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On Ethical Writing

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

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A general principle underlying ethical writing is the notion that the written work of an author, be it a manuscript for a magazine or scientific journal, a research paper submitted for a course, or a grant proposal submitted to a funding agency, represents an implicit contract between the author and the readers. According to this implicit contract, the reader assumes that the author is the sole originator of the written work, that any text or ideas borrowed from others are clearly identified as such by established scholarly conventions, and that the ideas conveyed therein are accurately represented to the best of the author’s abilities. In sum, as Kolin (2002) points out "Ethical writing is clear, accurate, fair, and honest. Ethical writing is a reflection of ethical practice".

As is the case with most other human activities, errors in writing which violate the spirit of the contract do occur. For example, in proposing a new idea or data, an author may dismiss as unimportant, and thus intentionally, ignore other established data or other evidence that fail to support, or outright contradict, his/her own ideas or data thereby possibly misleading the reader. Judging by readers’ letters and commentaries that are published in scientific journals in response to previously published articles, this type of oversight appears to be not all that uncommon in the sciences, particularly when ealing with controversial topics.

Other errors include situations in which an idea claimed by its author to be completely original, may have actually been articulated earlier by someone else. Such "rediscovery" of ideas is a relatively well-known phenomenon in the sciences, often occurring within a very close timeframe. In addition, cognitive psychologists have provided considerable evidence for the existence of cryptomnesia, or unconscious plagiarism, which refers to the notion that individuals previously exposed to others’ ideas will often remember the idea, but not its source, and mistakenly believe that they originated the idea. Still other errors include instances where authors borrow heavily from a source and, in careless oversight, fail to fully credit the source. These and other types of inadvertent lapses are thought to not be all that uncommon even in the sciences. Unfortunately, in a small number of cases, such lapses are thought to be intentional and, therefore, constitute clear instances of unethical writing.

Without a doubt, plagiarism is the most widely recognized and one of the most serious violations of the contract between the reader and the writer. Moreover, plagiarism is one of the three major types of scientific misconduct as defined by the Public Health Service; the other two being falsification and fabrication (U. S. Public Health Service, 1989). Most often, those found to have committed plagiarism pay a steep price. Plagiarists have been demoted, dismissed from their schools, from their jobs, and their degrees and honors have been rescinded as a result of their misdeeds (Standler, 2000).