The Ghost of Self-Plagiarism

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The Ghost of Self-Plagiarism

The Ghost of Self-Plagiarism

Elusory Misconduct that still Takes Place

I wrote a poem once and it was so amazing,

Which made me realize: “This is my style of phrasing!”

My narrow-fisted muse provides ideas seldom,

I’m sitting so obtuse and nothing can compel me,

But then it strikes my mind – a poem I once wrote

Is better than all chimes my rigid muse can quote,

So, I immerse myself in imitation art,

Is plagiarism that bad when you express your heart? ;)

When thinking about self-plagiarism, such funny rhymes came to my mind. Perhaps, these mind ramblings subconsciously stem from Alfred Hitchcock’s quote "Self-plagiarism is style." But can this form of self-imitation be so easily justified? If you are gifted and you can obviously create something, then it means when you personify your ideas for the first time, you can also do it for the second time and multiple of other times, but the only rule you must keep in mind: do not repeat yourself radically.

  • Plagiarism of Ideas: Is it Complete Nonsense? 
  • Taking self-plagiarism aside, let’s think about one more almost “mythical” phenomenon as “plagiarism of ideas”. Similar ideas are not plagiarism, as we know it is typical of authors, artists, musicians, and other representatives of the creative realms to work within specific genres. Technically, you cannot plagiarize a genre or an idea as plagiarism is mostly about the precise sequence of the expressed thoughts, which were copied from the initial source. However, I somewhat disagree with the opponents of the view that ideas cannot be plagiarized. For instance, it's curious to compare the following literary works: “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson and “Problemat Czelawy” (The Problem of Czelawa) by Stephan Grabinski. I do not intend to unfold significant spoilers, so I encourage you to read both the Scottish gothic novella and the Polish short story to collate the ideas the two wordsmiths used, and the sequence of events narrated in the fictional oeuvres. The main coincidence of the plot lies in the specific depiction of duality a human being is subject to. In both cases, a certain experiment takes place, which brings an antagonistic alter ego to life. 

    Since Grabinski is a revered author only in the minority circles of literary eggheads, the critics barely know him, which makes them remain silent about the possible plagiarism. The fact itself is intrinsic: the famous story about Jeckyll and Hyde was published 32 years before Grabinski's semblable brainchild. I can only guess, but I am almost sure that the Polish author read “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Well, was he inspired by it directly? That’s a secret he took with him to his grave, but every writer, even an amateur one, can relate to those "waves of fake enlightenment", as I would call it. If you’ve been writing poetry or prose, you know the feeling of fever in the middle of the creative process: you are expressing your thoughts in some cosmic exaltation, your words are flowing like a mountain stream, and everything you produce seems to be purely original. Under such circumstances, you do not have the exact influences in mind, though you have sudden flashbacks of the plots you previously encountered; the memory works wickedly, making you delusionally think that these are fresh ideas born at this juncture. 

    Considering my previous reflections, is plagiarism of ideas (I mean when the exact storyline and the depiction of similar characters make ideas not abstract but precise ones) a common phenomenon in the creative world and not a coincidence? If yes, can a punishment for idea plagiarism be as strict as for the more conventional version of this invidious appropriation? What seems to be absurd often makes sense. Of course, an idea itself is something too abstract until the moment you express it, so this so-called “plagiarism of ideas” refers to the specific sequence of the notions’ expression or, in other words, the linguistic embodiment of ideas. You may say that only copying word for word denotes plagiarism, but if you rewrite a sentence using synonyms, its essence will stay the same. Hence, rewriting and paraphrasing without providing references equally constitute plagiarism. If you copy a certain part, while filling other pages with your own reflections, it is still regarded as plagiarism. So, what is able to protect your work against its malicious presence? Sheer Authenticity, darlings, and nothing else can conquer this lazy beast of anti-intellect. (I’m becoming high-flown again when thinking about the final realization of the half-ephemeral concept of geniocratic society where only original oeuvres are presented and accepted… it is impossible to achieve it because people got used to contrasts: which kind of evil will we try conquering then?... Perhaps, our own pretentious minds…) Okay, after this lyrical shift, there’s one more noteworthy thing that your professors or editors constantly repeat but it frequently appears on the outskirts of some tricky oblivion of our brains: you should always quote your “heroes” and you shouldn't neglect quoting yourself if the topic of your new work coincides with the one you previously wrote. Sadly, a malicious virus of chronic forgetfulness spreads tremendously and people indulge in self-duplication instead of self-development. Sounds cynical? Well, I think the truth doesn’t have the most beautiful face. Let’s play our roles and instruments further… 

