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So, I had somewhat of a thought experiment idea.

I'll be honest: I define plagiarism as misrepresenting who wrote (or provided the ideas of) parts of your papers. I don't believe you can self-plagiarize. If the goal of the assignment is to teach you something, and you already learned it in the past (by writing a paper that fits), I see no point in the busy work of making the current paper different enough just for the sake of it.

I realized that in the US, authors are granted a copyright to their creative works by default. (Even if few of them realize this or ever claim copyright to their works.)

Could a student use their copyright of their works to prevent (or at least seriously restrict and complicate) faculty's checking of self-plagiarism in the future? Couldn't the student just not grant the right to copy their works? If the teacher/professor hands graded work back, then they would have no copy left, and if they don't, they would have to share that one original copy with everyone who wants to check a student for self-plagiarism.

Personally, I have never (in 3+ years) had a case where I could reuse (parts of) a paper. I haven't yet had instructor specify that assignments had to be written for that assignment only. If an instructor did specify that, I would follow their rules. I would, however, try to convince them to change their mind, and this thought experiment might be part of that discussion.

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    You've identified a problem (being expected to waste time learning something you already know) and come up with the only wrong solution (turn in the same work a second time). There are many better solutions, I'll name two: (1) credit by examination (2) doing an equal amount of work on the same topic that starts where you previously left off, and therefore goes farther than your classmates. Learning more than your classmates is only a problem in a fairytale with equal outcomes for everyone, in the real world it is a very good thing. – Ben Voigt Nov 19 '15 at 3:12
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    If I were a professor I'd simply fail your examination since your work cannot follow the guidelines of the university (well, if there are). – Bakuriu Nov 19 '15 at 8:05
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    The university can see you and raise you that they automatically own the copyright of everything you write for them; and now they can forbid you from keeping a copy for yourself. I have no idea if it would stand up in court, but the university surely can make it more of a PITA for you than what you can make it for them. – Davidmh Nov 19 '15 at 8:23
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    I don't believe you can self-plagiarize. — You're welcome to believe whatever you like, but you're still subject to the consequences of breaking the rules. — If the goal of the assignment is to teach you something, and you already learned it in the past — It's the process of creation that teaches you something, not the product. – JeffE Nov 19 '15 at 13:01
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    There are situations where the author of a work does not automatically own the copyright. Works for hire are normally owned by the employer or client, for example. – Todd Wilcox Nov 19 '15 at 14:00
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First off:

I don't believe you can self-plagiarize.

I'm afraid that it doesn't matter what you believe about the word or its definition. It is not the reuse itself that is considered here, but it matters that most other academics believe that unattributed reuse of one's own work is ethically incorrect. If you choose to do things that most others label "self-plagiarism," then sooner or later it will not go well for you.

Now, as for your idea about copyright: potentially you could in fact make yourself a pain for the faculty members who deal with you. You don't even have to be right or sane about your argument, you just have to threaten to make a big legal stink. You will then greatly complicate your professor's lives, but one way or another you will not prevail: most likely either you will lose the legal case or the university may simply decline to continue instructing you.

  • How is it "unattributed" if you, the author, have signed your name to it? – Random832 Nov 19 '15 at 18:10
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    @Random832 It is "unattributed" in the sense that it does not acknowledge the original source. – jakebeal Nov 19 '15 at 18:55
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    @jakebeal: So does that mean if you attribute it and say "Portions of this paper were recycled from <blahblah> by myself" then it's okay? – The_Sympathizer Nov 20 '15 at 7:25
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    @mike3 That would certainly mean it is not unacknowledged self-plagiarism. Whether such recycling would be OK or not then depends on the policy of the professor. – jakebeal Nov 20 '15 at 13:14
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It'll never work.

I have a hard time believing that any attempt to sue the university for copyright infringement would stand up in court. I think one could make an argument that by handing in the assignment, you implicitly grant the university a license to copy it for internal use. "Fair use" permissions might also come into play.

If somehow you got the university to take your legal threats seriously, you can expect the immediate effect to be the following: all course syllabi would start to contain a clause saying something like "To take this course, you must consent to the university making and indefinitely storing copies of your work."

I think most academics would also consider that you would be acting unethically by trying this strategy. It's generally accepted that university instructors have the ultimate right to set the parameters of their courses. If those parameters include "you may not hand in work already submitted in previous courses", then I would consider that this policy is binding on you, and that if you won't abide by it, you shouldn't take the course. Your proposed strategy seems like a transparent attempt to weasel your way out of abiding by them. If you attempt to use it to get away with forbidden duplicate submissions, and you do eventually get caught, expect the full weight of academic dishonesty sanctions. Short of that, expect a very bad relationship with your university and instructors, no letters of recommendation, etc.

