Blogging & Social Media Tips, Op-Ed

Repurposing Content or Self-Plagiarism?

13 Sep , 2018  

Repurposing Content

Most authors have a drawer full of stories, scraps of research notes for an article that never was, a “trunk novel” or two, a folder of files full of flotsam and fluff. These may never see the light of day. Or, they may be pulled out, dusted off, edited and added to, and become a bestseller.

Bloggers tend to have a lot of posts that were relevant, once upon a time, but are long past their expiration date. “The Internet” is where words go to die, withering in the back alleys of seedy Spammerview, or falling off the SEO cliff as fresher or more “evergreen” content feeds the machine. Mostly, this is a good thing. We’re all hungry for new things to read – the very word “novel” means “new” – so there’s no harm in this.

But now and then, we have an old post with lasting, “evergreen” content that barely saw the pale light of day before falling into obscurity. Or we wrote on an issue that has recently become relevant again.

Mitch Mitchell suggests that there are twenty-four ways to repurpose your content. He even explains how he arrived at the number 24 which, if you’re a blogger, is worth knowing.

The first is more “resuscitation” than “recycling”: “Even if some of your previous content is already online in other places, you can get some benefit out of it by linking to it and then writing about it, talking about what was on your mind when you wrote it, what changes there might be to it now…” I did that, in my second paragraph. “Spammerview” is a fun little story that just about anyone who’s spent more than an hour or two on the Internet can relate to. I had a real-life venue in mind, too, when I wrote it – a back alley behind a restaurant in Georgetown, where I saw a rat the size of a small cat scuttling in the shadows, many years ago. It might be better if I dusted it off, edited, and reposted it on my current blog, but maybe you’ll poke around the older blog and find other bits of fluff worth reading, while you’re over there.

Mitch mentions the search engines’ hunger for longer content, not just “news.” I’d just say that the blog post, short story, or novel should be as long as it needs to be – no more, no less. Let the chips fall where they may. I think, and hope, that the data scientists behind the search engines have figured out better algorithms to measure “quality” of writing on a topic than mere word count, keywords, and such. You can delve into the science behind it, or puzzle out all the ways you might manipulate the system – or you can just write. My roots are firmly wrapped around the pen, so my money’s on the writing, and may the best writers win.

For readers, “winning” often means paging through search results and not just stopping on page 3 of Google. But that’s up to you.

One bit of advice from Mitch’s post that I’ll quibble with is to “update your blog’s permalink to better match your updated article.” Do not do this unless you know how to set up a redirect from the old permalink to the new one. Or, unless you’re sure that no one has linked to the old one. Never mind that – if the search engines have ever seen it, you need to set up a permanent redirect if you’re going to change the permalink.

Speaking of redirects, you need to set those up (or ask your host to do it) if you move from http: to https: (that is, if you add an SSL certificate to secure your site). Search engines see these as two different sites. You’ll also want to serve up a new sitemap.xml!

Reading Mitch’s post about recycling content, a few other thoughts occurred to me.

Persuasive Writing is Propaganda

All persuasive writing is propaganda, isn’t it? The word “propaganda” had benign origins in Latin, where it merely meant to spread or to propagate. One of its earliest uses was in connection with the Catholic faith. It did not take on the negative connotation it has, today, until the middle of the 19th century, when it came to be used in politics. (See Propaganda on Wikipedia.) Whether it’s evil or not depends on the writer, but it is all “emotionally manipulative.” One could argue that the most starkly rational, academic journal article whispers, “Only you can understand the logic, the facts, the figures…” and appeals to the ego of the reader. To some, it just seems to snarl, “You’re not smart enough. Go read Dr. Seuss.” Does that challenge you to defy it, and read? Or do you give up and mumble something derogatory about those “damned intellectuals”? I’d argue that all persuasive writing is propaganda, but that that doesn’t mean the motives are bad. The primary motive of the writer is simply to be read, but consider the underlying purpose of the words. Is it to engage a team of scientists and pique their curiosity in new research that may lead to a cure for cancer? Or is it to persuade “nice people” that genocide might not be so bad, after all?

Read, read, read. Read widely, read skeptically, read critically. But don’t stop reading, just because of what I wrote, above. I believe that the more we read, the more immune we are to being manipulated into agreeing with a single viewpoint. The more able we are to think for ourselves and to form our own, more knowledgeable opinions. So do, please, read.

Self-Plagiarism?

Let me start by saying that I think the term, itself, muddies the waters by overly widening the definition of “plagiarism.” It’s impossible to plagiarize one’s own, original work. That said, it is entirely possible for one to recycle one’s own, original work in unethical ways – ways that violate someone else’s copyright, or constitute academic dishonesty, or violate the terms of an agreement, such as a publisher’s submission guidelines specifying “previously unpublished work only.” These are issues of copyright, contract law, and fraud. But self-plagiarism? With apologies to Miguel Roig, who appears to have invented the term, I think the notion of “self-plagiarism” only sullies the already-muddied waters of copyright law and presents a more confusing definition of the word “plagiarism.”

“Although plagiarism is not a criminal or civil offense, plagiarism is illegal if it infringes an author’s intellectual property rights, including copyright or trademark.”

From “Plagiarism: What is it, Exactly?” by Stephanie Morrow, December 2009

In other words, plagiarism (self or otherwise) is unethical, not illegal. Copyright or trademark violation is a crime. The question of plagiarism is one of fairness. If I copied a folk tale written in the 1700s, word for word, and passed it off as my own, it would be plagiarism; however, the work would be in the “public domain”  – so it would be legal, if not ethical. And if I tried to copyright it, I’d run into problems. Because everyone has the same rights. Disney can copyright their version of – their derivative work based on – classic fairytales. But anyone can write their own original derivative of the “Cinderella” story or “Snow White.” They can’t use the characters Disney added to the story, but their story is based on Charles Perrault’s version of the story, and its real origins go back even farther. It’s worth noting that you cannot copyright an idea, only your unique and original expression of it.