  • Self-Plagiarism in Music World: Seven Notes Excuse is not Legit
  • Have you ever recognized a composer by the exact melody recurrent in different works? I’m sure – yes. Concurrently, if I say that Ludwig van Beethoven is self-plagiarist, the noble classical music elite will eat me alive. How do I dare to criticize a genius? Is it even rational to accuse such a great composer of self-plagiarism? Of course not. In Beethoven’s case, the most recognizable melody that was initially intended for “The Symphony of Fate” reoccurs in his miscellaneous efforts. So how can we justify that it doesn’t have any relation to self-plagiarism? It is simplicity itself as the famous “musical phrase” appears to be the common leitmotif of his works, a certain uniting force, and, as a modern person would say – his tidbit or schtick, or in more conservative terms, this melodious repetition is Beethoven’s hallmark. Another simple fact that dissolves doubts regarding self-plagiarism is that every composition of his is unquestionably discrepant, representing a separate piece.

  • Rammstein’s “Rammstein”. Even the Name of the Album is a Doppelganger. “I can’t help hearing the same patterns. So many songs are like twins.”
  • The newest album by Rammstein shattered the world. Unluckily, it wasn’t as great as it could be, it wasn’t as bad as some reiterated, but it wasn’t something new at all. Even longtime fans often commented on this music creation, saying something like, “I wasn’t impressed because all those songs are like flashbacks, imitations of their hits, all that music they created in the past…” My friend said “I can’t help hearing the same patterns. Many songs of this band are like twins.” and the swarm of thoughts about self-plagiarism saturated my mind. The most evident “self-plagiarism” occurs in “Deutschland” where we encounter a piano version of their famous song “Die Sonne” in the finale of this controversial track… Oh my, how could they not bother to do something crucial for such a long-expected (and possibly the last) album? Is it a drawback of fame? It means if you are loved all over the world, so that you can feed your audience with the same music patterns all the time, thinking that blinded adherents won’t even notice… At any rate, that’s not right and honorable, and they Will notice. Let’s estimate that these are the reflections of an angry fan who constantly seeks new music ideas and feels fooled in this case. Then how should we acquit Rammstein’s homogeneity? Alright, I’m not on the side of the angry ones: this piano moment sounds awesome, and why can’t we perceive it as a quote? Music, in such case, doesn’t need references as we all know that this was created by Rammstein and it doesn’t matter that this music phrase belongs to the past; besides, it was reinterpreted. It’s the same situation as with Beethoven’s repeated pattern, which doesn’t annihilate his authenticity. Does it mean that all musicians, artists, directors, and the rest of the inventive world have the right to repeat themselves to remain recognizable? That’s a banal but a veritable thought. It’s much easier to blame any popular creative person for plagiarizing a rival or an unknown poet or musician, but not themselves. I’m even on the verge of giving up in order to state that self-plagiarism is a myth, but hell no, it exists!...

  • Self-plagiarism in the Academic World
  • Let’s become students again (at least in our imagination; I can assume that studying within the established system is not compelling for some of you anymore) and confess a simple fact: university life reveals great opportunities, turns school nerds into whimsical eggheads, and it gives us the precious knowledge, but the main gems remain beyond our manuals. The transpicuous truth could be illuminated in such a sentence, if some deity of Hedonism said it, – you are young, beautiful, strong, rebellious, creative, will you sacrifice the unique moments in order to devote this amazing time merely to grinding away at your books? If you say yes, you’re a fool (and I won’t believe you, anyway). We, as students, do not scribble dissertations or even scientific articles all the time, but even when we write such works and endeavor to illustrate all the knowledge we obtained along with the benefits of our experimental minds, the number of these oeuvres appears to be never enough for our professors. Rigid instructors constantly encourage us to publish our achievements in scientific journals, but a good achievement is rarer than you might have acknowledged. So yes, an abundance of scholarly papers are duplicated in academic journals. They are written excellently, they may enlighten incredible investigations, but they are also typical examples of self-plagiarism. Of course, not only students are guilty of it; self-plagiarism in professorship world occurs often, especially in the developing countries. Nevertheless, these are other stories that are yet to be uncovered. My next goal is to interview students and find sly ways to discover the tricks of self-plagiarism. I hope you will wait for my next article – I will try to surprise you.

    P.S. This naughty boggart, which probably wears a hat made of quills, paint-brushes, and orchestral horns (whatever), is difficult to catch, but every witty mind is able to sense plagiarism and self-replicas... the originality seekers also have own ingenious ploys, so if you are on the dark side – beware! 

Miroslava Meyrink
Freelance Writer.
Elegant soul that finds beauty in everyday things.
Also, a bookworm specializing in gothic literature.
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