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Avoiding Plagiarism in Science

Posted in: Science Communication & Ethics
Avoiding Plagiarism in Science

I remember when I first learned about plagiarism during my undergraduate course. The lecturers were so firm in telling us that if we got caught plagiarizing we would face serious repercussions and that all our work, especially our dissertations, would be vigorously checked by plagiarism detecting software.

I was so panicked that I would inadvertently plagiarize, mainly because I didn’t fully understand what plagiarism is. In fact, it wasn’t really until midway through my PhD that I started to really appreciate exactly what plagiarism is: from the blatant copying of someone’s words to the more subtle co-opting of someone’s ideas.

It’s difficult to avoid doing something if you don’t really know what you shouldn’t be doing.  Therefore I have put together a guide to plagiarism and how not to do it.

So what exactly is plagiarism?

Plagiarism comes in many flavours but here’s a quick list of the main types:

  • Passing off an entire piece of work by someone else as your own. This is an extreme case and I hope I don’t need to explain why this is wrong.
  • Copying sentences/paragraphs from published work. This one is more common, as it’s fairly easy to want to just write a sentence or two from another article, especially if the author has a particularly good way with words.
  • Claiming ideas are yours, when they actually came from another source. This is as simple as failing to reference the paper the idea came from.
  • Self-plagiarism. This is one that trips a lot of people up, as it can be easy to think it is acceptable to copy sentences and paragraphs from your own work.
  • Copying result figures from previous publications (this should hopefully be an obvious no-no).
  • Copying diagrams/sketches from other publications. This is more of a gray area as it is ok, if you get permission to reproduce the diagram and properly cite the source.

So how do you avoid plagiarism?

The more obvious types of plagiarism are easily avoided, however some of the grey areas are tougher to navigate. I particularly found it difficult to rewrite some sentences in my own words, especially in cases in which the authors had written what appeared to be the perfect sentence.  Sometimes all your attempts at rewording just don’t come up to scratch.

Here are my basic tips to avoid plagiarizing:

  • Put everything in your own words. As I mentioned above this can be difficult at times, especially if you are writing as you are reading the original paper. My tip for avoiding copying sentences verbatim (which can sometimes happen just by accident) is to summarize the key points of a paper in short bullet points and then work from these bullet points rather than the article itself.
  • Reference, reference, reference! Do you describe an idea or process that you didn’t generate or discover? Then you need to acknowledge the person that did. This can be irritating for those pieces of information you appear to have picked up by osmosis, but you should spend the time to find the references that back the information up. You’d be surprised how some ‘facts’ can appear ubiquitous yet have no data to back them up when you dig deep enough.
  • And remember even if you did discover something, if you’ve already published the work you need to include a reference to it. I am always boggled when people fail to do this as it bumps up your citations!
  • Redraw diagrams, preferably without the original in front of you. In my opinion, all diagrams should be drawn from scratch, as it is a great way to determine if you truly understand a topic. It is also a great way to help you remember concepts since a drawing is often easier to picture in your head then a long run of text.
  • If you absolutely cannot redraw a diagram (one that springs to mind for me is Waddingtons epigenetic landscape – no matter how I try to redraw it, it never comes close to the clarity and beauty of the original) then you need to ensure you have permission to use it. Beware: permission is usually obtained from the publisher who holds the copyright, and not the authors! Also remember – even if you get permission to reproduce the figure, you still need to properly cite the source and make it clear it is a reproduction.

If you’re still worried you may have plagiarized, you can set your mind at rest by running your writing though anti-plagiarism software. Examples of such software include:  iThenticate, WriteCheck and Viper (which is a free service).

But I think the most important thing of all is to go with your gut instinct – if it feels wrong, it probably is, so don’t do it.  Plagiarizing isn’t worth it.  You can take my word for it (but not literally!).

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