Is ‘repurposing’ simply a fancy new word for plagiarism?

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With the advent of digital culture and the ever-greater accessibility of information, many new questions around the concept of authorship arise. Originality and copyrights are challenged once again and must be redefined constantly. While collages, patchworks, appropriation or replication of texts have been around for a long time, the past 20 years have seen an entirely unforeseen development.

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Boundaries between authenticity and plagiarism are as blurred as ever (or even more) and there is no easy answer to such matters. And what about self-plagiarism? Such questions have been addressed by a number of authors such as Kenneth Goldsmith, Judy Muller, Jenny Mackness and others. This article will try to present the main issues posed by repurposing and how students could go about when needing to present their own or other people’s content in a different format.

What is repurposing?

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A general definition of repurposing could be to use something, anything, with a different purpose than it was initially designed for. When it comes to text, this means to reuse a text in a different form from the one in which it was originally created. But to repurpose a text does not mean to simply provide it with a different form but maybe also with a different context, a different medium and/or to enhance the text by adding new elements to its presentation.

In that sense, repurposing is an act of reusing something already existent and changing or recreating it, so as to both capture its initial meaning and build upon it. Exactly this is what creates a significant difficulty when it comes to referring to someone’s or one’s own original work and all the while being ‘creative’. Naturally the question arises, what does a student do when faced with the task of having to deliver a presentation based on someone else’s work and having to offer an original or critical point of view on the subject at the same time?

While some proponents of modern forms of creativity have stated that such absolute originality is almost inherently impossible and is always, visibly or not, informed by many different sources, academic criteria are not quite as lax on this matter. Therefore, with rules being tight and penalties grave, students should pay heed when delivering their papers or presentations.

How to avoid plagiarism when repurposing

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The central point against plagiarism is that it is a blurring of boundaries. Boundaries between something created by someone else and a person’s own contribution. After all, the point of academic or scientific work is, strictly defined, to contribute to an ever increasing body of knowledge.

Plagiarism creates a false promise for ‘truth’ or for something new in the field. And while it can also be accidental and each case must be studied separately, there are certain guidelines students should adhere to, in order to be on the safe side.

When repurposing texts and other materials students should:

  • Never forget to explicitly give proper credit when referring to someone’s ideas, as they are expressed in writing, in visual or audio or through other means and media. Repurposing does not ‘lift off’ the rights of an author over their ideas or writings.
  • Always be aware of the proper context of such ideas and never misrepresent or distort such context. Because repurposing is a form of reusing, recreating and reinventing ideas, the boundaries between what is a personal addition or view on such ideas must be very clearly defined and pointed out.
  • When quoting, it goes without saying, quote correctly and always provide in full the original source of the quote. Do not overuse materials, so as not to have a paper or presentation entirely made out of other people’s materials. The same goes for paraphrasing or summarizing.

All in all, the same rules that apply to any other form of work, apply to repurposed materials as well. Repurposing is to present or express things in a different way or take some idea as a reference point and develop something new out of it whilst, at the same time, retain the original idea in its proper context and entirety.

While repurposing is not a fancy new word with which to legitimate plagiarism, it can easily land in a grey area where distinguishing between original and stolen work is hard. The novel aspect brought in by repurposing is to use a number of mediums or medias to provide something already existent with a new expression. As such, it requires a great degree of care and attention, where it uses someone else’s ideas.

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