If I repurpose my own writing – recycling bits from older blog posts, for example – that’s absolutely my right, provided I haven’t sold or given away rights in the work. If another blogger copies an article from my blog, without permission from me, or without citing me as the source, it’s plagiarism. Even paraphrased or “spun,” it’s still a copyright violation – an unauthorized, derivative work.

If I submit a short story that has already appeared on the blog for publication in a magazine, I owe the publisher full disclosure, because the work is technically “previously published” and may have been widely read, but not because I’m “self-plagiarizing.” In granting a publisher exclusive rights, I could be guilty of copyright violation if I retain as published, or republish, my own work. But it’s still not plagiarism, self or otherwise.

If I sell or give away or post my work on a site that claims “non-exclusive copyright,” and says that I retain all rights in my own work, that’s a CYA on their part; it means I can’t sue them for doing exactly what I asked them to do, which is to publish my work. It doesn’t mean that I have to cite them as a source if I republish the same work on my own site. (And this is an excellent justification for the rule that only the copyright holder can bring a lawsuit for a violation of copyright. You have no idea what my private, contractual agreements with any publisher are. You may mean well, but I once almost accused a poet of plagiarizing herself because she’d posted her own (slightly revised) work on multiple sites under different names. I’d have been wrong, but since I contacted her directly – under two of her different pseudonyms – I was satisfied that she was only one person, and she appreciated my concern for her intellectual property.)

If a student turns in a paper, reusing large chunks of text from a previous paper he’s written – provided it’s all his own work – it may be against school rules. He can’t argue its legality, if it is unethical or violates institutional policies upon which his continued studies there depend. It may be considered a form of academic dishonesty. Whether others consider it lazy, dishonest, or clever recycling, depends on their opinions and the circumstances. But it’s still not self-plagiarism.

In my case, it’s eco-friendly recycling.

 

 

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9 Responses

  1. BellyBytes says:

    Repurposing, upcycling – all these are old wine in new bottles. But this is something I should definitely look into as there are several blog posts that were up on my old blog which are outdated and irrelevant today. Also my old blog didn’t have much of a readership so I doubt there are any people around who remember reading it.
    Also it will give me a chance to put new skills like creating Pins etc.
    Thanks for this interesting view on repurposing. And even though you need a publisher’s permission for repurposing your work, I don’t really think it is unethical – after all you have done the hard work. I have published a cookbook which is not being aggressively marketed by my publisher so I feel if I use the content and share it on my blog, my publisher shouldn’t really grumble. What do you think?

  2. You’re certainly on a roll lately, and I keep coming up. Luckily I’m up for it all; let the games begin! lol

    I’ve always said that blog posts should be as long as they need to be and then move on, whether they’re short or long. I also recognize that in today’s world in specific subjects, the longer the better, especially if you’re looking for search engines to help you find traffic. I’ve had a few articles that have gotten a major boost from them, but back in the day an article might have been fairly short, which worked back then but I’ve been penalized for it after the fact.

    Let’s talk about the permalink issue, since you brought it up. If you have an article that was wildly popular, leave it alone. If you had an article that got maybe 50 views total after 4 years yet you believe the content is evergreen (and good), and you decide to update some of what you wrote to flesh out some of the details, you get to do a do-over and it’s probably wise to do so. We weren’t fully cognizant back then on how valuable those permalinks could be for SEO in the day; heck, one of your new articles has a link totally different than your title so even you’ve learned the trick! lol

    I could say more but I think I’m stopping here because my system is crying out for ice cream with Hershey’s chocolate!

    • Yes, let the games begin!

      You often give me good food for thought and fodder for the blog. It’s fun. I’m going to include others in the fun, too.

      The problem with permalinks isn’t that they’re new, it’s that you’re creating dead links out THERE, somewhere. Whether it’s just search engine indexing or someone’s posted a link. So while it’s fine to change the permalink, you need to go to the extra step of creating a redirect for it. I have a lot of blogging friends who are scratching their heads over that idea – possibly over the whole idea of using permalinks at all. I wouldn’t have thought of it if I hadn’t done it to myself, and caught it on the broken link checker.

      • No, I don’t think so. When I run Broken Link Checker, I see all the broken links going to sites whose owners I know. I’ll visit their sites to see if they’ve done something with them; if they haven’t, I’m not worried about them. If they’ve changed the permalink but the article is still there, then I’ll change the link. If others do it differently, then so be it. BTW, I did it for some of your older links when you first moved to 2013 and hadn’t done it at the time.

      • Thank you. I think, in most cases, site owners don’t do that kind of due diligence on others’sites. You’ll be serving up 404’s and broken links. They won’t search. They unlink.

  3. Holly, this gave me lots to think about.

    I’m wondering more about seo these days, because I moved two years ago from a regular wordpress blog to a self-hosted one, and that led to a sharp drop in numbers.

    Numbers have never interested me because blogging is more about interaction, than anythings else for me–but I have more than 1500 posts now, and it seems a trifle silly not to make the most of the content I have lying around. You’ve already been super-insightful, and over the coming weeks, I’ll keep reading more from you in order to try and get better results out of my site. Repurposing old content sounds like a great idea from where I’m at.

  4. When you’ve been blogging for as long as I have (not you, but generally), there are a lot of posts that didn’t get enough of love back when they were first posted!
    This last year, with the crazy stuff going on in my personal life, I’ve been repurposing old posts and I don’t see any harm in doing that. In fact, my numbers are a lot better.

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