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A few years ago I wrote and received high honors for an undergraduate thesis. A large section of the thesis, one third by page count, consists of a paper P I had written a year prior for a different class at a different institution. While drafting the thesis, I told my advisors that this section "leaned very heavily" on a paper I had written for that class. I did not tell them that the section was almost identical to that paper, simply because I thought P was very good and did not want to change it, but I also did not want to seem lazy.

Crucially, I did not cite myself in the final version of my thesis printed by my institution for their thesis library.

At the time I thought this incorporation of P into my thesis was completely harmless. For the work was my own. What's more, it had always been my intention to incorporate P into my thesis in some form. I understood this to be a perfectly ordinary, acceptable thing to do.

My source of ethical worry is this: I did not cite myself. At the time it simply did not occur to me to do so. It did not occur to me that a rough, unpublished paper submitted for some other class would merit a citation. But now I appear to myself to have passed off work not done expressly for the thesis as work done for the thesis.

My question is whether I have done an ethical wrong, and if so, how I should go about correcting it.

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As you present the case, I'd say that you haven't actually committed self-plagiarism. I'm assuming that the early work wasn't published and was seen only in a limited course context. You also say that you asked permission to reuse it. For purposes of academic misconduct, I think you are clear.

You can always incorporate unpublished prior work in a new work. The problem with self-plagiarism (outside the more restricted classroom rules) is that the reader of a new work wants to be able to follow context back to source. That implies the source is published.

Note that "plagiarism" and "self-plagiarism" are often used in a course context differently from in the wider academic world. But you seem to have filled the necessary gaps.

In a strictly classroom context a professor might want you to produce a completely new work that doesn't rely (heavily) on previous work. That is a matter of what is acceptable under the course rules, so more can be prohibited. So, the rule of "don't copy/reuse old stuff" might go by the name self-plagiarism there, but really isn't.

Scholars, for example, often communicate ideas with others to develop a theory. The things they write in such letters aren't published. They can be freely copied from in some resulting paper. (Citation of the work of others might be required of course, but that is a different issue).

What you should do is kick back, have a culturally appropriate beverage, and think about the next big thing.


Note that I, too, was once given explicit permission in a somewhat similar case.

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