Plagiarism and how to tackle it

Celebrated microbiologist Selman A. Waksman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1952 for his discovery of streptomycin, a long sought-after cure for tuberculosis, and lauded as ‘one of the greatest benefactors of mankind’.

There was just one problem. He was taking credit for someone else’s work.

It was graduate student Albert Schatz who made the breakthrough, working round the clock in a basement lab below Waksman’s office at Rutgers University. A lawsuit was settled out of court, but Schatz went on to spend years in bitter obscurity. 

Passing off someone else’s work as your own – or plagiarism – is unethical, dishonest and deeply damaging to both personal reputation and academia itself.

In recent years, undergraduates have notably come under the spotlight of scrutiny. Universities have responded proactively by investing in routine monitoring, sophisticated software, and training for those beginning their academic studies.

But what about established career academics?

In a competitive field where the pressure to publish is strong, some choose to deliberately plagiarise the work of peers or – perhaps more often – those junior to them.

For others, poor working practices can lead to unintended plagiarism, such as the failure to cite a source correctly.

Intended or not, plagiarism is taken seriously and can carry a severe penalty. In a sector in which a reputation for excellence, rigour and integrity is so important, this can prove devastating to an academic career.

To be fully aware of the risks, it is worth bearing in mind that plagiarism extends not only to text, but also data, images, tables and figures, and can take several forms:

  • Direct copying of someone else’s work without attribution
  • Mosaic, patchwork or incremental plagiarism, or the stitching together of a person’s own work with sections of someone else’s. This can include the use of synonyms in an attempt to disguise the borrowing.
  • Self-plagiarism, or the presenting of parts of a previous work as new content
  • Accidental plagiarism, including neglecting to cite a source, misquoting, or over-reliance on one source

Unintended plagiarism can often be the result of haphazard working practices or a lack of awareness, and is therefore entirely avoidable. For that reason, it’s worth spotting the dangers of these potential pitfalls:

  • Procrastination: putting off starting a piece of work, then rushing to complete it can make mistakes more likely. For advice on ways to tackle this issue, check out our guide here.
  • Working on a project over a particularly extended period may lead to a loss of clarity over the source of information
  • Taking inadequate care in preparation can lead to failure to include quote marks around text taken from another source. Meticulous, methodical note-taking and robust tracking systems are essential.

You may be painstakingly rigorous when it comes to your own processes, but what should you do if you discover someone has plagiarised your work?

This can be delicate, particularly when power dynamics are at play. If you find that a senior academic with a stellar reputation has plagiarised your work, knowing how best to respond can be difficult.

First off, it may be best to contact the perpetrator directly. You may well find the disputed text is then withdrawn, or re-attributed correctly.

If you hear nothing, or receive a negative response, it is time to refer the issue on to relevant people including, for example, your supervisor, journal editor or the head of the department or institution concerned.

Your last resort may be to engage legal representation, although in an increasingly global academic world, violation of laws across countries and jurisdictions can be challenging to resolve.

To read more on the subject, we recommend:

The Price of Plagiarism

Plagiarism is rife in academia, so why is it rarely acknowledged?

Pat Thomson on plagiarism risks faced by academic bloggers  

Professor James Elander’s How can universities help students avoid plagiarism?

Author

Jo Mitchell

Jo Mitchell

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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