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How to avoid plagiarism in academic writing

How to avoid plagiarism in academic writing


What is plagiarism?

Most researchers are already familiar with the concept of plagiarism, which is presenting someone else’s intellectual property – text, images, ideas, etc. – as your own.


Unfortunately, plagiarism is a common issue in academic publishing. It most often takes the form of copying text (ranging from a short phrase to a full paragraph or more) directly from a published article and using it in another article. Other common forms of plagiarism include using all or part of an image from a published paper, or presenting another researcher’s hypothesis as your own. Importantly, plagiarism involves not citing the source of the material, or citing the source inadequately or inaccurately.


In many cases, plagiarism is committed unintentionally or with good (but uninformed) intentions. Consider, for example, the case of a researcher who is not confident about his English language abilities and ‘borrows’ phrases or even whole sentences from published articles to feel more confident he has expressed his ideas clearly and professionally. Or perhaps a researcher wants to honour a colleague’s accomplishments in the field and decides to do so by copying a passage from that individual’s paper and adding it into hers. In these cases, the decision to plagiarise is made based on good intentions, but the outcome is the same: the researchers have unfairly represented someone else’s work as their own.


Regardless of your intentions, if a journal catches you using previously published text, figures, or ideas without citing them properly, it is very likely to reject your paper without review and not allow resubmission. Some journals have more flexible policies, especially in the case of more minor instances of plagiarism, but investigating the circumstances and deciding on a course of action will create considerable delay, and still may result in rejection. In fact, many journals routinely check all submitted manuscripts for text plagiarism upon submission, so it is unlikely plagiarised content will be overlooked.


How to cite sources correctly

So how do you make sure that your journal submission is not delayed or rejected due to plagiarism? The most important thing to do is ensure that any and all material used from other published sources is cited correctly.


In the case of published research articles, this is straightforward: at the end of each description of a finding from a previously published study, insert a citation of that paper that corresponds to the appropriate item in the reference list at the end of the paper. For example: ‘Xu et al. previously showed that… [1]’.


If you use text that comes directly from a previously published article, you will need to use quotation marks to indicate the verbatim text, as well as providing a reference. For example: ‘Al-Abadi et al. concluded that “this clearly shows a strong association between the two factors” [2]’. 


It is often appropriate to simply rephrase another author’s words instead of providing a direct quote, similar to the first example of describing someone else’s finding above. In this case, instead of directly quoting Al-Abadi et al., it would be reasonable to describe this conclusion as follows: ‘Al-Abadi et al. concluded that there was a strong association between factor A and factor B [2]’. Crucially, this sentence describes the same finding in different words, which is why quotation marks are not needed. Generally speaking, full sentences or paragraphs should not be quoted verbatim; direct quotations should be limited to phrases only.


When it comes to images, if you use a figure (or part of a figure) from a previously published paper, you must first obtain permission from the copyright holder, then mention this permission and cite the source in your paper. For example: ‘This figure is reproduced with permission from Gutierrez et al. [3]’.


There are some special circumstances where a source cannot be cited conventionally. For example, if you analyse data from an online database as part of your study, you will need to cite the website instead of a standard research article. In this case, the URL should be cited, and typically the date on which you accessed the website. Check your target journal guidelines to determine what information needs to be included in this citation, and whether the link should be provided in the main text or in the reference list.


In some cases, you may wish to refer to unpublished data from your lab, or from a colleague’s lab. In the former case, the appropriate way to cite these data are as follows: ‘This is consistent with observations from our laboratory (unpublished data).’ In the latter case, you can acknowledge your source as follows: ‘This is consistent with observations made in a closely related organism (T. Watanabe, personal communication, 10 October 2019).’


While the specific format used to cite material from other sources can vary, the most important thing is to be transparent and straightforward about the source.


What is self-plagiarism and how to avoid it

One area where many researchers struggle is accurately citing a source when this source is their own original work. This confusion can lead to self-plagiarism, which is defined as re-using text you wrote or images you created that have already been published, without citing the original publication. One problem with this is that previously published work is almost always protected by copyright, and so requires a citation. In addition, not citing your earlier work gives the erroneous impression that a text, image, or other content is entirely novel (and has not yet been presented to the research world). You are free to re-use your own content if you own the copyright (as with most publications in open access journals), but you must still cite the original article to make sure that other researchers have an accurate view of the publication history. Importantly, text or other content from you own previous publications must be used and cited in exactly the same way as described for other researchers’ work: specifically, verbatim text should be placed in quotation marks or substantially rephrased.


Self-plagiarism is most common in Methods sections, as it can be hard to avoid repeating yourself when describing standard techniques, especially those that are used routinely in your lab. It is also relatively common to encounter ‘recycled’ sentences and even whole paragraphs in parts of the Introduction that describe general background information. To avoid unintentionally plagiarising your earlier papers, it is crucial that you not cut-and-paste text from one paper into another; instead, each paper should be written ‘de novo’. If you need to present the same or very similar information, be sure to rephrase it. For example, if Paper A states that ‘this process is an integral part of the development of this condition’, then Paper B could rephrase this as ‘this process is essential to developing this condition’. In the case of Methods section, earlier papers can be cited without repeating the description of a technique. For example: ‘Western blotting was performed as described previously [4]’.



The key point to remember here is that any part of your paper that is not original content must be cited. If you’re still unsure whether you have managed to successfully avoid plagiarism in your paper, we can help with our quick and reliable plagiarism check service. We will check your paper for text plagiarism and provide you with a detailed report that clearly highlights any areas of concern and suggests ways to address these potential issues. Contact us today for a quote!

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