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    Your point about fair use is more than enough, as criticism of copyrighted use is absolutely a pillar of fair use. Assignment of a grade would simply be seen as critique and criticism of work submitted for review. – AMR Nov 19 '15 at 4:06
  • Whether this is up to instructors depends where you are. In the US this is common. In the UK it is not. But usually in that case the institution forbids e.g. gaining credit twice for substantially similar work in the context of, say, the award of degrees. – cfr Nov 19 '15 at 22:20
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Interesting question! Let me address the points you make and ask about. Like the other answers, I will take the liberty of discussing not just your literal question but some of the other issues you raise, which I find quite thought-provoking.

I'll be honest:

That's a good idea, especially since you are posting your somewhat misguided beliefs in a public forum from a user profile that clearly reveals your identity.

I define plagiarism as misrepresenting who wrote (or provided the ideas of) parts of your papers.

Okay, that's a reasonable way of putting it.

I don't believe you can self-plagiarize.

Hmm. I think you are falling into a common trap here that is related to the unfortunate and rather misleading terminology associated with the behavior referred to as "self-plagiarism." Indeed, when you submit your own work you are not "plagiarizing from yourself" in the sense of "misrepresenting who wrote parts of your paper," since you are claiming that the paper was written by you, and indeed it was. Rather, self-plagiarism involves a misrepresentation of when (or in what context) the work you are submitting was written. It is an unethical thing to do, but for slightly different reasons than plagiarism, and it is not a special case of plagiarism; it is quite a different offense.

If the goal of the assignment is to teach you something, and you already learned it in the past (by writing a paper that fits), I see no point in the busy work of making the current paper different enough just for the sake of it.

But are you not assuming a rather narrow interpretation of "the goal of the assignment"? Would it not be equally plausible to say that "the goal of the assignment" is to increase your knowledge of a certain subject? In that interpretation, if you have already learned "something," the assignment would be an opportunity for you to learn even more about the "something" in question. Rather than submitting the same work a second time, you could reach the goal of increasing your knowledge by expanding on your earlier work (as Ben Voigt suggests in a comment), and achieve an even deeper level of knowledge and understanding, and do all of this without needing to work any harder than any of the other students.

Now, it's not for me to say that my interpretation of "the goal of the assignment" is correct and yours is incorrect. That's really for your university and professors, who are the ones giving you the assignment, to say. However, I will point out that my interpretation is motivated by a desire to maximize the new knowledge I gain from a given situation I find myself in, whereas your interpretation seems motivated by an apparent desire to minimize the amount of work you put in for your classes. A good university will definitely want to appeal to students like me more than it would want to appeal to students like you, so I suspect it will agree with my interpretation (and I know this for a fact in the case of my own university).


And finally, to your actual question:

Could a student use their copyright of their works to prevent (or at least seriously restrict and complicate) faculty's checking of self-plagiarism in the future? Couldn't the student just not grant the right to copy their works?

The main problem with this idea is that as a student, the legal rights that you have in practice are very different than the legal rights that you have in theory. Remember, you want something from your university: a degree. Because of that, the university can force you to voluntarily give up all kinds of rights that you might theoretically have, just by making that a condition for getting grades and eventually your degree. For this reason, your idea will never work. As others have pointed out, as soon as you attempt to exercise this right to prevent your professors from copying your work, or any other right that your university reasonably perceives as interfering with its educational mission, the university will simply insist that you must waive that right if you want to remain a student in good standing. I am not a lawyer, but I don't see anything that would prevent your university from making such a requirement.

