Self-recycling FTW!

Hi! I’m Pete Ramsey, one of the Reference and Instruction librarians at Langsdale Library, and I also teach the Information Literacy (IDIS 110) course in first-year student learning communities. 


My IDIS 110 course includes a rather detailed discussion of copyright and plagiarism. One interesting concept often missed in academic treatment of these topics is something called “self-recycling.” The usual search engines give little in the way of a useful definition, so I will explain it briefly here and point out some good and bad self-recycling practices.

Definition and Example

At its most basic, self-recycling is taking a project you created for one class and handing it in for another class. To be very clear, turning in the exact same project in multiple classes, without explicit permission from all professors involved, is considered academic dishonesty (also known as “cheating”). However, it is a quite different–and very good–idea to go back to a good topic in later classes, updating and customizing your work based on the requirements and content of each course.

Here’s an example of self-recycling done right. Way back in the fifth grade, I did a history project about the Spanish Armada and Philip II’s attempted invasion of England. I collected a fair pile of resources, made note cards and an outline, and wrote a decent paper about the series of events. A few years later, I took that foundation, added stronger sources, and wrote a much-improved version for a high school European history class. I did a third research paper about the Spanish Armada for a college Iberian Peninsular history course, this time writing in Spanish and focusing on the long-term impact on the economies of Spain and Portugal. What’s important for academic integrity is that I updated my research and changed the major focus each time I returned to the topic.

Here are some benefits to (proper) self-recycling

  • You already know you like the topic. DO NOT underestimate how important it is to like your research topics in school.
  • You save mental work figuring out the background of a topic or event.
  • Recycling (or “up-cycling”) an idea is a really good way to dive deeper into the topic or event. The more you know, the more you have to say about it.
  • Most people in the “real world” actually work on one project for longer than a semester. This is especially true of research done by your professors.

Here are some negative things to consider

  • Some professors hate self-recycling of any sort. They want students to learn new things, to grow their minds in unexpected directions, and to develop a broader understanding of the world (as opposed to a deeper understand of one topic). They might be right, especially for undergraduates. I invite debate on this point.
  • Every professor seems to have their own way to make assignments unique. They may require different kinds of sources, they may use a different citation style, or they may ask you to–you know–relate the topic to concepts covered in that particular course.
  • Sometimes it’s easier to start all over again.
  • If you use your favorite topic for an assignment that you eventually come to hate, you might not ever want to work on that topic again.

As you wrap up final exams and projects, think about things you learned this semester that really interested you. Was there a topic you loved learning about? Save all the work you did on it, you might get a chance to return to the same topic again. Just don’t forget to ask permission!

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