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

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Selective reporting of Literature

GUIDELINE 20: When appropriate, authors have an ethical responsibility to report evidence that runs contrary to their point of view. In addition, evidence that we use in support of our position must be methodological sound. When citing supporting studies that suffer from methodological, statistical, or other types of shortcomings, such flaws must be pointed out to the reader.

Whether one is working on a paper for a course, a doctoral dissertation, or a paper targeted for publication in a scientific journal, one of the main purposes of reviewing the relevant literature and citing others’ work is to provide logical and/or solid empirical support for one’s thesis. The literature review also provides readers with the proper context to understand a proposed study or theory by informing them of important issues, such as the current state of knowledge on the topic, the type of methodologies being used in the area, the theoretical underpinnings of the research, and the significance of the problem. Depending on the type of manuscript being developed, the literature review will be either comprehensive (e.g., doctoral dissertation) or very succinct (e.g., journal article). The latter situation presents a unique challenge because journal space can be very expensive forcing authors to be very concise in their writing.

For aspiring scholars and scientists, the classroom represents the training ground for future professionals. As a result, professors tailor the requirements for academic papers assigned in many graduate and advanced undergraduate courses to those demanded by scholarly journals (see for example, Salazar, 1993). These constraints sometimes present a real challenge for authors, who must always make an effort to shorten their literature reviews and only include a very concise summary of highly relevant papers.

Obviously, literature that is cited in support of our point of view must be grounded in sound arguments, tight research methodologies, and flawless data. Citing references in support of our work, that are known to be methodologically or logically deficient, and that fail to mention these shortcomings is ethically inappropriate. Likewise, if in our search for relevant literature we become aware of important relevant evidence that runs contrary to our data or point of view, we may, depending on the context of the research, have an ethical obligation to cite such evidence, either in the introduction or the discussion section of our paper.

Given that the main purpose of a literature review is to find evidence in support of our research, it is not uncommon to find instances in which authors fail to cite relevant literature that runs contrary to their thesis. Based on the pace at which science and scholarship continues to grow, that many of these lapses may be due to authors’ inability to keep up with the burgeoning literature. However, a perusal of scholarly journals that accept letters to the editor as commentaries to recently published articles will reveal instances in which such writing practices appear intentional (see Goodman, 1998; Perkin, 1999; Nathan, 1994).

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