Plagiarism is more common than I thought

Are you really so happy with how someone else says something that you are prepared to risk your honor and plagiarize? Apparently the answer is yes, all too often. Recently I have been involved in discussions about a particular case involving a very prominent scientist. I have seen others in the news. Others involved in these recent discussions have said that they themselves have been plagiarized.

Don’t even be tempted to plagiarize! If you write a lot, your own words will come easily to you. You would not think of plagiarizing. I wish I could just say that you should not do it because it is wrong. Do I really need to add that these days you are also very likely to be caught?

Maybe some people don’t get what plagiarism is. Maybe some people think they can take someone else’s structure, change the precise words and call it their own. You cannot. Are you unsure as to what that would look like? I’ll give an example, one from my published work, along with what a plagiarized paragraph that I also wrote might look like.

Original:
The paradigmatic egalitarian organism is the partnership of the eukaryotic cell, comprised of at least the mitochondrion and the host cell, a collaboration that has resulted in an explosion of diverse and complex life forms. Despite the potential for occasional disputes over reproduction, with mitochondria and chloroplasts favoring producing daughters, no one would suggest that the eukaryotic cell is not organismal when it is independent, for example, a protist that is not embedded in a multicellular being. Eukaryotic cells clearly show that organisms can be formed from different species.

Made up example of plagiarism of preceding piece:
A major kind of egalitarian organism is made up of the eukaryotic cell, which has a mitochondrion and a host cell, a partnership that has resulted in an expansion of variable and elaborate life forms. Though there is a possibility for occasional conflicts over reproduction, with mitochondria and chloroplasts favoring daughter production, no one would say that the eukaryotic cell is not organismal when it is alone and not within a multicellular entity. Eukaryotic cells clearly demonstrate that organisms can be made up of different species.

Here is the comparison with changes bolded:
A major kind of egalitarian organism is made up of the eukaryotic cell, which has a mitochondrion and a host cell, a partnership that has resulted in an expansion of variable and elaborate life forms. Though there is a possibility for occasional conflicts over reproduction, with mitochondria and chloroplasts favoring daughter production, no one would say that the eukaryotic cell is not organismal when it is alone and not within a multicellular entity. Eukaryotic cells clearly demonstrate that organisms can be made up of different species.

Does the second piece have enough differences that a plagiarism checker would not pick it up? I don’t know, but it is still plagiarism. It has taken the structure and ideas of the original and made a few word changes.

Writing by someone else stands out in the middle of a piece. People have unique voices. Combining them, even legitimately, is hard. It is part of the reason collaborative pieces go through so many drafts. Each of us wants the writing to make sense, something that is most true for us when it is in our own voice. But it is important to respect the voice of the main writer, changing it only when absolutely necessary for clarity.

But what do you do when you want to talk about someone else’s work? You cite them. You put what they did in your own words, with full references. You digest their work and reorganize it for your particular purpose. You summarize it, emphasizing some things and omitting others. After all, you are not rewriting their work. You have some other point to make, something added on to what they have done. If you do not have another point to make, then stop writing. Think and read about the topic until you do have another point to make.

I suppose if I were to place plagiarism in the list of academic vices, it would not rank at the top. Worse is the stealing of an idea, though this is often not caught. Worst of all is data invention, for this contaminates what we know about the world. All of the work of a data fabricator becomes suspect, making it time for them to leave academia. I could go on to sexual and fiscal crimes or to the misuse of power generally, but abusers of these sorts already know it is wrong.

So even if you are busy, even if you feel your ideas are not as good as someone else’s, be true to yourself and refrain from writing if you are tempted to plagiarize. If you find others have done it, expose them.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Ethics, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Plagiarism is more common than I thought

  1. pvanzand says:

    We use turnitin.com at our college for all major writing assignments in the Biology department, and it would have picked up that plagiarized passage with no problems. The reports are color coded, so that would have lit up like a Christmas tree. I wonder what would happen if all manuscripts were run through a program like that.

  2. I agree with Van Zandt. That modified paragraph would easily have been picked up by turnitin.

    And I’ll mention her by name: Jane Goodall. However, it looks like that it’s mostly her coauthor to blame, as she came right out and owned it, while there was nary a word from her collaborator at the outset.

  3. Todd Oakley says:

    As Associate Editor (AE), I once got a manuscript to handle that plagiarized one of my papers. The manuscript was written by a non-native English speaker, and the writing was pretty rough. One sentence stood out to me as very different (I actually like it a lot, hmmm wonder why) – then I thought about it and realized *I* had written that sentence. I looked back at my paper to compare (it was about 3 years old, so I’d written it probably 4 years earlier), and found the sentence lifted, I think verbatim. We ran a plagiarism checker on the full manuscript and didn’t really find any other significant copying.

    The strange thing was that the authors had recommended me to be AE. So, if they intentionally plagiarized me, it would be really dumb to recommend me as AE. I called them on it, and rejected the manuscript for the reason of plagiarism. However, I more or less felt to give them the benefit of the doubt, that it was somehow accidental, as no one could really be that dumb to copy 1 sentence from a paper and send it to that person to review. Could they?

  4. Wow, that sounds a little complicated. I’d be inclined to be a little more lenient on a paper with a single plagiarized sentence, particularly by a foreigner, particularly if they are young. I feel like we need to educate people on plagiarism, something most USA students get intensively. I’ve had friends teaching in other countries that almost say plagiarizing is a sign of respect for the way someone else wrote something. What if in a crazy world, they put that sentence in to please you?

  5. Todd Oakley says:

    Joan – I told this story to someone just on Friday, before I read your comment just now. He came up with exactly your idea of “plagiarizing” as a sign of respect in some cultures. He said he thinks this runs fairly deeply in Chinese scholarship. This makes very much sense to me as a way to explain the situation. By the way, the paper ended up published, after a couple of revisions – so when I wrote “reject” originally, I didn’t mean permanently reject, rather reject with possible re-submission.

  6. Yes, I was thinking of China. I try to think separately about punishing cheaters and teaching moments. Sometimes it isn’t so easy. I hope your authors learned something about writing! Here’s another story. A sentence in a paper I’m working on with collaborators that I may have written was changed by them because they said it was identical to a sentence in a reference that I have never read. It wasn’t that simple a sentence, but on a common topic. I can’t be sure I was the one that wrote it, but whoever did was not plagiarizing. I suppose one could tell because of how seamlessly it fit in the rest of the paragraph. But it is a little scary. It makes me more ready than ever to give the benefit of the doubt to a similar sentence or two.

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