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    'learn even more about the "something" in question' - that sounds good in theory, but I think it is somewhat unrealistic in many situations. If the assignment is to write a binary tree class with preorder, inorder and postorder traversal methods, then the code that does so is what it is. There is not much more to dive into. Furthermore, as an instructor, I have a certain idea of what effort students will typically spend on a given task, and thereby, how "deeply" they are going to dive into the topic. If I ask them to implement an AVL tree, ... – O. R. Mapper Nov 19 '15 at 10:07
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    ... my expectation is that they do exactly that, in order to get (1) programming practice, (2) practice in handling pointers, and (3) an idea of how self-balancing trees work. I would certainly not want students to dive into optimizing this particular kind of trees, given that AVL trees are rarely used in practice and are primarily taught because they are a reasonably demonstrative and not too complicated example of self-balancing trees. If the above expectations have already been met by a student, I would prefer if they did something entirely different rather than cling to the assignment. – O. R. Mapper Nov 19 '15 at 10:08
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    @O.R.Mapper no problem, if you would prefer if they did something entirely different, then you could assign them an alternative exercise since they have already learned as much as you think anybody needs to know about AVL trees. This is consistent with my answer, if you interpret "something" more broadly as, say, trees, or data structures, rather than something super specific. Anyway, as the instructor I'm sure you will figure out a good way for the student to make productive use of his time to further his knowledge, in keeping with the philosophy of my answer. – Dan Romik Nov 19 '15 at 10:25
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    Also, if you don't mind students reusing code (as you stated above), then the student is not committing self-plagiarism. In that case, presumably you factored reuse of code into the scope of the assignments, so that the time the student will need to work on his project is no less on average than for any other student. In that case that part of my answer will not apply. Again, I see no inconsistency between what you're saying and my principle that the goal of an assignment is to generally further one's knowledge rather than to learn some very specific skill that one might have already learned. – Dan Romik Nov 19 '15 at 10:32
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    @O.R.Mapper ok, fair enough. I think your philosophy is reasonable and internally consistent, as is mine. – Dan Romik Nov 19 '15 at 11:13
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The business trajectory of Turnitin provides a fairly conclusive answer to this question: no, at this point copyright offers little or no protection against checking for any sort of plagiarism, including self-plagiarism.

  • Good link! It does sound like that article only refers to the case where a student agreed to a contract though. Not that making students agree to a contract that allows copying their work wouldn't be the result of a student trying to pull this (as mentioned in other answers). – Azendale Nov 19 '15 at 2:49
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    Personally I consider it highly unethical that universities store my work for an indefinite amount of time in some dubious third party system. (Luckily none of my work was submitted to such a system) – CodesInChaos Nov 19 '15 at 8:39
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    I don't disagree, CodesInChaos -- I don't like and don't use Turnitin, and would not mourn if it fell off the face of the earth. – D.Salo Nov 19 '15 at 13:00
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At least at my institution, submitting to one class work that was done previously for another class would not count as plagarism (see Article II of our Honor Code). Plagiarism is clearly defined to be submitting the work of another person without proper attribution. In fact, the enumerated items in Section 3 wouldn't apply to your example. But there are two catch-all's -- first, "Students are expected to act according to the highest ethical standards" and second, "other acts of academic misconduct may be defined by the professor."

For the first point, I assure you that submitting work a second time would be brought as "unethical" behavior in the absence of anything else. And while one could try to argue in front of the judiciary committee that it was, somehow, not unethical, I am fairly certain that argument wouldn't work (having served on the committee and been an advisor to students facing the committee).

But the second point is the most direct. In Section 4, it says faculty are expected to:

Make known to their class as specifically as possible what constitutes appropriate academic conduct as well as what comprises academic misconduct. This includes but is not limited to the use of previously submitted work, collaborative work on homework, etc.

Every professor I have ever taken has included a line on the syllabus that says all work is expected to be our own, original, not used previously, and done within whatever limits they want to impose about collaboration. So in every class I have ever taken, re-using work would be an academic violation -- not because of plagiarism, not because of copyright or lack-thereof, but because it was explicitly said that it was not allowed.

And in the odd case that it wasn't listed that way, it would be wrapped up under unethical behavior and shot down anyway.

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In my classes, I design the interface in such a way that there is a certain amount of understanding and adaptation necessary to make it work with the exercise which makes naive plagiarism difficult.

I expressly allow students to use own prior work, as long as it is clearly indicated which part of the work was carried out before. I consider it good practice to understand how earlier work can be fit into later projects, and if adaptation is easily possible, it speaks well of the design ability and mental flexibility of the students and thus can even gain bonus marks.

However: for this, the added value of current achievement with respect to past achievement must be transparently assessable. What is called "self-plagiarism" here, is trying to obfuscate the delineation with respect to past achievement. This is the actual assessment offence here; this component it has in common with "traditional" plagiarism (and it holds independently from the unethical aspect of withholding credit from whoever would deserve it which is not relevant here).

Abusing the law to get away with unethical behaviour may work may appear to be subversive fun for "legislation hackers". However, one needs to keep in mind that the fact that there may be a legislative hole (if there is one in this case) is not necessarily a sign of gullibility of the system, but of time-effort tradeoff. For the powers-that-be it may be a better tradeoff to set a drastic example to one individual abusing the system and leave the legislative hole open than to close the hole and make all others suffer from the restrictions. Although, in my experience, both things happen.

In other words, chances are, one won't get away with the copyright/self-copy model, and everybody else at the uni will be slapped with additional restrictions on the copyright they can retain (if there were no or looser restrictions before) and possibly other restrictions. In other words, one would have poisoned the village well. Of course, just in your thought experiment.

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