Editorial: Some Thoughts on Plagiarism

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Children are taught from early on to differentiate between what is theirs and what belongs to others. It is one of the basic rules to help a society function reasonably well. Later on, school teachers and college instructors make it a point that property rights also apply to the written word. They appeal to honesty and often punish a student's practice of copying verbatim what others have written. The new word the student learns is “plagiarism.”

There is much information available on this concept. A Google search will show that the Univ. of Alberta Library Guide to Plagiarism and Cyber-Plagiarism (online at http://guides.library.ualberta.ca/content.php?pid=62200) is an excellent resource, and the Univ. of Tasmania also is very helpful with its treatment of the subject (see http://www.students.utas.edu.au/plagiarism). Wikipedia holds another good document on plagiarism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plagiarism) and a small fraction of it is reproduced here:

“Plagiarism, as defined in the 1995 Random House Compact Unabridged Dictionary, is the ‘use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one's own original work.’ Within academia, plagiarism by students, professors, or researchers is considered academic dishonesty or academic fraud and offenders are subject to academic censure, up to and including expulsion. In journalism, plagiarism is considered a breach of journalistic ethics, and reporters caught plagiarizing typically face disciplinary measures ranging from suspension to termination of employment. Some individuals caught plagiarizing in academic or journalistic contexts claim that they plagiarized unintentionally, by failing to include quotations or give the appropriate citation. While plagiarism in scholarship and journalism has a centuries-old history, the development of the Internet, where articles appear as electronic text, has made the physical act of copying the work of others much easier. Plagiarism is not the same as copyright infringement. While both terms may apply to a particular act, they are different transgressions. Copyright infringement is a violation of the rights of a copyright holder, when material protected by copyright is used without consent. On the other hand, plagiarism is concerned with the unearned increment to the plagiarizing author's reputation that is achieved through false claims of authorship.”

You may want to inquire how your own institution or organization would deal with a case of plagiarism brought to its attention. In peer-reviewed journals, referees often catch suspiciously-familiar passages and report them to the editor for further investigation before a decision is made, allowing the editor an opportunity to educate the authors on their ethical transgression. On rare occasions, a plagiarized paper might make it through the review process undetected. For CRFSFS the policy is as follows when an act of plagiarism in one of its papers is suspected or brought to the editor's attention after the paper has been published:

  • 1Identify all published papers that were incorrectly used in the publication.
  • 2Notify the authors of the papers that were incorrectly used and the authors of the transgressing publication that we are going to publish a statement in an issue of the journal recognizing that sections of the paper were cited without proper attribution.
  • 3Give the authors an opportunity to provide some explanation for the incident.
  • 4Publish an erratum in a future issue of the journal.
  • 5Ban the authors from submitting manuscripts to IFT journals for 5 years.

There is now software available to catch and to prove plagiarism, though the jury is still out on its effectiveness. Universities and journalists are most likely the major ones to saddle themselves with the expense and effort of such an undertaking. Most scholarly journals are not in a position to implement these programs and must rely largely on the professionalism and integrity of contributing authors, as well as the competence, diligence, and alertness of peer reviewers, to keep their publications reputable.

A special plagiarism sub-set, or at least very much related, is “recycling” or self-plagiarism. However, that latter term is illogical because plagiarism is the taking from others. The practice of recycling begins with a student submitting the same homework in different courses (a student obviously too poor to purchase a pre-written essay from a so-called “paper mill”). It is followed by a graduate student's attempt to publish the same thesis results in more than one journal. After all, his or her exposure to the professorial world of “publish or perish” has brought some hearsay acquaintance with the dubious practice of text recycling or partitioning a single study into its least publishable units.

Unintentional plagiarism is often the excuse by an offender. It explains the gray demarcation line between what is acceptable and what is not. Compare it to tasting a grape or two in a store before you purchase a bunch. After how many samplings should this practice be interrupted, and by whom? Is it not dishonesty and self-interest that is at the root of it? The borderline of plagiarism is characterized by careless paraphrasing, by not properly putting within quotation marks whatever is quoted, and by discussing someone else's concepts or ideas in such a way as to draw credit away from the original author.

All types of objectionable reporting should be discouraged, but it is the intentional plagiarism that is truly offensive and inappropriate and must be uncovered by vigilant editors, peer reviewers, and readers. The science establishment enjoys high credibility in our society. If that is to be maintained, the house of science must be kept immaculately clean, inside and out, regarding products, practices, and practitioners.

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