Science Communication

How to Avoid Plagiarism

The use of works, words, and ideas without attribution of citation is plagiarism. Most everyone knows that passing off someone else's work as your own is plagiarism, but other more common types of plagiarism are less widely understood. Plagiarism, even inadvertent plagiarism, can damage a researcher's reputation, and may also affect the researcher's institution, funding, and future opportunities in science.

What is plagiarism?

A definition of plagiarism from

"1. An act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author."

"2. A piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation."


Stolen words and ideas can both be considered plagiarism. STE How to Avoid Plagiarism rev title



"But can words and ideas really be stolen?"

"According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or computer file)."

So not only is plagiarism of words and ideas theft, it can also come with legal ramifications of copyright violations.

In this era of Google search, Copyscape, CrossCheck, iThenticate, and other online plagiarism detectors, it is extremely easy to check whether a paper has been plagiarized in whole or in part. 

With English as the language of science, scientists with English as a second language may be tempted to copy sentences or even whole paragraphs from other papers. Other countries may also have a different view of plagiarism, one that is looser and slacker than that of the journal publisher locations. However, many science journals will check your paper for plagiarism before publishing, and, if detected, demand corrections or reject the manuscript. 

Plagiarism is often inadvertent, but some plagiarism is by choice, and this is completely unethical, fraudulent, can be illegal, and detrimental to science as well as one's career as a scientist. Especially the theft of another's ideas - intellectual theft - passed off as one's own - this is the worst type of plagiarism. 


Types of Plagiarism:

Direct Plagiarism - The "borrowing" or "copying" of another's words, images, or ideas and representing them as one's own. This may be inadvertent or overt. Copying and pasting text or images from published work and doing so without quotes and/or citations is plagiarism. Small adjustments or paraphrasing while keeping the main content is still considered plagiarism. It is better to over-cite small sections of text you use than not. Keep in mind, however, that copying entire and large sections of text, even with quotations or citations, should be avoided. 

Intellectual Plagiarism - This is the theft of the ideas and works of another without giving credit, and presenting the work falsely as your own. This misrepresentation will yield an immediate rejection by science journals. This dishonesty by the plagiarist is the epitome of theft and fraud. Plagiarizing ideas is unacceptable and destroys the integrity of scientific research.

When writing a manuscript, it is common for authors to copy and paste ideas and sentences from other works with the intention of later rewriting and citing the text. During the process of writing (particularly if several authors are involved), this text can become incorporated into the manuscript unchanged and/or uncited. Whenever copying such text, use different fonts and text colors, and always take the time to note the source so that it is clear to you later and to other authors that this text needs to be rewritten and properly cited.

Replication of research methods from previously published work, without citation - While this is less severe than stealing ideas, it is not necessary as most methods can be rewritten. First, always check with the Instructions to Authors of the journal to which you plan to submit your manuscript. Some journals encourage using previously published text of methods verbatim (provided that you cite the original work).

If you find yourself having difficulty re-writing the methods, start with a new file (blank screen) and write down how the methods were performed as if you were telling them to a colleague or student. Refer to your lab notebook to make sure that the values and parameters are accurate for your experiment. Once done, compare your version with the published version to add any important details. For some well-established methods, you do not need to provide all of the details, just those that allow a reasonably trained scientist to replicate your findings (even if they have to refer to the paper you cited). It is best to cite where the method has been used before, and described in greater detail to allow the reader to check for additional details. 

Self-Plagiarism - Some may think that it is acceptable to re-use one's own work in a new paper as they are not actually stealing, but they may be wrong. Once published, many publishers, and not the authors, own the content of the paper. The copyright of open access articles is sometimes owned by the author, so be sure to check if you own the copyright to any text you choose to repurpose.

Inadvertent Plagiarism - Oftentimes an author will copy and paste language from another paper claiming that it was said better by the original paper. This too is plagiarism.  

We at SciTechEdit International are experts at working with non-native English-speaking scientists, and at providing suggestions for restructuring a common phrase without adding to the complexity or wordiness. 

Most instances of plagiarism of text and image can be avoided by citing the original work.


Consquences of Plagiarism:

In this global age of the internet and online plagiarism trackers, plagiarism in a scientific paper will not go unnoticed. 

If the plagiarized work is published, that is not the end of potential trouble for the author. The online site, Retraction Watch, is the watchdog of plagiarized papers, especially for those papers with ideas or methods that have been stolen, faked, or misrepresented. Intellectual dishonesty and faking data will most likely lead to retraction of the paper, the ruined reputation of the author, termination of employment, and the loss of future funding. 

Minor or inadvertent plagiarism will be brought to the attention of the author pre-publication by the journal to be corrected. 

Plagiarism of ideas - intellectual plagiarism - will be rejected outright by the journal with a demand for an explanation. 

Self-Plagiarism - You must check the journal rules on self-plagiarized work under their Author Guidelines or Author Instructions as each journal may have a different philosophy regarding self-plagiarism. Some journals are stricter than others, and if the rules are not followed, can put publication of the author's paper in jeopardy. As an example, here is what Nature journals say about self-plagiarism:

"Duplicate publication, sometimes called self-plagiarism, occurs when an author reuses substantial parts of his or her own published work without providing the appropriate references. This can range from getting an identical paper published in multiple journals, to 'salami-slicing', where authors add small amounts of new data to a previous paper."

"Plagiarism can be said to have clearly occurred when large chunks of text have been cut-and-pasted. Such manuscripts would not be considered for publication in a Nature journal."


How to avoid plagiarism:

There are many plagiarism-checking websites available to test your paper for plagiarism before submitting to a journal. Many journals will check your paper for plagiarism as well, whether or not you have had your manuscript checked beforehand, but it is better for the paper to be checked ahead of submission so that you can correct any potential problems, saving both time and embarrassment. Most plagiarism-checking sites provide these services for a fee, but some are free.  It is important to be aware that these free services often miss plagiarism from sources that are not easily accessed, or indicate plagiarism for commonly accepted phrases.

SciTechEdit International offers plagiarism checking for your scientific manuscripts and other documents, utilizing a number of applications and tools to highlight the plagiarized sections or passages, and will recommend corrections and rewording in the case of plagiarized text. In cases of the intellectual plagiarism of ideas, we will also note this for you. Contact us!

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