The Northwest Passage, or Why You Should Cite Yourself Only Sparingly -->

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The Northwest Passage, or Why You Should Cite Yourself Only Sparingly


Matt Smith explains citing yourself.
By Matt Smith, Writing Consultant

To attain a graduate degree, especially a terminal degree, is to specialize in a chosen field. When you begin your study, you move from the general (an interest in teaching, let's say, or psychology) to the specific (enhancing your classroom methods with differentiated instruction, for example, or studying the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy in treating substance abuse).

Developing your capstone project necessarily involves the discovery of new scholarly terrain, and it makes sense that, as an explorer in the wild, you would strive to be as resourceful as possible in these efforts; after all, you have no idea whether there’s water or sand over the horizon. In this spirit, students working on their capstones or other large projects often want to use work they’ve already created (course papers, capstones from prior degrees, etc.) as building blocks for the work they’re really interested in.

For example, rather than rereading Bandura’s writing on social-cognitive theory, which you read two semesters ago and wrote a five-page paper about, you might want to reuse your ideas from that paper and get down to business researching the cutting-edge stuff recently published in major journals. As an intrepid explorer, you must have faith in your powers of deduction and reasoning—after all, that’s how you managed to navigate your way to this new territory in the first place. 

However, your understanding of something—anything—shifts over time and depends greatly on your perspective and circumstances; how you think about a place you’ve never been to is inherently different from how you think of it once you’re there. In other words, you should avoid relying on your previous work because the way you look at a subject now will almost certainly be different from the way you looked at it before.

Take this Ptolemaic map, for example. Drawn in 1482, it offered Europeans a reasonably accurate representation of the world, allowing them to travel between cities and establish trade routes.

Ptolemaic map

You might notice, though, that it fails to account for a large portion of the Earth’s surface, namely, the entirety of North and South America, as Columbus and other European explorers hadn’t yet brought home news of their discoveries when the map was drawn.

Only 25 years later, after Europeans had landed on the eastern coasts of the Americas, the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller drew the first map to include the word America, and, in 1507, his world map was among the most accurate.

Waldseemueller's map; first map mentioning "America"

Of course, now that we have satellite imaging and Google Street View, Waldseemüller’s map looks a little ridiculous, even cartoonish. It’s the magnificent result, though, of an important but often overlooked part of research: reevaluation. Had the Europeans relied solely on their previous knowledge and instead focused on, let’s say, developing overland trade routes to India, they wouldn’t have stumbled upon an unknown continent, full of unique cultures and creatures that immeasurably enriched the world. (Sometimes painfully so—the many terrible conflicts that occurred between colonial Europeans and indigenous peoples shouldn’t be overlooked, but that’s beyond our purposes here.) As a scholar, you should approach your work similarly, venturing into uncharted land and drawing new maps to describe what you encounter.

That said, there are some instances when it’s appropriate to cite your previous work. Remember, though, that as an expert (or expert-to-be) in your chosen field, you have found your own piece of wilderness, and you have a responsibility to share it with the world as accurately and comprehensively as possible, even if that means discarding old ideas to make way for new ones.


Images and information from the Library of Congress Exploring the Early Americas website


  1. Thank you Matt for your insight. As a new DBA student with Walden University I was focused on building my references for my final project on my own research and writing. Since reading your Blog, I realize that you are correct, any of my opinions or ideas that I wrote about a few months ago have probably changed. Although, it is good to build up a base of references.

    1. Definitely, Bill. You might find yourself using the same text--for instance, a theoretical work--but interpreting it in a new way.

  2. Thank you ..... I am doing my capstone and wondered the APA requirements to citing yourself. However, your blog added some interesting ideas to my 'evolving' thoughts.

  3. We're so glad you found our post helpful! Thank you for reading and commenting :)