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Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing

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Scientific writing can be a complex and arduous process, for it simultaneously demands clarity and conciseness; two elements that often clash with each other.  In addition, accuracy and integrity are fundamental components of the scientific enterprise and, therefore, of scientific writing. Thus, good scientific writing must be characterized by clear expression, conciseness, accuracy of what is being reported, and perhaps most importantly, honesty.  Unfortunately, writing, or for that matter the entire scientific process, often occurs within the constraints of tight deadlines and other competing pressures. As a result of these constraints, scientific papers, whether generated by science students or by seasoned professionals, will at times be deficient in one or more of the above components.

Insufficient clarity or lack of conciseness are typically unintentional and relatively easy to remedy by standard educational or editorial steps.  Lapses in the accuracy of what is reported (e.g., faulty observations, incorrect interpretation of results) are also assumed to be most often unintentional in nature, but such lapses, even if unintentional, can have significant undesirable consequences if not corrected. Intentional lapses in integrity, even if seemingly minor, are by far the most serious type of problem because such misconduct runs contrary to the primary goal of the scientific enterprise, which is the search for truth.

In scientific writing, perhaps the most widely recognized unethical lapse is plagiarism. Plagiarism can occur in many forms and some of the more subtle instances, while arguably unethical in nature, may not be classified as scientific misconduct by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Nevertheless, the ethical professional is expected to operate at the highest levels of scientific integrity and, therefore, must avoid all forms of writing that could be conceptualized as plagiarism.

There are other questionable writing practices, some of which may be quite common in professional scientific writing.  One example is reporting and discussing results of one’s research in the context of literature that is supportive of our conclusions while at the same time ignoring evidence that is contrary to our findings.  Another writing ‘malpractice’ occurs when another author’s review of a literature is used, yet the reader is led to believe that the current author has conducted the actual review.

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