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Monday, July 02, 2018

Self-Plagiarism (and the First and Second Laws of Textual Physics)

June is my intense writing month, by and large, and I just finished up a draft that, as I said elsewhere, may not be ready for Broadway, but is ready for out-of-town previews on SSRN.  (If you are curious, it's titled The Persistence of "Dumb" Contracts. It ponders the extent to which artificial intelligence could take over the non-blockchain contract drafting lawyers have been doing for hundreds of years.)

If you are like me, and have been at this for a while, you probably have developed a theme that pervades your work. Mine has to do with how people, and lawyers especially, make tough judgments in the face of uncertainty. Not tough judgments (although they may be) in adjudication, but what to do when your nicely developed lawyerly rationality can give you five good reasons for doing A and five equally good reasons for not doing A. A perfect example was Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham deciding whether to publish the Pentagon Papers (I rented The Post last night); you either take the leap or you don't.  Not to decide is to decide.

Sometimes a sentence or a paragraph or a long footnote from a previous piece seems like it fits in the new one. It's so easy to copy and paste and - voila! - you've written 200 words - a nice chunk of the day's quota. At least at some point in the drafting of Persistence, I did that. Is it okay?  (Spoiler alert: as far as I know I made it okay under even the most stringent standards.) Thoughts on self-plagiarism follow the break.

First off, let's define plagiarism.  I'll go with the definition we give our students: "taking the literary property of another, passing it off as one's own without appropriate attribution, and reaping from its use any benefit from an academic institution."

Second, self-plagiarism is indeed an issue,  There's a nice piece on this at the RIPS Law Librarian Blog, specifically about this issue in the law review context.  There are two sins that fall under "self-plagiarism" that are not what I'm talking about.  The first is creating many publications from the same study.  (Even that strikes me as overbroad - you can do a popular piece and an academic piece from the same material and not be committing a faux pas, as long as you disclose it.) The second is more serious, which is actually submitting the same work to different journals and permitting it to be accepted in multiple places.

The third issue is the one I'm most likely to encounter in my own work - what the RIPS bloggers call, in a less pejorative way, text recycling. That seems fair, because (apart from copyright issues if the journal holds it) you really aren't passing off someone else's intellectual output as your own. The RIPS bloggers are thoughtful about this.  If you are building on a body of work, it does seem silly to have to reinvent the wheel or have part of your article oddly set off in block quotes because you used it before.  On the other hand, they point out that editors and readers have a right to know if what they are reading is not original work, even if if originally it was yours. Not surprisingly, they advocate a sensible policy.  If you are using it again, disclose it either in a footnote, a in-text reference, or a general disclosure like you regularly see in a book preface when some of the chapters had earlier iterations as law review articles.

The lesson I learned this month, however, was slightly different.  I had inserted a footnote to the effect that much of the discussion on a couple pages had first appeared in my own piece, appropriately cited. The RIPS people would have been satisfied. The problem was one that, frankly, I didn't see, and it took another reader to point out.  I'm going to call it "textual inertia," or even better, "Lipshaw's First Law of Text Recycling." It goes like this:  "Every piece of text, once written, tends to remain in that state of drafting unless an external force is applied to it."

There is a Second Law as well: "The relationship between a text's mass (m), the ease by which it can be edited (a), and applied force (F) is F = ma, where a text's mass is directly proportionate to how pretty a word processor makes it look on the page."  What this means is that if you were to handwrite the text in a scrawl on a legal pad, you don't need much force to edit it.  But if you cut and paste the prior text into Eugene Volokh's wonderful law review article template, it becomes very hard to move.

That's why it's so hard to edit even a piece where you haven't recycled text. But when you recycle, chances are you really aren't making the same point that you made before.  It's the idea underlying the text that has relevance in this newer piece.  But it's so damn easy to cut and paste, and once you've done that, the First Law sets in.  And, as my friend who read the draft pointed out, that particular passage sounds like a tangent not quite related to the point of the article.

* By the way, my usual blogging home, at least on issues relating to legal education, lawyering, legal thought, etc. is now Paul Caron's iconic Tax Prof Blog.  This entry will be self-plagiarized, I mean cross-posted, over there.

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 2, 2018 at 08:08 AM in Article Spotlight, Lipshaw | Permalink

Comments

The reason self-plagiarism is problematic is because it is temporal-discrimination in which you are appropriating your past cultural contributions as your own, rather than respecting your past selves copyrights the way you respect your current selves copyrights.

Past-self-cultural-appropriation will lead to the devaluation and marginalization of past selves until people no longer identity as their past selves but only identity as their current selves.

Posted by: pulling the chrono trigger | Jul 3, 2018 8:09:36 AM

I wrote a piece for the Florida State Law Review on self-plagiarism: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2919642

Posted by: Joshua Blackman | Jul 2, 2018 9:20:54 AM

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