What is plagiarism?

All writers need to be aware of plagiarism. Unfortunately, many scientists and health care professionals do not realize what exactly constitutes plagiarism. Plagiarism involves the deliberate copying of previously published text. However, most authors do not realize that copying your own published work (“text recycling”) is considered a form of plagiarism known as self-plagiarism. The author guidelines of Experimental Biology and Medicine break down the different severities of plagiarism: level one involves limited self-plagiarism, with less stringent rules for the Materials & Methods section; level two concerns more extensive self-plagiarism and/or copying the work of another; and level three involves extensive duplication of published text and/or data, both that of the submitting author (seen as trying to republish your own results) or other scientists (seen as trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own).

How is IT detected?

Plagiarism can be detected in a number of ways. A simple way to check for plagiarism involves performing a search engine search, such as Google Scholar, with a short section of the text in question enclosed by quotation marks. This will show where this exact text appears in other papers. A number of websites perform similar but automatic internet searches but their effectiveness varies, especially if they are not aimed at scientific and medical articles. Accordingly, journals use more sophisticated methods, such as Crossref, which automatically compares a text against a web-based database. Some journals state on their websites that plagiarism detection software will be used (e.g., the Journal of Neurosurgery), but even if the target journal does not mention the use of plagiarism detection software, it is likely that some sort of plagiarism detection method is used.

...And if detected?

How journals act when plagiarism is suspected in a submitted paper depends on the severity. For a minor infarction, the editors may simply request that the section in question be rewritten. For more severe plagiarism and/or a deliberate attempt to republish previously published work, then the journal will take more severe action. COPE (the Committee on Publication Ethics) has outlined its suggested course of action in a flowchart. Note that if no satisfactory response is received from the author involved, then the institute that employs the author will be contacted. Plagiarism detected or suspected at a later date can have even more damaging effects, such as in the case of Annette Schavan, who was stripped of her PhD and resigned from her position as the German Minister of Education and Research after being accused of plagiarism.

How to avoid plagiarism

The easiest way to avoid plagiarism in your own writing is to have a strong understanding of the subject. Building on the results of others is the basis of scientific and clinical research, but if you do not understand the work in question, you are likely to repeat it word-for-word. Only by attaining a thorough comprehension of the work—yours and that of others—can you avoid the temptation to repeat what others have said.
In particular, it can be difficult to find new ways to describe procedures used. However, most journals prefer that previous methods are referred to (“as described previously”, etc.) than repeated. Examples of journals that explicitly state not to repeat previously published methods are Methods and Applications in Fluorescence (“If you are using a procedure or instrumentation which has already been published, please include a reference to that paper and do not include the full description in the current paper.”), Hypertension (“To save space for the authors and the journal, if methods have been previously published, the author may refer to that paper and submit copies of that paper as reference material.”), and Methods (“Methods already published should be indicated by a reference: only relevant modifications should be described.”). As always, consult the Author Guidelines of the target journal and look at recent articles from the journal.

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