Things we hadn’t started worrying about yet: self-plagiarism

Sam Smith – I’ve stayed away from the topic of black reparations as promoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the Atlantic for a number of reasons:

  • It’s another of those solutions that makes modern liberalism more like a religion than a political movement, which is to say certification of  liberals’ personal virtue has become more important than the actual results of their policies.
  • It is another issue that would hopelessly and pointlessly divide the country and distract it from more effective economic and social programs.
  • As a theological solution it has been around a long time aka original sin and Calivinism and it hasn’t worked well at all. I prefer the existential and Quaker approach that we define ourselves by what we do and say now, not by the faults of those in the past.

But that wasn’t how Coates caught my attention most recently. Rather it was that he dumped on one of his critics of reparations for the alleged sin of self-plagiarism.

You can read about it here if life is too exciting for you right now. About the only fun part was that the editor of the Examiner – where George Mason professor Walter Williams committed the purported offense – finally responded to Coates’ tweets, according to Talking Points Memo, by putting this line under Wiliams’ column:  “Syndicated columnist Walter Williams expressed these views on the issue of reparations in columns he wrote a decade ago. It appears Williams’ views have not changed.”

Until the last year or so, I didn’t even know there was a phrase called “self-plagiarism.” If you Google for a definition, you get not dictionaries but academic sites where the term appears to have had its origins.

This is not insignificant because of the continuing efforts to define journalism as a profession rather than as a trade, which is what it actually is. Professions distinguish themselves by having all sorts of rules and prohibitions. They also tend to be more pretentious and like to argue about all sorts of inside stuff like whether what someone wrote was “self plagiarism.”

I started out in journalism as a 19 year old whose duties on some days included writing nine radio newscasts, three between 530 and 630 pm. I don’t have any records but I must have self-plagiarized innumerable times each day because the news just didn’t change that fast.

The fact is that most news is not literature, it’s not academic research, it’s just news. It comes and it goes and most people don’t remember what you wrote ten years ago.

The real problem with quoting yourself is two fold:

  • A few may remember you wrote it before and find it boring.
  • If you write something like, “As I opined on May 3, 2009,” readers may not only find it boring but sort of yucky.

So you try to avoid both faults – not by professional standards but by common sense. We might argue over whether Williams did so in this case, but I won’t because it would not be a good way to keep you reading this article.

I have another problem. I play music and like to tell jokes. If I didn’t self plagiarize in both instances, life would become far more tedious – in the case of music impossible. But over time, you learn not to tell the same jokes to the same person because they will no longer think you funny. That is not a moral issue, but one of personal survival

If the journalism professionals who have wrecked the trade by trying to make it just another grad school degree want to insist on no self-plagiarism, they should at least let us run footnotes in our articles so we don’t have to break the flow of what we’re writing about.

Better yet, go teach some place else and leave journalism a happy, modest trade.

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