There has been plenty of discussion on the basic issue of students self-plagiarizing from one course to another as well as academics self-plagiarizing prior but unpublished material in a later publication, but I was thinking of something slightly different that I haven't seen discussed.

Is it plagiarism for a student to submit material that was written prior to the course start date or otherwise outside of the supervision of the instructor as long as the material was written outside the aegis of academia? Most self-plagiarism policies that I've seen, such as Harvard's, mention that the prior work must have been submitted to another course for it to constitute self-plagiarism.

If doing something like that would be ethical, would any of the following further situations be ethical?

1) Submitting prior material that was prepared for a prior class but never submitted/turned in. This could be because the student withdrew from the course before submission, the student was expelled before submission, or the student decided to start over from scratch on the assignment. For example, a student writes a paper on Mary Shelley for his Survey of British Literature course, but then decides that he really would rather do a paper on Jane Austen and writes one on her and turns it in instead. Later, the student finds himself enrolled in Introduction to Science Fiction and finds himself without a lot of time. Is it ethical for him to patch up his never submitted Mary Shelley paper (e.g. with corresponding corrections to make it meet the expectations of the new course) and turn it in?

2) Submitting prior material that was completed and submitted for a course that the student took an an unaccredited university (or a university whose accreditation is not recognized by the student's current institution as legitimate). Since an unaccredited university is, for most intents and purposes in academia, academically equivalent to no university at all (degrees and credits are not recognized, etc.), this would seem to be ethically equivalent to submitting material completed under the supervision of a private tutor.

  • There are a lot of discussions on self-plagiarism. Here's one: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2893/… In my opinion, you can't plagiarize yourself. I know, Harvard and Yale have policy against, it; I'm not there. For my Master's degree, I was allowed to quote myself from non-academic conference presentations I had given.
    – MikeP
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 1:06
  • 1
    Thanks, but I'm looking for thoughts on this specific subset of self-plagiarism with the understanding that "traditional" self-plagiarism is already widely considered to be unethical. Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 1:14
  • 2
    Definitions may vary, but I have always considered citation to be a protection against any sort of plagiarism. Just make it obvious what part was copied and where it was copied from and you're not plagiarizing. Of course they can then flunk you for not putting in enough work on the assignment... (and you can also be in violation of copyright IF the original work was circulated commercially).
    – user11599
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 3:48
  • How did your instructor respond when you asked them this question? (You did ask your instructor, didn't you?)
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 24, 2017 at 20:00

3 Answers 3


The best approach would be to discuss this with the instructor of the course to see whether it satisfies the requirements of the assignment.


Short answer: you are not committing self-plagiarsm.

It is self-plagiarism, if you intend to reuse significant portions of your own published material without proper attribution.

Looking in to your aspect, your situations do not account to any materials being published in any sort. Attribution in here refers to adding a remark to be able to access the original source of the information; in other words, citing it. What will you cite if that's the case?

You are publishing a material with the intention to benefit a wider scientific community in addition for receiving credit for doing so. The material itself is not published in any way available to the public nor does the original source have any constraints on its public exposure (check this part with the institution just in case). If all this applies, then by no means are you committing self-plagiarism.


In the first case you mentioned, submitting work you have never previously submitted, that is absolutely ok.

In the second case, even if an institution is non-accredited, technically you still submitted the work to be graded, which is tantamount to "publishing" it. Whether you would get caught depends on whether that non-accredited institution submitted your work into the universal database (Turnitin or whatever).

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    I agree with both these points. If it hasn't been submitted, it can't be self-plagiarism. If it was, even if it was unaccredited, it is reuse. I don't think the question ought to be "will I be caught by TurnItIn".) But I think it makes sense to ask the instructor if it would be OK. And if it was the instructor asking this question, and there is no university policy, then I imagine it'd be a judgment call by the instructor (I'd allow it myself). Commented May 10, 2017 at 15:34

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