Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Avoiding the perils of plagiarism

About a year ago, a primary care supplement sponsored by a prominent physician specialty organization arrived at my home address. The topic of the supplement was a professional interest of mine; in fact, I had published an original paper on the subject in a leading research journal the year before. Skimming the introduction to the first article, I felt a deja-vu sensation. Not only had I read these words before, I was pretty sure that I had actually written them. Indeed, comparing the text to my paper, the first three paragraphs were virtually identical, with only a few words changed here and there, and no citation.

The December 15th Inside AFP column reviews how to avoid the perils of plagiarism in medical and other publications. Plagiarism is a term that means different things to different people, but AFP's policies are that 1) wording should be paraphrased in such a way as to make it your own; 2) verbatim wording should be enclosed in quotation marks; 3) original sources should be cited for any wording or concepts taken from them.

As the Inside AFP column notes (direct quotation, crediting the source): "You can expose yourself to accusations of plagiarism by using another's words, even with proper attribution, if they are too close in form or content to the original source. This is a matter of degree, and sometimes is a judgment call, but it's best to err on the side of caution and make the phrasing your own." But if I were to rewrite this quoted passage along the lines of the following, I would be guilty of what is sometimes called the "too-perfect paraphrase":

You can open yourself up to accusations of plagiarism by using someone else's words, even with proper citation, if they are too close in form or content to the original. This is a matter of degree, and subject to interpretation, but it's best to err on the side of caution and make the words your own.

Even if the proper citation was included, this passage would still be considered plagiarism.

AFP's editors use the internationally recognized Committee on Publication Ethics guidelines for addressing claims of possible plagiarism in our pages. We carefully consider concerns raised by editors and readers and contact the authors for full explanations before taking any actions. Since plagiarism is a serious matter that can have professional and personal consequences, we strongly encourage prospective authors to contact us with questions or clarifications prior to submitting manuscripts for consideration.