Plagiarism—is it ever okay? No, really.

I’m writing my thesis. Therefore, I am temporarily non compos mentis. Sorry.

Logic dictates that along with the crazy comes obsessive fixation. And the current one? Plagiarism. I’m trying desperately to avoid it, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. Because first of all, what exactly is it?

Copying someone else’s words verbatim and claiming them as yours, okay that’s obvious. But how many words do you have to change before it becomes your own? For example, take this sentence, from from the onlineyest of online sources, the Huffington Post:

Separate from the inspector general’s power to ban, the FDA has resurrected something called the “Park Doctrine,” which makes it easier for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against an executive.

So that’s from an AP story on the HuffPo site, In Shift, Feds Target Top Execs For Health Fraud By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar.

Trying it verbatim, and (using yahoo) labeled it possible plagiarism. Yay, them. Duplichecker (using msn search) came up with a bunch of links that were similar, some of them the AP story, some not (like the Wikipedia page for Inspector General). So now let’s change things up a bit. How about…

Distinct from the inspector general’s authority to prohibit, the FDA has revived something termed the “Park Doctrine,” that simplifies lawyers bringing charges against senior business people.

What I did was just change a lot of the words for synonyms, and rearranged a bit. What do those free web checkers think? Again, duplichecker came up with a bunch of links, but this time none of them were the original AP article. It was likewise hunky-dorey with, and called unique by

But what do actual flesh and blood people think? Is my bastardization of the AP sentence plagiarism? Or not? Where’s that hazy line in the sand? How different does it have to be to be considered…different enough?

And why the hell am I asking?

As I mentioned above, I’m up to my armpits in thesis right now. And I’m finding myself in the situation of having to re-visit some topics, specifically ones I’ve recently written papers on. As such, how I worded intros, discussions, and conclusions is quite fresh in my mind. So fresh that I find myself writing them exactly the same way in my thesis. I’m trying to avoid it whenever I can, but sometimes still catching things that slip through. But I have a feeling I’ve been missing some.

To add to the confusion, I’ve been reading the theses of other people, from my lab or not, to see how they did things. And when I go back to some of their original sources, I’m finding some…remarkable similarities. Some in places where it’s probably not okay, and some in places where it might be.

But where are those places? When is self-plagiarism okay?

Of course I’ve already asked my adviser this. His response? “It depends.”


When pushed to his limit, he told me, “try not to do it too much.”


Look, I realize that I’m being neurotic about the whole thing and probably overthinking it to boot, but I’m trying to stay above board here. No, I don’t think I’m going to end up as a Retraction Watch post or anything, but I do want to Do a Good Job. So where and when is self-plagiarism okay? Really.

In lieu of your opinion on the matter, you also may tell me to lighten up or take me out for a drink. All are welcome.

9 responses to “Plagiarism—is it ever okay? No, really.

  • Richard

    Attribution, attribution, attribution. It is fine to copy someone’s words (within reason) if you attribute those words to their source. Because then you are not appropriating the credit, and it is clear how much of what you are writing is unique to your thesis. By always attributing to source, you show that your intent is not to plagiarise. And that includes self-plagiarism.

    If you quote directly, you should make that clear, using “quote marks” or setting the quoted paragraph indented from the main text. If paraphrasing, one could write (as per your example): ‘As the AP explains, ….’ or just write the sentence and put ‘(AP)’ afterwards. And of course, always footnote or index-reference.

    When is self-plagiarism ‘okay’? Well, if you wrote something absolutely right the first time (an introduction to the prior literature, or a description of a method), then why not quote yourself? So long as you always attribute the source. When is self-plagiarism not okay? Your new publication is supposed to contain something new, right? New data? New conclusions? New discussion?

    If you always attribute then it’s very clear what’s new and what isn’t.

  • joel kelly

    Hey, I’m totally in the same boat. What I find the problem is that I find myself writing them exactly the same way in my thesis. I’m trying to avoid it whenever I can, but sometimes still catching things that slip through. But I have a feeling I’ve been missing some. I’m really up to my armpits in my thesis.

  • joel kelly

    Just kidding. Does your school allow a “paper-based” thesis? In mine I’m allowed to state “part of this chapter was previously published: see XXXXXXXX.”

  • biochembelle

    In this particular case, I think it helps to think of the thesis as an anthology of your own work. Unless your institution has one of those crazy things about not reproducing your own published work, you’re probably okay-even from some publishers’ standpoint. As I understande the ACS copyright agreement (see p. 3, 4), you’re within your rights as author to reuse your own manuscript in your thesis-with appropriate citation. People have recycled published papers as thesis chapters for decades-it’s ridiculous (in my humble opinion) to ask them to re-write their own work for a graduation requirement.

  • Namnezia

    I agree with Biochembelle.

  • Chemjobber

    If your palms get hairy or your vision gets blurry, you’re doing it too much.

  • John S

    I think plagiarism is a compliment to the original author? And yes you are WAY over thinking about it. I would suggest however that you DO NOT use the word “onlineyest” in your thesis.

  • leigh krietsch boerner

    @joel kelley–I don’t know, but probably. Wouldn’t make much sense if they didn’t

    @biochembelle–Thanks for that! That makes a lot of sense, and citation is a wonderful thing.


    @John S–I don’t know UJ. I’ve had people post some things that were very close to things I’ve said on my other blog. I wasn’t too pleased with that.

  • Lara

    i think plagiarism is fine if u use it reasonably. seriously, if getting your ideas and copying them is illegal, then everyone would be in jail because we copy all the time.. copying and pasting is bad, but just getting ideas I think is okay (btw im a very opinionated person)

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