How to prevent plagiarism

In this blog, our guest blogger, Professor Emeritus Dolores Takemoto from Kansas State University discusses plagiarism in scientific documents: what it is, what the penalties are (even if unintentional), and how to avoid it.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines plagiarism as “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own: use (another’s production) without crediting the source…”.

With the common use of word processing software, plagiarism has become an increasing problem in scientific publications. There are basically two categories of plagiarisms: 1) copying or closely paraphrasing text without giving due credit to the original source, and 2) stating ideas/concepts without acknowledging the original source. Both are serious forms of plagiarism. Many journals also include having a professional write your manuscript (not editing, but writing the entire manuscript using your raw data) as a form of plagiarism. This is because the writing of your paper is considered part of the data/experimental process. When you write an article, you are interpreting your data and its analysis. This is part of the creative scientific process.

Here is an excerpt from the Nature Publishing Group regarding plagiarism:

“Plagiarism can be said to have clearly occurred when large chunks of text have been cut-and-pasted without appropriate and unambiguous attribution. Such manuscripts would not be considered for publication in a Nature Research journal. Aside from wholesale verbatim reuse of text, due care must be taken to ensure appropriate attribution and citation when paraphrasing and summarizing the work of others“Text recycling” or reuse of parts of text from an author’s previous research publication is a form of self-plagiarism. Here too, due caution must be exercised. When reusing text, whether from the author’s own publication or that of others, appropriate attribution and citation is necessary to avoid creating a misleading perception of unique contribution for the reader” (underlining and bold added).

From the above statement of the Nature Publishing Group, five types of plagiarism are considered serious issues:

  1. Using cut-and-paste in word processing software to insert portions of another manuscript without proper use of quotations and references.
  2. You must also cite another author’s work even if you rewrote the ideas in your own words, because the ideas were not your own. This is especially critical in the Discussion and Introduction sections where you are discussing how your work adds to existing work. However, it also applies to proper citation of someone else’s method in the Methods section.
  3. The Nature Publishing Group also includes “self-plagiarism,” a form of inserting your previously published work without referencing it. Please remember, your previously published work is also in a journal and must be cited even if it is your own. One reason is that in many cases the journal may own the copyright, and another reason is that your past work probably has some different authors, so it must be cited as such.
  4. Another type of plagiarism is duplicate publication of data. This is the use of data that has been previously published by yourself. In this regard, it is sometimes appropriate to do this, especially in a review article. However, in this case, once again, the data must be cited, and if the journal requires, you must include approval from the previous journal. Journals usually have forms for approval of data previously published, and this must be obtained even if you were the previous author. (Note: dual submission of an article, submitting your article to more than one journal, is universally forbidden.)
  5. Special consideration is given to PhD theses and abstracts previously published. However, when in doubt it is always better to cite and never insert previously published text.

Please remember that although perceptions may vary with the cultural norms of different countries, international journals and businesses have very strict definitions of plagiarism.

Many journals use software to identify plagiarism in an article. Some are free online and have been listed below. It is therefore important to check your manuscript using plagiarism software before submitting to a journal. Please remember, whether or not the plagiarism was intentional, an accusation of plagiarism is a potentially serious issue.

Penalties for plagiarism

In an academic/research environment, plagiarism may result in loss of academic employment, loss of research funding, and/or loss of respect among peers in a specific scientific field. In every field of academic/business research, there is extensive interaction among investigators, so an accusation of plagiarism quickly spreads within this group, resulting in a negative reputation that may take years, if ever, to be reconciled. Also, in academia, and especially in business, plagiarism can result in negative consequences. Each country has specific copyright laws, which if violated, can result in litigation and significant monetary loss.

How to avoid plagiarism

Plagiarism is not necessarily intentionally committed, so by developing specific work habits, it should be possible to eliminate any accusations of improperly copying text or ideas.

Most importantly, never copy and paste when making notes of past articles or writing your text. To assemble the necessary background or discussion information for a scientific manuscript, word processing software has made it very convenient to copy and paste directly from publications, rather than taking notes using your own wording. Unfortunately, it is also easier to directly paste the copied text from your notes directly into your own manuscript. Do not do this! Sometimes, you may even forget that you have inserted a direct quotation!

To eliminate this possibility, some authors always enclose copied text in quotation marks in their personal notes. However, this should be done only for small sections of text. Even better, it is a good idea not to cut and paste, but to use your own words when taking notes. In this manner, you never have to worry about accusations of plagiarism.

When directly quoting a passage in a past publication, always enclose the passage with quotation marks. Even when paraphrasing ideas and comments from past publications or conferences, always cite the author by name, either as a direct citation from a journal article or conference proceeding, or as a written or verbal communication that was not published. In the same manner, if you use specific concentrations/amounts of reagents, you should cite the source.  Note: if you do quote someone and it is not published, you must get their permission and include a letter from that individual with your manuscript submission.

When your manuscript is completed, always check for possible plagiarised passages using online software tools. Many of these sites are free. If the software detects plagiarism, revise the appropriate sections. Remember, even though you may not have consciously plagiarised passages, or fortuitously used wording found in past publications, the software always has the final say, so change the wording of the appropriate sections.

Free plagiarism check software