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

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Citing sources that were not read or thoroughly understood

GUIDELINE 16: Generally, when describing others’ work, do not rely on a secondary summary of that work. It is a deceptive practice, reflects poor scholarly standards, and can lead to a flawed description of the work described.

The practice of relying on a published paper’s abstract to describe its contents also fits in the present category. However, there are other scenarios that better illustrate the practice of citing papers that were either poorly understood or perhaps not even read by the author citing it. Let’s go over a couple of examples:

Consider an investigator who is in the process of writing the results of a series of studies he conducted. In his search for background literature relevant to his work, he finds one particular journal article whose introduction cites a number of other works that seem very relevant to his own paper. Although he recognizes most of the references cited, there are a couple of papers that he is not familiar with and, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons he cannot obtain copies of them at this point. Given the context of the published paper’s description of these two other papers that are unfamiliar to him, our author decides to include them in his own review of the literature by paraphrasing the relevant portions of the published paper’s introduction that summarize the contributions of these two unfamiliar papers. He then includes these papers as references in his manuscript’s reference section, along with the journal article from which he derived the information. Finally, although our author cites the published article in at least one other context, he does not indicate that this article had served as the source of the paraphrase.

By not indicating the true source of the paraphrase of these two papers, the reader is deceived by falsely assuming that the brief summary of these two papers was based on our author’s direct reading of these papers. Technically, this type of transgression qualifies as a form of plagiarism because the author has paraphrased a summary of another’s work that was written by someone else and did not properly attribute his summary to the author of the journal article. Of course, a formal charge of plagiarism would depend on a number of variables, such as the amount of paraphrasing that took place without proper attribution, the significance or uniqueness of the material involved, etc.

This type of practice can also be risky because there could conceivably be other aspects of the papers cited (but which were not read) that do not quite correspond with the offending author’s thesis. Therefore our author may be citing references that would not actually support his point of view. Inexperienced students sometimes use this inappropriate strategy when they review the literature and discover a paper that reviews roughly the same literature that the student must describe. In an effort to ‘cut corners’ and economize on time and effort needed to write the paper some students will paraphrase, in whole or in part, a review of the same literature that appeared in a published source. In an effort to maintain the deception, the student cites in his/her paper’s reference section every source mentioned in the paraphrase, including the article from which the material was taken. This strategy is designed to mislead the professor into assuming that the student has actually read all of the papers cited in his/her review. Ironically, these transgressions are typically uncovered, not only because the students’ paraphrases are often too close to the original, thus betraying the students’ less sophisticated writing, but also because at least some of the papers cited are known to their professor to not be directly supportive of the students’ main position.

The reader should note, however, that there might be instances in which the practice of citing sources that were not read may be acceptable. For example, an author may simply wish to point out a well-known discovery or theory and provide the reader with the original citation. When this is done without misleading the reader into believing that the author read the paper detailing the discovery and is thoroughly acquainted with its contents, then no real harm is done.

GUIDELINE 17: If an author must rely on a secondary source (e.g., textbook) to describe the contents of a primary source (e.g., a empirical journal article), she should consult writing manuals used in her discipline to follow the proper convention to do so. Above all, always indicate the actual source of the information being reported.

The reader should note that some writing manuals have spelled out specific conventions to deal with a situation when an important paper relevant to one’s manuscript contains a reference that we would like to cite, but is not available to us. One such writing manual, the current edition of the Style Manual of the American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association, 2001), offers a simple strategy for authors who need to cite a source that is not available to them, but that is contained within another source (as described in the above example). Let’s say that our author had read about the work of Smith (1999) in an article authored by Rodriguez (2003). According to the APA Manual the author can use this material by stating as follows: “According to Smith (1999; as cited in Rodriguez, 2003) an important variable …”.

GUIDELINE 18: Always consult the primary literature. Avoid relying on secondary sources.

There is at least one other form of this undesirable practice. Consider the situation in which a ‘landmark’ paper, whose contributions are well known, needs to be cited in a manuscript. The author cannot readily find a copy of the paper, but he has cited it before and is familiar with its contents. In summarizing the contents of that landmark paper, the author of the manuscript, who may have read the paper long ago, is relying on his recollection of its contents based on his prior reading of the paper. Perhaps our author is also able to augment his recollection with summaries of that work that appear in other secondary sources, such as a textbook. After all, this is a paper that is widely known throughout the discipline.

The problem with this strategy is that our recollection of vital details about a paper read at an earlier time is probably less than optimal. In addition, secondary sources may inadvertently slant or distort important details of others’ work, particularly if the material in question is of a controversial nature. Taken together, these factors can ultimately result in the dissemination of faulty information.

One example of this type of problem within the social sciences concerns current descriptions of a famous demonstration carried out by psychologists John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner (1920) in which an infant known as “Little Albert” was conditioned to fear a rat. Watson and Rayner’s demonstration with Little Albert is cited in a large proportion of introductory psychology textbook and in many other textbooks within that discipline and beyond (e.g., education). However, according to Paul and Blumental (1989), investigators have pointed out a number of serious flaws in this classic demonstration and have also shown how, over the years, various elements of the demonstration have become distorted. In explaining the continued presence of this classic demonstration in textbooks without mention of the flaws, Paul and Blumenthal state:

“Textbook authors are under considerable pressure to keep their references current. An author who cites older works will often be instructed by manuscript reviewers and editors to consult the current literature. Most surely do. But from the evidence of the texts, others simply update their citations or lists of ‘suggestion for further reading.’ As a result, references in introductory textbooks sometimes bear little relationship to authors’ substantive discussions. Indeed, citation may directly contradict claims asserted in the text.” (p. 551).

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