Simple ways to avoid Plagiarism in academic writing
Plagiarism, unfortunately, 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 their English language abilities and ‘borrows’ phrases or even whole sentences from published articles to feel more confident that they have expressed their 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.
Journals' responses to plagiarism
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.
Ways to avoid plagiarism
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.
a. Citing accurately
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.
Xu et al. previously showed that….
b. Using quotation marks
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.
Al-Abadi et al. concluded that “this clearly shows a strong association between the two factors”.
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.
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.
d. Citing images
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.
This figure is reproduced with permission from Gutierrez et al.
e. Citing websites
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.
f. Referring to unpublished data
In some cases, you may wish to refer to unpublished data from your lab, or from a colleague’s lab.
In the former case (your lab), the appropriate way to cite these data are as follows:
This is consistent with observations from our laboratory (unpublished data).
In the latter case (colleague's lab), 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.
The key point to remember here is that any part of your paper that is not original content must be cited.
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