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Introduction to Avoiding Plagiarism

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Scientific writing can be a cognitively demanding and arduous process, for it simultaneously demands exceptional degrees of clarity and conciseness, two elements that often clash with each other. In addition, accuracy and transparency, fundamental aspects of the scientific enterprise are also critical components of scientific writing. Good scientific writing must be characterized by clear expression, conciseness, accuracy, and perhaps most importantly, honesty. Unfortunately, modern scientific research often takes place within all sorts of constraints and competing pressures. As a result, a portion of the scientific literature, whether generated by students of science or by seasoned professionals, is likely to be deficient in one or more of the above components.

Insufficient clarity or lack of conciseness is typically unintentional and relatively easy to remedy by standard educational and/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. Yet such lapses, even if unintentional, can have significant negative consequences if not corrected. Intentional lapses in research integrity represent the most serious threat to the scientific enterprise, for such misconduct runs contrary to the principal goal of science, which is the search for truth.

In scientific writing, plagiarism is perhaps the most serious and the most widely recognized ethical lapse. It can occur in many forms and some of the more subtle instances, while arguably unethical in nature, may not rise to the level of research misconduct by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). On the other hand, minor plagiarism may still result in serious negative consequences for the perpetrator as per institutional policies, those of professional associations or those of the publishers where the plagiarized material appears. Because members of the scientific community are held, or should be held, to the highest standards of excellence, they are expected to uphold those high standards across all facets of their scientific work. Consequently, they must be aware of, and actively avoid, all questionable research practices, including writing practices that might be considered ethically problematic. A relatively common example of the latter occurs when authors report and discuss the results of their research only in the context of literature that is supportive of their conclusions, but ignore literature that clearly runs contrary to their findings.