Hello everyone! Today’s blog is on a very important topic that I have recently had to deal with as a science writer, plagiarism.
Introduction: I have my own business where I work as a publication specialist. I facilitate the publication of primary research manuscripts at all stages. I may edit the text, suggest experiments, provide feedback on figures, design and generate figures, format a manuscript, help with submission and/or the review process.
There are times when I only perform some of these tasks (then I am acknowledged) and times when my contribution is significant enough I become an author on the manuscript. All of that is to say that my name is associated with various manuscripts from multiple labs, and often times I do not personally know the authors on the paper.
Because of this I ALWAYS screen the documents I am asked to work on for signs of plagiarism. There are both free and paid programs that can be used to check for plagiarism, and many publishers and institutions will scan the documents they process.
Below I will describe some of the consequences of plagiarism, and provide you with ways to avoid committing plagiarism, but first let’s define the transgression:
• Plagiarism is the use of someone’s words or ideas without properly telling the reader where the idea/words came from.
It is important that you understand that:
• Citation is NOT always sufficient
• It is possible to plagiarize yourself, this is still unacceptable
The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) is the governing body of research ethics in the US. They investigate, adjudicate, and enforce the ethical standards of the research community. Academic, Federal, and Industrial researchers are all expected to conform to specific standards: that we will not falsify, fabricate, or plagiarize. Ignorance is not a defense, and you will be held accountable for any transgression even if you were not trying to commit fraud.
As researchers, we are expected to train and monitor each other, and today most institutions will require researchers to attend courses on ethics. Ultimately, the responsibility of honesty falls on the researcher, and the reputation of science as a whole is something we each have to bear. Data falsification and fabrication are beyond the scope of this blog-post and my expertise, but I have had the unfortunate chance of dealing with a few cases of plagiarism.
Do’s and Don’ts: Plagiarism comes in multiple forms and there is a chance that you can plagiarize and not mean to.
You cannot copy and paste any phrase, sentence, idea, or paragraph word-for-word from another document or person without using quotation marks.
A citation after the end of a sentence/paragraph/idea that has been copied word-for-word is insufficient attribution. Direct quotations are rare in primary literature so there will be very few instances when you will ever directly copy-and-paste from another source. You should summarize or paraphrase (see below) from other sources and then cite them.
You cannot simply change a few words in someone else’s sentence, idea, or paragraph– this is still plagiarism. You must summarize or paraphrase (see below) the information and cite the source.
Once you have published a paper or submitted a grant, you cannot re-use your own words/sentences from that document. In many cases, when a paper is published you transfer the copyright permissions to the publisher, and you no longer “own” those words. You must cite that paper.
You cannot show the same data in two publications. You can only refer to that data, and you have to cite that other publication. For example: “As we showed in O’Connor et al., there are many alternative transcripts of GAPDH in the liver…” is acceptable.
You cannot copy and paste methods from another manuscript, even if it was your work. You can, however, cite the original paper and then describe the details. For example: “Western blot was performed as described in O’Connor et al. using αActin at 1:1000.” is acceptable.
It is best to keep your notes in a separate document. I would go even further and suggest that you keep physical copies of your primary sources so you can never accidently copy-and-paste any excerpts.
When in doubt use a citation.
It is possible plagiarize an idea, if you overhear two scientist talking about a new treatment idea or experiment, and you conduct those studies/submit a grant on that topic you have stolen their idea which is a form of plagiarism.
You cannot simply translate a foreign manuscript into English and publish it again in the US. There are exceptions and reasons that this can be done, but it has to be done with permission, and the publisher has to understand that the document has previously been published.
There are cultures where it might be considered rude to paraphrase or summarize an idea that your mentor has already written (manuscript or grant). This is not the case in the US. You cannot reuse their words, you must re-write the information.
To summarize: This is to take an idea/concept and convey it to your own audience. This is what we do in an introduction when we describe a study that has already been done. Often, a summary is only one or two sentences that describe a lot of information that the reader could find in the citation you use. You are still required to include a citation to tell the reader where that data originally appeared.
To paraphrase: This is when you convey an idea that someone else presented as accurately as you can. Generally, this will include a sentence-by-sentence rephrasing of their original work. However, you must write it in your own words and in your own style.
See more about paraphrasing and summarizing here.
What citation means: When you use a citation, it tells the reader where the idea presented in that sentence originally came from. Again, you cannot copy an idea word-for-word and simply add a citation. A citation simply means you got the idea from that source. However, the writing must be in your own words!
The consequences: Plagiarism effects many people and is never acceptable. In the case of clinical trial data, plagiarism could cost patient lives. In the case of a dissertation, plagiarism could cost you your degree. Again, simply claiming that you did not understand that you were plagiarizing will not relieve you of responsibility.
If a manuscript is found to have been plagiarized (even if it’s just a few sentences) at the level of the journal before it is published, you will very likely have your paper rejected, and there is possibility the journal/publisher will notify your institution. If the paper is published and plagiarism is detected later, the consequences get worse. You and/or the publisher can be sued.
You, your mentor, and your institution could be fined, have their funding removed, be banned from publishing, and most people will lose their job. At a minimum, the whole paper will have to be retracted (see example here).
There have also been examples of researchers having to make public apologies (see example here). If the ORI investigates, your name will be listed on their main page of misconduct “Case Summaries” (see here), and you will likely be ineligible to apply for grants for several years or forever.
Summary: I understand that sometimes it can be tempting to use a sentence or phrase that someone else wrote. Often you think that it is written so well, you don’t think you could do any better. I also understand that there are many researchers out there who think that their English is not good enough to be published.
That is a difficult thing, but there are many places foreign nationals can turn to get editing assistance. It is always better to have a document that is 100% yours with flaws than to steal someone else’s hard work. The best advice I can give you to avoid plagiarism, is just to not do it. It is a choice. Read all of the papers you need to understand the topic at hand, then set them aside and begin writing.
Until next time, remember “Tell the truth, or someone will tell it for you.”–Stephanie Klein
Amber K. O’Connor is the owner of ako Wiring LLC a writing and editing company.