Andrew Burd on plagiarism

Andrew Burd Plagiarism is an emotive topic that rears a rather uncomfortable head in the world of academia. It is, however, an act of fraud which has been part of the world of arts for many years.

There is no legal definition of plagiarism. Indeed it is not a legal term but it is one that the law recognises. Referring to the free online legal dictionary we can read the following definition used in lawsuits: “The act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts or ideas, or passages there from, and passing the material off as one’s own creation.”

In the world of arts; books, films, songs, accusations of plagiarism can lead to long, protracted and expensive legal action because, on occasions, a considerable amount of money is at stake.

In the world of scientific research, education and scholarship accusations of plagiarism abound but they are more likely to be related to professional advancement and fame rather than fortune. At a lower level of academia the motivations for plagiarism become more reflections of human weakness. Students have assignments which include written reports. The temptation to “cut and paste” phrases and paragraphs from the internet is often too powerful to resist. It saves time (laziness) and it saves thought (slothfulness).

In our own university (CUHK) there is now a powerful plagiarism detector that is used to assess student assignments. There are threats of severe sanctions against students who are found to have used unattributed “copy and paste” text in their own work.

Searching the internet reveals a vast and growing industry in plagiarism detectors. These will basically look for similarities in word groups or patterns between the submitted text and an archive of on-line documents. The bigger the archive, the more powerful the program. An example of such a program is CrossCheck.

This uses a tool called iThenticate, developed by a company called iParadigms. In essence there is a large database which includes published journals, as well as a variety of online resources material. The comparison is between the text to be examined and the entire text content of this massive database. User defined parameters can be set to refine the process and reports are produced which show passages with concordant or very similar text. The final analysis, however, has to be “human” as some concordance may be entirely acceptable – e.g. in the presentation of reference. Also attributed text with proper citation and use of quotation marks again is permissible but would be flagged up by such a software program.

One of the problems with plagiarism is the pejorative sense in which it is discussed. Technically it is not possible to plagiarise oneself, but then copyright issues may arise. Assigning the copyright of a paper to a journal or publisher then essentially gives away the authors right to use any of the content of the published work in future papers (without permission). Of course copyright does not apply to ideas, but on the other hand ideas can be patented.

The problem with the software, text analysis approach to plagiarism detection is that it does not detect the theft of ideas if those ideas are expressed in a novel way. I would not be in the least surprised if there was a growing market for software that outwitted the plagiarism detectors! Using an intelligent thesaurus and random grammar substitutions it would be possible to disguise a “cut and paste” job.

So where are we now? The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) has developed a series of flowcharts that guide editors of scientific journals on the appropriate response to allegations or suspicious of plagiarism. The World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) has published policies accessible on the internet, including those related to plagiarism, and the Council of Science Editors also has guidelines on its website.

Plagiarism is a rather non-specific term, and to try a “one size fits all” response is difficult. The use of more focused and descriptive terms can give more strength to journal article processing. All text of newly submitted papers should be screened for concordance. The “plagiarism detector” report has to be assessed and analysed. Again this can be done at a clerical level for the first screening; quotes that have been appropriately indicated with quotation marks and citation would not count as plagiarism. When there is a doubt, however, the report must be assessed by a senior member of the editorial board.

The screening must be transparent and a clear statement in the instruction to authors should indicate the zero tolerance for inappropriate “cutting and pasting.” Confirmation that no such action has been involved in the preparation of the paper should be part of the submission process kept on record. An exhortation can also be made for authors to take pride in their work and to be honest, ethical and original in the production of scientific literature.

Plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism.

If this is stealing other’s ideas, or stealing other’s words, it is wrong. But although the former is often difficult to prove, the latter isn’t. Until human ingenuity enables students and academics to cut and paste with impunity using (no doubt share ware) software that fools the plagiarism detector, the most focused and direct demand is, no “cut and paste.”

What about penalties? Perhaps a communal database of offenders so that appropriate statistics can be developed. The plagiarism analysis reports would be filed with each author and be accessible just like a referenced article. It would be easy then to identify “repeat offenders” and in effect the “penalty” issue is taken care of. The repeat offender destroys their own credibility!

In the meantime a message to authors: Have respect for what you are doing and do not plagiarise in any way. Most specifically this relates to a simple rule, do not “cut and paste” when writing a paper, any paper.

Andrew Burd is professor of plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. His major clinical interests involve paediatric burns care and the role of plastic surgery in the palliation of advanced malignancy. Academic interests include pragmatic ethics related to the practice of medicine including research and publication.