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

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Acknowledging the source of our ideas

Guideline 1: An ethical writer ALWAYS acknowledges the contributions of others and the source of his/her ideas.

Just about every scholarly or scientific paper contains several footnotes or reference notes documenting the source of the facts, ideas, or evidence that is reported in support of arguments or hypotheses. In some cases, as in those papers that review the literature in a specific area of research, the reference section listing the sources consulted can be quite extensive, sometimes taking up more than a third of the published article (see, for example, Logan, Walker, Cole, & Leukefeld, 2000). Most often, the contributions we rely upon come from the published work or personal observations of other scientists or scholars. On occasion, however, we may derive an important insight about a phenomenon or process that we are studying, through a casual interaction with an individual not necessarily connected with scholarly or scientific work. Even in such cases, we still have a moral obligation to credit the source of our ideas. A good illustrative example of the latter point was reported by Alan Gilchrist in a 1979 Scientific American article on color perception. In a section of the article, which describes the perception of rooms uniformly painted in one color, Gilchrist states: “We now have a promising lead to how the visual system determines the shade of gray in these rooms, although we do not yet have a complete explanation. (John Robinson helped me develop this lead.)” (p.122; Gilchrist, 1979). A reader of the scientific literature might assume that Mr. Robinson is another scientist working in the field of visual perception, or perhaps an academic colleague or an advanced graduate student of Gilchrist’s. The fact is that John Robinson was a local plumber and an acquaintance of Gilchrist in the town where the author spent his summers. During a casual discussion, Robinson’s insights into the problem that Gilchrist had been working on were sufficiently important to the development of his theory of lightness perception that Gilchrist felt ethically obligated to credit Robinson’s contribution.

Even the most ethical authors can fall prey to the inadvertent appropriation of others’ ideas, concepts, or metaphors. Here we are referring to the phenomenon of unconscious plagiarism, which, as stated earlier, takes place when an author generates an idea that s/he believes to be original, but which in reality had been encountered at an earlier time. Given the free and frequent exchange of ideas in science, it is not unreasonable to expect instances in which earlier exposure to an idea that lies dormant in someone’s unconscious, emerges into consciousness at a later point, but in a context different from the one in which the idea had originally occurred. Presumably, this is exactly what happened in the case of former Beatle George Harrison, whose song “My Sweet Lord” was found to have musical elements of the song “He’s So Fine”, which had been released years earlier by The Chiffons (see Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd., 1976). Unfortunately, there are probably other John Robinsons, as well as other accomplished scientists, scholars, and artists, now forgotten, whose original, but unacknowledged ideas have been subsequently and unconsciously “reinvented/rediscovered” by others and have, thus, failed to get their due credit.

In some cases the appropriation of an idea can be a subtle process. Consider the famous case of Albert Schatz who, as a graduate student working under Selman Waksman at Rutgers, discovered the antibiotic streptomycin. Even though the first publications describing his discovery identified Schatz as primary author (Martin, 1997), it was Wakman who, over a period of time, began to take sole credit for the discovery ultimately earning him the Nobel prize in 1952 (see, for example, Shatz, 1993; Mistiaen, 2002 for a fuller description of this case.

Of course, there also have been instances in which unscrupulous scientists have intentionally appropriated ideas. The confidential peer review process is a ripe source from which ideas may be plagiarized. Consider the scenario where the offender is a journal or conference referee, or a member of a review panel for a funding agency. He reads a paper or a grant proposal describing a promising new methodology in an area of research directly related to his own work. The grant fails to get funded based, in large part, on his negative evaluation of the protocol. He then goes back to his lab and prepares a grant proposal using the methodology stolen from the proposal that he refereed earlier and submits his proposal to a different granting agency. In fact, elements of the above scenario are based on actual cases of scientific misconduct investigated by ORI.

The peer review context appears to be sufficiently susceptible to the appropriation of ideas that in 1999 the federal Office of Science and Technology expanded their definition of plagiarism as follows:

"Plagiarism is the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts." (Office of Science and Technology Policy, 1999).

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