ‘portions,’ or ‘details’ originally appeared in writing that Lehrer had done elsewhere. – Josh Levin, Slate

Self-plagiarism is tricky because it’s one of those things where people say it’s a thing, but are they lying? Isn’t so-called self-plagiarism basically just repeating yourself, and isn’t repeating yourself the polite thing to do if someone missed what you said the first time?

Maybe you used a devastating analogy in an article, and for whatever reason no one seemed to notice it at all. Isn’t the obvious next step to draw their attention to that analogy by including it in another article, and another and another and another, until they finally realize that oh, that is devastating.

What if the thing you’re “self-plagiarizing” is simply the best way to express a particular thought that you just happened to have come up with already? Would we have called self-plagiarism on Patrick Henry the second time he shouted “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Should someone have asked him to rework it just a smidge, so that the next time he would shout, “Let me do what I want or shoot me in the face!” And then the next time “I want to die.”

Why is it that literature is the only art form where images aren’t allowed to be repeated verbatim? Did we ask Monet to put quotes around the second water lily? No we did not. We celebrated the man for painting those goddamn lilies over and over until he was BLIND and they looked like shit. Why should painters get a pass just because they can’t write? Do we feel bad for them because they have a learning disability that forces them to try to write by muddling around with paints like a child?

Is it still self-plagiarism if the thing you’re copying was written by someone else, but you’ve used it so many times that you don’t remember who that person was? Like when you say a word over and over until it sounds like a word you made up. It’s easy to make someone else’s thing yours by saying “I’m going to take this over there,” and walking away quickly. Archaeologists use this technique all the time, and aren’t archaeologists pretty much alright?

They say that a monkey in a room with a typewriter will eventually write Hamlet, which shows there aren’t enough word combinations in the English language to keep even an illiterate from plagiarizing. If it’s perfectly acceptable, and even celebrated, for a monkey to sit around blatantly copying Shakespeare, should you, a human being, really live in fear of occasionally having the same thoughts as yourself?

English professors are always saying weirdly violent things like, “Kill your babies,” but sometimes you don’t want to kill your babies. Sometimes you want to be a mom to your babies and raise them up, and if they don’t get picked the first time they try out for the soccer team because maybe there was someone tall standing in front of them, you want to give them another chance, and another and another and another, until someone finally notices that hey, that baby’s pretty good at soccer.


2 thoughts on “Self-Plagiarism: A Defense (By Ramona Emerson)

  1. Pingback: Can Writers Reuse Their Own Work? | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

  2. Joseph Kerins

    Hey there Ramona! I am at student at DePaul University writing a research paper about the origin of self-plagiarism in academic integrity policies.

    I came across your post and I find out hilarious and accurate. You have literally synthesized all of my thoughts and emotions towards self-plagiarism in one beautiful punctual blog post… I love!

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