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How to avoid being accused of plagiarism

By AuthorAID Team | Oct. 11, 2017  | Research writing Research skills Ethics

Journal publishing professional and AuthorAID mentor, Matt Hodgkinson, gives practical advice on how researchers can avoid plagiarism accusations

Nobody wants to be accused of plagiarism, which can lead to retraction of your article, and losing your reputation or even your job. Plagiarism accusations can surprise researchers but they are not uncommon. In fact, similarity to previous work is the top reason that submissions are not sent for peer review at Hindawi.

So, what is plagiarism? Basically, it is when someone’s work or ideas are taken and used by someone else without acknowledgment. It usually involves copying words or images, without clearly stating where they come from.

When it comes to avoiding plagiarism, the basics are simple:

  • Write articles in your own words
  • Cite any articles you use
  • Use quotation marks for any phrases, sentences or paragraphs you have copied from another article

But, as I know from being a mentor at AuthorAID and working in publication ethics for journal publishers, things in practice can be more complicated.

Cultural differences may be a factor in some cases – for instance, copying is seen as a compliment in some cultures. However, this is no excuse, as international academic standards are clear. Academics sometimes ask what level of plagiarism is okay, but the answer to that is that there is no “acceptable amount” of plagiarism.

So, how to avoid being accused of plagiarism?

1. Understand how plagiarizers are caught

Plagiarizers are now extremely likely to be caught. Publishing staff are trained to spot plagiarism – and reviewers, editors and readers (including those whose work has been plagiarized) may also spot plagiarized work. If plagiarism is found in one article, this may lead to thorough checks of all other articles by that author. But how is plagiarism found?

  • Through the use of sophisticated software, such as iThenticate
  • Shifts in language usage (i.e. plagiarized sections are written differently to the rest of the article)
  • While using a thesaurus to change plagiarized words may sometimes fool software, it often results in creating nonsense, which will be spotted by publishing staff
Don't just copy and paste

Don't just copy and paste. Make sure you cite and quote correctly!

2. Avoid being accused

I highly recommend reading Miguel Roig’s guide to ethical writing, but here are my top tips:

  • Cite every source from which you took an idea, fact, text or figure, whether it is an article, book, blog, preprint or thesis. Only cite sources you read and not the sources they cite, unless you’ve also read them.
  • When making notes, record the source and​ use quotation marks for directly copied wording
  • If you use exact (verbatim) wording, citation alone is not enough. You’ll need to quote and cite, e.g: ‘As shown previously, “This is copied text.” (Smith et al., 2017)’.
  • Don’t reword text – close paraphrasing is still plagiarism. Use your own words or quote their exact wording.
  • Using the same ‘Methods’ wording can be okay, but make sure you cite and attribute – e.g:  ‘The methods and their description are adapted from Smith et al. (2017)’
  • If you are writing in your non-native language and you are finding it difficult, make sure you ask for help from a native speaking colleague, an AuthorAID mentor or a language editing service. For the latter option, check a company’s reputation by asking colleagues or doing a web search about them.
  • Don’t accept honorary authorship or buy articles, as this is unethical and risky – and you don’t know what the end result will be

3. Avoid self-plagiarism (aka text recycling)

Many software tools – and people – don’t distinguish between copying from other authors and reusing your own wording from previous articles, although the former is more serious. The term ‘self-plagiarism’ is disputed and ‘text recycling is also used.

Why may text recycling be a problem?

  • Copyright: If you are not publishing with an Open Access publisher, you may assign copyright of your article to a publisher and therefore need their permission to reuse your own words
  • Misrepresentation: Describing two experiments in the same way may not properly explain them. Or, presenting the same results or figures in many different publications could be seen as duplication or even fraud.
  • Dual publication: Research should be published once – if there is too much overlap with a previous article, and the journal publishers did not know at the time of publication, this could result in the retraction of your article

You can avoid problems by:

  • Citing and discussing your related work in detail (a brief mention of your related work is not enough)
  • Noting all previous presentations like preprints, posters, and abstracts in the cover letter and manuscript, e.g: ‘This work was presented as an abstract at Example Conference (2017)’
  • Recognizing that articles in conference proceedings and other languages count
  • ​Limiting the reuse of your wording in previous articles, especially outside the Methods section
  • Seeking permission from copyright holders and informing journals when republishing figures or expanding on a previous article/conference proceeding

Matt Hodgkinson oversees publication ethics at Hindawi, an Open Access journal publisher in London, working with a research integrity team. He was previously a Senior Editor at PLOS and BMC, and he has been an AuthorAID mentor since 2010.

This article is by Matt Hogkinson and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY). The illustration in this blog post is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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