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"The student shall not be entitled to […] submit his/her own previously assessed, published or annulled work without informing the person to whom it is submitted” (CBS Study Administrative Rules (SAR))

Self-plagiarism vs. plagiarism

As the name suggests, self-plagiarism is the act of using one´s own work in an unethical way. The issue is not surprisingly related to that of second-party plagiarism, i.e. borrowing from other people, which was covered in the Plagiarism section of this guide, but is quite under-appreciated in comparison and is perhaps also less self-evident.  They are both, however, considered violations of the CBS code of conduct and both carry the risk of sanction.

In the case of second-party plagiarism, the violation is relatively obvious and the implications quite straightforward. It is the result of active appropriation, whether by design or accident, of somebody else´s work and as such does not reflect any intellectual competence on the part of the plagiarist, other than perhaps a propensity for creativeness.

Self-plagiarism is different. It originates intellectually with the self-plagiarist themselves and in this way does reflect an inherent competence in that person. However, there is another underlying premise that is not often discussed explicitly in the context of “traditional” or second-party plagiarism because it is superseded by other problems, that of situational specificity.

Exam requirements

When a student sits an exam, the inputs that are to be assessed in that particular exam are expected, and indeed required, to be specific to that exam. In other words, a student´s contribution needs to be a direct and unique response to the exam question and the concrete intent of the exam situation.

The whole point of an exam, whether oral or written, is to gauge student skills in concrete problem-solving situations specific to the subject at hand.

In essence, this means that you are not permitted to answer an exam question by recycling a response that was prepared for, and assessed in, another exam situation, even if the gist of the two exams is identical.    

In the case of an oral exam, the issue is a bit abstract, as it is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate exactly what may have been said in another exam.

In a written exam, however, the mechanics are more favorable to recycling as it is basically just a matter of copy and paste, perhaps with a bit of word tweaking thrown in to adapt to the new context.  

An example

You have been asked in a methodology course to prepare a synopsis on a future project and to account for the methodological options, issues, and choices pertaining to that project. This synopsis is part of the examination of that particular course, which means that it needs to be assessed and accepted for you to successfully complete the course.

In a different course, perhaps in a different year, you are asked to do a study and write an exam paper. In your methods section you need to account for the methodological options, issues, and choices, just like in the synopsis previously. Because the object of your new study in many important ways are identical to the project that you discussed in your synopsis, it seems reasonable to reach back and use the synopsis discussion again. It is your own intellectual work and it does do the job in the new context also, so what is the problem?!, you may ask

The problems are two-fold

  • the exam paper, or at least the methods section of that paper, is neither a direct nor a unique response to the new exam question and context but an adapted response created for a different question and a different exam situation.
  • the original synopsis has already been submitted for assessment, albeit in a different course. which makes the methods section unqualified for re-assessment and would be considered a case of self-plagiarism at CBS.


Referencing is the key

Just like in the case of second-party plagiarism, the key to avoiding any accusation of foul play is to be transparent about the sources that you rely on in your exam paper, and the way to be transparent is to observe proper and meticulous referencing practices. 

By leaving in a citation and a reference to your previously assessed work, you provide the person assessing your paper with all the necessary information to avoid accusations of self-plagiarism, should a suspicion otherwise arise.

A couple of things to consider before citing yourself

However, recycling contents from your previous work may come across as disingenuous, and citing your own student paper is not generally considered good academic practice. More importantly, the person assessing your paper may not at all agree with the use of recycled contents in the new exam paper. So even if a citation will keep you out of harm´s way in  a very formal way in terms of (self-)plagiarism, it does not guarantee a smooth process. Evaluation of contents and of the relevant use of source material is always the prerogative of the assessor. For this reason, it is always a good idea to double-check with your supervisor before including parts of a previously assessed paper.            

In the same vein, but in reverse: if your professor tells you in class that it is okay to include parts of a previously assessed written exam in a new exam paper and later this new paper is flagged for plagiarism by an external examiner, these accusations cannot be dismissed by referring back to the professor guidelines. A professor does not have the authority to circumvent, tweak, or interpret the formal exam requirements as stipulated in the CBS guidelines on academic integrity.

The essence

Only recycle previously assessed contents for good reason and after consultation with your supervisor, and always make sure to include a citation and a corresponding reference to avoid accusations of self-plagiarism. 

Section Author

Joshua Kragh Bruhn -