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

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Relying on an abstract or a preliminary or version of a paper while citing the published version

GUIDELINE 15: Authors should follow a simple rule: Strive to obtain the actual published paper.When the published paper cannot be obtained, cite the specific version of the material being used, whether it is conference presentation, abstract, or an unpublished manuscript.

At the beginning of this instructional resource we identified clarity, conciseness, accuracy, and integrity as essential elements of scientific writing.Unfortunately, the latter two concepts are sometimes overlooked with certain citation practices.Consider what can happen in the following scenario.A researcher needs to conduct a literature review for a manuscript that s/he is preparing for submission to a biomedical journal.She begins her search by accessing the PubMed database and typing topic-relevant terms in the search field.The search yields several useful abstracts and the researcher proceeds to track down the various journal articles.Unfortunately, one key article is not available on-line.It is not carried by her institution’s library, nor is it available at nearby libraries as it has been published as a technical report in a nontraditional journal with very limited circulation.Pressed for time, the researcher decides, instead, to rely on material from the abstract for the literature review and includes the journal article citation in the reference section.However, s/he fails to indicate that she relied on the abstract and not the actual journal article.

Another variation of this problem occurs when the researcher cites the published version of the paper, but actually relies on the contents of an earlier version that was published in the proceedings of a conference, or the version that was distributed at the conference presentation itself.These behaviors violate the requisites of accuracy and integrity.

The main problem with relying on versions other than the published paper is that important elements of these earlier versions may be different from their counterparts in the published version of the paper.Such changes are typically due to the peer review process, editorial changes, or errors that are spotted and corrected by the author between the time the paper is presented at a conference and the time that it is subsequently published.In some cases, the published version will contain additional data and/or interpretations that are substantially different from those of earlier versions.For example, a conference paper describing experimental data may, in its published form, contain additional data from a new condition that was run in response to referees’ suggestions.

Data from the new condition can place the earlier data in a new perspective possibly leading to new interpretations.With respect to abstracts, relying on such summaries can be problematic because abstracts typically do not provide sufficient details about the paper’s contribution (i.e., Taylor, 2002).In addition, because of their condensed form, abstracts cannot provide essential details about a study’s methodology, and results.Moreover, we note that in some databases there may be instances in which individuals other than the author/s of the journal article write the article’s abstract.As a result, subtle misrepresentations are more likely to occur.Writing guidelines, such as the Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals, discourage the use of abstracts as references.

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