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Plagiarism
Table of Contents (Click on the link to scroll to the relevant section)

Introduction

There is tremendous pressure on researchers today to show a large output of work, published preferably in a journal with a high Impact Factor and with a large number of citations. These publications are used as a tool for assessing the quality of the research work. This assessment has implications for tenure in academic institutions, consideration for grants and funding, laboratory space, etc. The adage 'publish or perish' was never truer than it is today.

During a research project, however, the researcher soon finds that there are others who have been down that road before: workers who may have developed similar hypotheses and in doing so have perhaps laid the foundation on which his/her study is based. There may be others who have devised an investigative technique used or altered by the researcher in some way. And still others who have described the natural history of a disease, or structure of a compound, or even explained some processes in such an elegant way that their description cannot be bettered and the researcher decides to use it verbatim.

It is extremely important to remember, when writing a paper, to acknowledge all such sources clearly and completely. Attempting to use the ideas, words, or work done earlier by another person, without giving them due credit, is considered extremely unethical and is termed plagiarism. Plagiarism could be deliberate, by an unethical or lazy researcher, or it could be accidental, by a careless one. The concept of plagiarism is discussed in this article, along with methods to identify it and steps to avoid it.
Definition
Plagiarism is not easy to define. After all, where does one draw the line between an honest attempt to build upon previous scientific knowledge and a fraudulent attempt to pass off that knowledge as one's own? The key is the identification of an attempt by the author to deceive the reader. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, defines plagiarism as 'the practice of dishonestly claiming or implying original authorship of material which one has not actually created.' 1 John Rodgers, in his elegant essay on plagiarism in scientific writing, defines plagiarism as the 'theft of language, wording, or ideas.' 2
How to identify plagiarism
The easiest way to identify plagiarism is when a reviewer finds that the article or thesis sent for review contains large passages quoted verbatim, or with very little modification, from a previously published work. The reviewer's suspicions are raised if
  • the writing style varies considerably between passages in the submitted work,
  • the level of English used is very different in different parts of the article, or
  • the reviewer is familiar with the work which has been quoted but not credited.

This detection is easier now, as specialized software3 is available (e.g., Turnitin© and iThenticate©) for the identification of plagiarized passages. Many universities now use such software and the penalty for plagiarism ranges from loss of course credits, to suspension, or even to expulsion from the university.

Defining what exactly constitutes plagiarism in scientific writing can be a little more tricky. This is because scientific writing, unlike other fields, deals more with an objective presentation of research data rather than an author's personal opinion or interpretation. It is possible for a research writer to argue that the premise upon which his research is based, or the techniques used, fall into the realm of 'common scientific knowledge' and need not be individually acknowledged. Types of plagiarism
Deliberate plagiarism occurs when due credit is not given to previous work done in the field, when techniques used to conduct the research are not correctly cited, and when the opinions and ideas of other workers are passed off as one's own. Detection and proof of such plagiarism can irreparably damage the credibility of the researcher among his peers. Very often, poor time management or time constraints push a researcher to plagiarize large chunks of material from other authors, instead of spending time on background research and original writing.

Accidental or unwitting plagiarism may be committed by a researcher when
  • a careless mistake is made when entering the reference details,
  • the researcher does not feel the need to acknowledge the original author of a well-known fact, considering it 'common scientific knowledge' (e.g., the fact that DNA is a double helix4 may or may not be referenced),
  • there is a cultural difference: e.g., junior researchers from certain cultures may feel that it would not be correct to alter the words used by a senior researcher who is an authority in his field,
  • there are language problems: nonnative speakers of English may not be confident of their ability to paraphrase another author's words while still retaining the correct meaning, or
  • the article being paraphrased is a highly technical description, which the researcher feels incapable of writing in his own words. This is especially true for students or inexperienced researchers.
What is self-plagiarism?
An interesting concept that has developed is that of self-plagiarism. When a person has published some articles earlier (e.g., articles on the weather in Tokyo, the night-life in Tokyo, historical buildings in Tokyo, and shopping in Tokyo) and then combines them together to make one larger article or even a book (e.g., an article titled 'A Brief Guide to Tokyo') without acknowledging the previous articles , then some authorities have termed that self-plagiarism. Self-plagiarism also includes the salami-slicing format of publishing, in which a researcher or research group attempts to publish different aspects of the same study as different papers, even if the study would be better presented as one large paper. This is in an attempt to 'pad' the researcher's resume, showing that he has a large number of publications. A comprehensive coverage of self-plagiarism, along with plagiarism in general, has been provided online by Miguel Roig5 for the Office of Research Integrity, at http://facpub.stjohns.edu/~roigm/plagiarism.
Why should we not plagiarize?
The question arises: why should we not use previously published work? What is wrong with using another person's words and ideas in our own work? The answer is simple: it is perfectly permissible to use work previously published by another person as long as proper acknowledgment is made of the person who actually did the work/wrote the words/devised the technique/conceptualized the premise.

