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A few months ago I was an external censor on a master's thesis submitted to a university in my country. I work in the private sector and do not personally have any employment at the university. As I read the thesis, I discovered that two, rather large, paragraphs written early in the thesis were re-used later in the same thesis. This was obviously a copy-paste situation as the paragrpahs were 100 % identical. I brought this up to the internal censor, and he suggested that we should confront the student with this, and let this count negatively towards the final grade, but that we should not accuse the student of self-plagiarism as we were not talking about two different academic works here. As the internal censor was, after all, employed by the university, I figured he knew these rules better than me, so I accepted this and we did not go any further with this.

Ever since then this issue has been nagging me, and I have been questioning whether what we did was right or not. In particular as there have been some rather large headline cases in my country over the last year where students have been charged with self-plagiarism for copying and pasting their own paragraphs. Note, however, that all of these cases have involved situations where the students have done this between different academic works and not within just one academic work.

I therefore wondered if anyone knows if there really are any rules pertaining to self-plagiarism if the copying/pasting of paragraphs is just contained within one body of work such as a master thesis. I assume that the rules could vary from country to country, but if anyone has encountered any similar cases, I would love to hear what, if anything, was done about it.

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    Is this a "stapler thesis" composed of multiple published papers stuck together with an introduction added on to glue them together? If so, are the repeated paragraphs found within different papers, and were they present in the original, independently published papers?
    – nick012000
    Jan 20 at 3:04

3 Answers 3

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Self-plagiarism is usually a problem for one of two reasons:

  1. It misrepresents the novelty of the work to circumvent some aspect of an assignment or gain professional credit for something that isn't actually new. For example, if you are instructed to write an essay for a course and re-use an essay submitted for a different course without disclosing, you are circumventing the task assigned in the course (which is likely meant to contribute to your education by practicing essay writing; it isn't that your professor is actually in need of another person's take on that beatnik novel). Or, you are judged by your institution or peers based in part on the number of original research papers you publish and submit effectively the same piece of work multiple times in order to make it appear as though you are producing more work than you actually are.

  2. The author isn't the only person with rights or credit for the copied text. For example, if a publisher has rights to exclusively distributing a paper under some terms of publication, the author of that text may not be permitted to distribute that same text as part of another paper if they've signed away that right. Or, when the full list of authors is not overlapping, the text from Andrews, Baker, and Cunningham is not Andrews' sole property to regurgitate in some new paper Andrews & Van Dyke.

I think the most likely explanation for reproducing a paragraph twice in a paper is a simple editing error; perhaps the author meant to move it and copied it instead by mistake. This is a bit sloppy, but not any sort of misconduct. I don't think it's something I would change a grade over for a thesis, but it might contribute to an overall sense of sloppiness that would justify a lower grade. It's certainly not something worth pursuing any higher sanction than that.

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  • Thank you very much for your answer!
    – Kristian
    Jan 19 at 21:41
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No, it isn't self (or any other) plagiarism. It is possibly an honest mistake or just being a bit sloppy. The author might even have missed it, since proofing ones own work is difficult for a variety of reasons involving the human brain and focus of attention.

If one of the paragraphs was in, say the introduction, or, perhaps, the method section then it might even be reasonable (by some definition of reasonable).

But plagiarism involves lack of citation to earlier work and misappropriation and such, which isn't the case here. There is no attempt to hide sources of ideas. Maybe not the best, but not overly serious.

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  • Thank you very much for your answer!
    – Kristian
    Jan 19 at 19:58
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If we refer to the very definition of plagiarism, as stated by Wikipedia, it is described as 'the representation of another person's language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions as one's own original work.' There isn't even a publisher issue, as it occurs within the same work. In my opinion, it's not a significant concern, but the tutor or any of the reviewers should have been able to notice the error.

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