Some people have asked whether the term “self-plagiarism” is appropriate. After all, the very idea seems strange, kind of like calling suicide self-murder. Can one really murder oneself? And can one really plagiarize oneself?
While I understand the response, this designation seems appropriate for at least three reasons. Reason 1: both plagiarism of others and oneself involve presenting previously published work as one’s own new work. In one case the work was originally published by another, in another case by oneself. But the core practice remains the same. Reason 2: the difference between the two is duly noted in the distinction between plagiarism simplicter and self-plagiarism. Reason 3: the word plagiarism carries with it a social stigmatization that is appropriate to the context.
Of course, if some folk remain dissatisfied with the designation “self-plagiarism” then they are free to proffer a new term that conveys the appropriate meaning replete with some appropriate degree of social stigmatization. I have no problem with that.
Now on to the question of the wrongness of the practice.
Imagine that there is a boy band called Ally Stirs My Wrath. On their self-titled debut album they have ten songs including the hits “It’s you girl” and “Girl, I love you girl”. A year later they release a follow-up album and two of the songs are “It’s you girl, remix” and “Girl, I love you girl, remix”. No problem. But now imagine that these two remixes were included on the album listing as two new songs. Even a twelve year old fan of the band would be ready to complain about that one. It is misleading to label previously recorded, remixed songs as new songs. And if they appear on a new album title with new titles then of course people will think they’re getting new songs. Nor can you blame the disgruntled fan who failed to read the small print on the back of the album that stated some new song titles consisted of previously recorded songs remixed.
Now what about calling a practice like that “sin”? The objection seems to be rooted in some kind of view of sin as some very lofty action. But of course it need not be. Imagine that Ginny is sitting in her grade three class when her friend asks if she can buy Ginny’s Strawberry Shortcake eraser for fifty cents. Ginny declines. After all, she likes the eraser. Indeed, she likes it so much that she carries it in her tight little fist later that afternoon when she goes to the bathroom. “Oops!” Plop. Goodness, no! Ginny just dropped her eraser in the toilet. She fishes it out with a piece of paper towel, dries it off and returns to the classroom. “Hey, I decided to sell you my eraser after all,” Ginny says to her surprised and delighted friend. A relatively minor indiscretion to be sure, but still wrong, and thereby still a sin. Why? That much should be obvious. Ginny witholds information that may affect her friend’s willingness to purchase the eraser. (Pssst, hey, Ginny’s friend. That moistness isn’t just from Ginny’s sweaty palm.) In doing that Ginny fails in her love of neighbor, of doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you. (After all, if Ginny wanted to purchase her friend’s Care Bear pencil she’d want to know whether it had ever been dropped in the loo.)
The recycling of old material into new chapters in new books isn’t the crime of the century, but it too is a failure to disclose very important information to the consumer (and perhaps the editor/publisher). Imagine if every time McGrath published a new book he rendered the portions of text that had been previously published in red font. A person could then flip through the book and say “Gee, he’s already published a lot of this material. No thanks.” But the reader has no such information. Like the new Ally Steals My Wrath album, the “remixes” are embedded under the cover of new song titles.
Now for a final observation. Should Christians not expect the very highest standards of scholarly integrity from a Christian scholar (a theologian and apologist, no less!) who stands as a representatives of the Christian community to a skeptical world?