By John Pickering 10/01/2016

The story so far…

Dr Jaimie Whyte publishes in the NZ Herald an article that portions of which are substantially similar to an article he published in Britain in 2005.  This was picked up somehow by @LI_politico who posted:


The NZ Herald subsequently asked Dr Whyte for his reaction to the accusation of self-plagiarism & reported that he did not see anything wrong with submitting an article which was a variant of one he had already published and [besides] Dr Whyte added “There’s clearly no such thing as self-plagiarism.”

I tweeted the article in reaction to the statement about self-plagiarism saying that I agree with Dr Whyte.  This resulted in some very interesting twitter discussion with a number of academics including   .  There were a number of good points made about whether this was more a case which should concern a possible breach of copyright (Dr Whyte had originally published his views in a book; I am not sure who owns the copyright) or whether it was a case of plagiarism; and also about why Dr Whyte’s action may be wrong.

My initial point was that Dr Whyte’s action was not plagiarism. I made this because when I was asked to write an encyclopaedia article on plagiarism a few years back I found that the generally excepted definition was “To represent oneself as the author of some work that is in fact the work of someone else.”[1]  Critically, it is only plagiarism if it is someone else’s work that is being “passed off” as one’s own.  This, though, is not necessarily a universal definition.  pointed to a University of Calgary definition of self-plagiarism:

“Self-plagiarism, however, must be carefully distinguished from the recycling of one’s work that to a greater or lesser extent everyone legitimately does. … Among established academics self-plagiarism is a problem when essentially the same article or book is submitted on more than one occasion to gain additional salary increments or for purpose of promotion.

Like all plagiarism the essence of self-plagiarism is the author attempts to deceive the reader…”[2]

I don’t think Dr Whyte’s article in the NZ Herald would meet the the University of Calgary’s strict definition of self-plagiarism as there is no hint of publication to enhance promotion aspects.  Dr Whyte, is a former politician.

“Repeating oneself” as a politician has become an art form – infuriating in the extreme during election season when we only hear the same thing over and over again.  The angst within academia appears to be that if one repeats oneself in order to gain advantage (e.g. prestige, promotion etc), then that is deception and not to be done.

On the other hand, as academics we are required to promote what we discover and think (in NZ law to be the “critic and conscience of society”).  Where that comment is confined to the academic journals where we could self-cite (sometimes frowned upon) an issue of deception by replication may be easy to spot.  However, as academics increasingly make use of new media, much of which is not limited to academics, as a means to engage, discuss, debate, and pontificate the line between deception and merely conforming to the norms of the media – i.e. where citation is not the norm and self-citation may be seen as arrogance and lose one’s audience  – becomes blurry.

The cop-out on many a publication where the results of the experiment are somewhat equivocal is to write “further study is needed”. [Guilty as charged… but only when referees push for this kind of comment.] Certainly here, further discussion is needed.  If you do engage in such discussion, perhaps consider also that the context of plagiarism is culturally bound:

“Plagiarism in the West rests on the assumptions that individuals can and do own their own words and content. …In many non-Western cultures, people find value in their relationships and position in society rather than in their expression of self. In such collectivist cultures, plagiarism is not recognized as a social wrong.”[1]


[1] Pickering, J. W. (2008). Plagiarism. In V. N. Parillo (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Problems (pp. 664–667). SAGE Publications: Thousand Oaks, USA.


Featured image: Flickr CC, woodleywonderworks.