Yes, You Can Cheat off Yourself

To kick off our new Writing Wednesdays blog, we’re going to talk about something that’s come up several times lately: self-plagiarism. So, what does it mean to self-plagiarize? Well, pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Self-plagiarism is when you use—in part or in whole—your own previous work without giving credit for it. This can be anywhere from taking a quote or section from one paper and using it in another to turning in a paper you wrote for another class.

That means, if you’ve ever been handed an assignment only to realize that you already wrote this paper for another class and you want to save time and turn that in, that little voice in the back of your head saying this does seem copacetic is right.

How do I know for sure? Thankfully, your ever handy style guides address this issue. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association makes it fairly clear when you can and cannot use your own work: “The general view is that the core of the new document must constitute an original contribution to knowledge, and only the amount of previously published material necessary to understand that contribution should be included, primarily in the discussion of theory and methodology.”1

Since APA generally deals with the sciences, it must take into consideration that similar research methods are used for many studies. So they understand that you may need to repeat some information for scientific methodology, but the paper itself needs to be new material, even if the process is the same. APA still requires all of the previous material (not limited to the analytical approach or resources) to be cited in the paper.2

MLA is more passive aggressive than APA, and intends to guilt you into admitting you shouldn’t even be asking this question. “If you must complete a research project to earn a grade in a course, handing in a paper you already earned credit for in another course is deceitful. Moreover, you lose the opportunity to improve your knowledge and skills.”3 (Italics and bold added to sound more like your mother.)

Like APA, MLA is catering to its audience: students. As far as they are concerned, self-plagiarism is a big no-no. It does go on to say that if a paper must be reworked for another class, you must ask your current teacher for his/her permission first.

Chicago style doesn’t directly address self-plagiarism in the same manner APA and MLA does, but it does discuss (in detail) copyright ownership and fair use law. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, what matters is “that the work be original with the author and not copied, consciously or unconsciously, from some other source.”4 By using a previous paper, the work is no longer original.

So, there you have it, all the styles that your teachers are going to tell you to use say it plain and clear: Don’t use your own work. It’s plagiarism.


1. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010), 16.

2. Ibid.

3. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2009), 59.

4. Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 157.