In his interview with the Center for Research Writing Resources 6, Dr. Peter Matthews has explained this very well, saying 'respect for other authors makes our own writing more salient or attractive for readers. Making the antecedents of our own research clear gives readers a sense of entering an intellectual stream, or a conversation and community, as they read.' It is always good to delineate, through proper referencing, the path that was followed to arrive at the premise for the current study and to show that all techniques followed were standard techniques based on established practice. Even if new discoveries are being made or uncharted areas being explored, it is still important to provide a background for the study.
How to avoid being accused of plagiarism
It is important to remember in academic writing, that all references to previous work done in the field must be correctly cited and all sources referred to for techniques and as background for the study must be comprehensively and correctly referenced. Incorrect and incomplete referencing leaves the reader of the paper with an impression of carelessness and sloppy work by the author. For a researcher, it could mean losing tenure/funding and more important, losing credibility in the academic community for his entire body of work.

Guidelines have been created to help authors avoid unintentional plagiarism. Most of these suggest doing the following:
  • Always acknowledging the original source for the idea/technique etc., while following the style format of the journal to which the manuscript is being submitted.
  • Always using quotation marks when quoting verbatim from text written by another person.
  • Quotation marks are not required when you paraphrase or summarize another author, but you have to make sure that you have really rewritten the paragraph in your own words, while still retaining the original meaning. Just changing a few words here and there in the original paragraph is still considered as plagiarism.
  • If you feel that you would be unable to paraphrase another author's work adequately, it is permissible to copy the paragraphs you want into your article, but you must block indent the entire copied material or use quotation marks, so that the reader of your article knows which material has been used by you from somewhere else.
  • Even when assuming that the facts or technique you are referring to is 'common scientific knowledge,' it is always better to give a reference to the original author. Some readers of a broad based journal may not be experts in your subject area and would welcome the information.
  • When collecting information, it is always advisable to mark it in some way:
    • Material copied by hand should be written out in your own words. Any direct quotes should be put within inverted commas so that there is no confusion later on when referring to your notes.
    • When working with photocopied material, the relevant areas can be highlighted.
    • When using the internet or computer files, use the 'reference' or 'comment' feature in your text program to help you remember which areas you have chosen for referencing in your article.
Software available for detection of plagiarism
Due to the increasing concern being expressed, some companies have developed software for detection and prevention of plagiarism. Two such well-known software are Turnitin© and iThenticate© created by iParadigm LLC.

These and others like them are software designed to detect the presence of plagiarism in material submitted as original to a journal, university, publisher, or elsewhere. The papers or books submitted for authentication are compared against an exhaustive database of internet pages, student papers, journals, books, and periodicals. A report is then issued, indicating whether the paper is original or not. If there are areas of similarity detected with some previously published work, a percentage ranking of the degree of similarity between the two papers is also provided. The journal can then decide whether the work is plagiarized or not. Some other tools for plagiarism detection are NoodleBib from NoodleTools, PowerResearcher Company, and RefWorks.
Plagiarism and the Internet
One of the reasons of the apparently increasing incidence of plagiarism is perhaps the increasing use of the Internet with its vast repository of easily available data, articles, CDs, music, books, etc. It is very easy to search for information on the net, and having got it, just 'copy and paste' it into whatever we are writing. Acknowledgement of the source somehow does not seem as critical when it is obtained at the click of a mouse button.

Another problem is the perception that any material on the Internet is part of the public domain and as such can be freely accessed and used by all. Additionally, information being accessed on the Internet may itself have been plagiarized from somewhere else and the user may not be aware of that.
Examples of plagiarism
The online encyclopedia Wikipedia has provided a lengthy list of examples of plagiarism in a variety of fields. For a full listing, you can visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism. An example from Wikipedia in the field of literature is given here as an illustration: 'Kaavya Vishwanathan's first novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life is reported to contain plagiarized passages from at least five other novels. All editions of the book were subsequently withdrawn, her publishing deal with Little, Brown and Co. was rescinded, and a film deal with Dreamworks SKG was cancelled.'

Another comprehensive site on plagiarism, by Miguel Roig for the Office of Research Integrity5, also gives excellent examples of plagiarism in academia. A few of them are quoted below:
  • A biochemist resigns from a prestigious clinic after accusations that a book he wrote contained appropriated portions of text from a National Academy of Sciences report.
  • A college president was forced to resign after allegations that he failed to attribute the source of material that was part of a college convocation speech.
  • A psychologist has his doctoral degree rescinded after the university finds out that portions of his doctoral dissertation had been plagiarized.
Conclusion
Attempting to pass off someone else's work, words, or ideas as your own is extremely unethical. An accusation of plagiarism can, at best, leave the researcher with a reputation for sloppy and careless work. At worst, such an accusation can taint the researcher forever, with a reputation for indulging in scientific fraud. A little attention to detail when quoting, and meticulous acknowledgement of sources, will help the researcher avoid the accusation of plagiarism and help him build a reputation for doing original work.
References