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

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Paraphrasing highly technical language

We have established that taking a paragraph or, for that matter, even a sentence, from another source, and using it in our writing without enclosing the material in quotations can constitute plagiarism. Inappropriate paraphrasing happens far too often, among students and professionals.

The available evidence indicates that one of the reasons for engaging in the misappropriation of text lies with an authorís unfamiliarity with the concepts and /or language with which s/he is working. The ability to properly paraphrase technical text depends in large part on the authorís conceptual understanding of the ideas being described and that authorís mastery and command of the technical language involved. Accordingly, correct paraphrases are easy when the language of the original material allows us many options for substituting words and phrases. Research shows that when asked to paraphrase, students, as well as university professors, are more likely to appropriate and, therefore, plagiarize text when the original material to be paraphrased is made up of technical language and it is difficult to read than when the material is written in plain language and is easier to read.

Obviously, inexperienced authors (e.g., students) have the greatest difficulty paraphrasing the advanced technical text often found in the primary literature. In an effort to introduce them to primary sources of information in a given discipline, college students are often required to write a research paper using only articles from scholarly journals. For those students who must complete this type of assignment for the first time, and, in particular, for foreign students whose primary language is not English, writing a research paper can be a daunting task. This is because scholarly prose: 1) can be very obtuse, 2) adheres to unique stylistic conventions (e.g., use of the passive voice in the biomedical sciences), and 3) relies heavily on jargon that students have yet to master. Consequently, studentsí need to create an acceptable academic product that is grammatically correct and that demonstrates knowledge of the concepts discussed, forces many of them to rely on close paraphrases of the original text. Unfortunately, such writing can result in a charge of plagiarism.

Guideline 7: In order to make substantial modifications to the original text that result in a proper paraphrase, the author must have a thorough understanding of the ideas and terminology being used.

An analogous situation can occur at the professional level when we wish to paraphrase, say, a complex process or methodology. Traditional writing conventions give us the option to take any material that is difficult to paraphrase and enclose in quotation marks. Therefore, if the text is so technical that it would be very difficult or near impossible to modify substantially without altering its meaning, then perhaps it would be best to leave it in the original authorís wording and simply enclose it in quotation marks. However, unlike disciplines, such as literature or philosophy, quoting in certain disciplines (e.g., biological sciences) is not encouraged (see Pechnick, 2001). One would be hard pressed to find an entire sentence quoted, let alone a short paragraph, in the pages of prestigious journals in the biomedical sciences (e.g., Nature, Science, New England Journal of Medicine).

In sum, the reality is that traditional scientific prose and diction do not always facilitate paraphrasing. To illustrate the difficulties inherent in paraphrasing highly technical language, letís consider the following paragraph from a report recently published in Science (Lunyak, et al., 2002).

"Mammalian histone lysine methyltransferase, suppressor of variegation 39H1 (SUV39H1), initiates silencing with selective methylation on Lys9 of histone H3, thus creating a high-affinity binding site for HP1. When an antibody to endogenous SUV39H1 was used for immunoprecipitation, MeCP2 was effectively coimmunoprecipitated; conversely, aHA antibodies to HA-tagged MeCP2 could immunoprecipitate SUV39H1 (Fig. 2G)."≤ (p. 1748)

Here is an attempt at paraphrasing the above material:

A high affinity binding site for HP1 can be produced by silencing Lys9 of histone H3 by methylation with mammalian histone lysing methyltransferase, a suppressor of variegation 39H1 (SUV39H1). MeCP2 can be immunoprecipitated with antibodies prepared against endogenous SUV39H1; on the other hand, immunoprecipitation of SUB39H1 resulted from aHA antibodies to HA-tagged MeCP2. ≤

Unlike the previous examples of appropriate paraphrasing, the above example does not embody as many textual modifications. For the exact meaning of the original Science paragraph to be preserved in the present case, many of the same terms must be left intact in the paraphrased version. Although synonyms for some of the words may be available, their use would likely alter the meaning of the original. For example, take the word affinity, which is defined as "that force by which a substance chooses or elects to unite with one substance rather than with another" (Dorland, 2000). Rogetís Thesaurus (Chapman, 1992) lists the following synonyms for affinity: accord, agreement, attraction, friendship, inclination, marriage relationship, preference, relationship, similarity, and tendency. Although it might be possible to rewrite the first sentence using the synonym "attraction", this alternative fails to capture the precise meaning conveyed by the original sentence, given how the term is used in this area of biomedical research. The fact of the matter is that the word affinity has a very specific denotation in the context in which is being used in the Science paragraph and it is the only practical and meaningful alternative available. The same can be said for other words that might have synonyms (e.g., binding, silencing, site). Other terms, such as methylation and antibodies are unique and do not have synonyms available. In sum, most of the terms (e.g., immunoprecipitation, endogenous, coimmunoprecipitated) and expressions (e.g., Ha-tagged, high-affinity, mammalian histone lysing methyltransferase) in the above paragraph are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to substitute without altering the intended meaning of the paragraph. As a result, the paraphrased version looks somewhat similar to the original and thus, applying the strict definitions of paraphrasing, such as those provided by some writing guides would render our paragraph as a borderline or outright case of plagiarism.

Perhaps in recognition of the fact that highly technical descriptions of a methodology, phenomena, etc., can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to properly paraphrase, ORIís definition of plagiarism provides the following caveat:

"ORI generally does not pursue the limited use of identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology or previous research because ORI does not consider such use as substantially misleading to the reader or of great significance."

The above considerations may underlie the reason for the absence of an operational definition of proper paraphrasing.

Nevertheless, and in spite of the above clarification provided by ORI, the following guideline is offered:

Guideline 8: A responsible writer has an ethical responsibility to readers, and to the author/s from whom s/he is borrowing, to respect othersí ideas and words, to credit those from whom we borrow, and whenever possible, to use oneís own words when paraphrasing.
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