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In Your Own Words

How to recognise and avoid plagiarism in research writing

Plagiarism is a serious offence that can damage your professional reputation. In many cases, scientists are not aware of plagiarism in their research papers. Understanding what plagiarism is and how to avoid it could save your published work from retraction. In this post, I explain the different types of plagiarism and give tips on how to recognise and avoid it in your research writing.

What is plagiarism?

Plagiarism means presenting the results and ideas of somebody else as your own. The AMA Manual of Style1 describes four types of plagiarism: direct plagiarism, mosaic plagiarism, paraphrasing, and insufficient acknowledgement.

Direct plagiarism is using exactly the same words as somebody else without quotation marks or without crediting the original author. For example:

Plagiarised: We believe that researchers do not claim the words and ideas of another as their own; they give credit where credit is due.

Not plagiarised: As stated in the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, “Researchers do not claim the words and ideas of another as their own; they give credit where credit is due.”

Mosaic plagiarism combines ideas and opinions of somebody else with your own, without crediting the author. Take a look at the following paragraph:

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death worldwide. In 90% of cases, lung cancer is caused by long-term tobacco smoking, but some cases have been reported in people who have never smoked. In this prospective study, we investigated the effect of avoiding smoking on the incidence of lung cancer in a large European cohort.

In this example, the phrase highlighted in bold has been copied directly from another source and no citation has been given. You can fix this by rewording the sentence and citing the appropriate reference:

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death worldwide. The majority of cases are caused by long-term tobacco smoking (Smith et al., 2016), but some cases have been reported in people who have never smoked. In this prospective study, we investigated the effect of avoiding smoking on the incidence of lung cancer in a large European cohort.

Paraphrasing is rewording sentences and retaining the original meaning without crediting the author. This is an easy mistake to make, but describing an idea in your own words does not make the idea your own – credit must still be given to the original author. If the Smith et al., 2016 reference were removed from the example above, this would be an example of plagiarism by paraphrasing.

Insufficient acknowledgement is not citing the source material. This means the reader cannot distinguish between your ideas and those of others. For example:

Plagiarised: CD200 influences the outcome of organ transplantation in animal models. In this study, we explored the impact of CD200 on post-transplantation outcome in human recipients.

Not plagiarised: CD200 influences the outcome of organ transplantation in animal models (Glaser et al., 2018; Jones et al., 2019). In this study, we explored the impact of CD200 on post-transplantation outcome in human recipients.

Avoiding plagiarism by insufficient acknowledgement can be tricky because common knowledge does not need to be cited in a research paper. Nobody would cite Watson and Crick’s 1953 publication when describing the structure of DNA, for example. But it’s not always clear what is common knowledge and what isn’t. Something that is well known to you may not be so well known to readers who are not experts in your field. In this case, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you are unsure whether a fact is common knowledge or not, include the citation.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association2 also describes self-plagiarism, which is presenting your published results and ideas as new. Scientists are often surprised to learn they can plagiarise their own work. To avoid this, cite the relevant source when referring to results and conclusions that you have already published.

Now let’s take a closer look at why scientists plagiarise and how you can avoid plagiarism in your research writing.

Publish or perish (or plagiarise?)

Scientists are under extreme pressure to publish their work. The more papers they publish, the better their chances of securing essential funding to continue their projects. This brutal “publish or perish” scenario is probably the main reason for deliberate plagiarism in scientific publishing.

Life is even harder for the non-native English-speaking scientist. They may solve their writing difficulties by searching the existing literature for templates of good-quality writing to use in their own papers. This is often not deliberate plagiarism. But the consequences are just as severe.

So, what can you do the overcome these problems and avoid plagiarism?

Know what you want to say

Before you start writing, make sure you have a clear idea of what your main message is. Your manuscript should be centred on a specific research question – your main message will be the answer to this question. The background information you present, the materials you use, the results you present, and the literature you discuss should all focus on explaining and answering this question. With this template in mind, you will find it easier to distinguish between your own results and ideas and those that need to be cited.

Take notes

Do you often forget to cite sources in your papers? Or fail to include citations because it feels like too much effort? Keep track of the sources you have used to discuss your findings. Organise the literature you have read in a database (such as Endnote) and annotate the main findings of each paper and how they relate to your work. If you incorporate this into your reading routine, the effort will be minimal. This will help you to keep track of which ideas are your own and which are not. It will also make it easier to insert relevant citations in your writing.

Language support

If you routinely copy and paste text from other papers because you struggle to write in English, consider getting help from a language professional. A language editor can make changes and suggestions to your text so that it reads as though it were written by a native speaker. Working with a good editor costs money, but is a valuable investment in your professional development as their feedback will help you to improve your writing and communicate your message more clearly in future. This can be particularly useful to young scientists who receive little or no writing support from their institutions.

Language editing can be tailored to your individual needs (you can find out more about the different types of editing here). To get the best support, you should work with a qualified editor who has experience working with non-native speakers. Search a reputable freelancer directory to find a suitable editor, such as the AMWA, SENSE, or SfEP directory.

Stay out of trouble

Plagiarism is a serious offence that is often committed by accident in research writing. Following the tips outlined in this blog post will help you to avoid plagiarism in your next research paper and keep your professional reputation intact.

1 AMA Manual of Style (10th Edition), page 158.

2 Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th Edition), page 16.

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a medical journal.

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