On 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 of that work and his/her readers. Accordingly, the reader assumes that the author is the sole originator of the written work and that any material, text, data, or ideas borrowed from others is clearly identified as such by established scholarly conventions, such as footnotes, block-indented text, and quotations marks. The reader also assumes that all information conveyed therein is accurately represented to the best of the author’s abilities. In sum, as Kolin (2015) points out, “Ethical writing is clear, accurate, fair, and honest” (p. 29) and its promotion conveys to readers a commitment to ethical practice in other aspects of the author’s work.

As is the case with most other human activities, inadvertent errors may occur in the process of writing that end up violating the spirit of the contract. For example, in proposing a new idea or presenting new data, an author may sincerely consider a certain line of evidence as unimportant or irrelevant, and thus ignore other existing data or evidence that fail to support, or outright contradict, his/her own ideas.  In other cases, an author may fail to give credit to a unique theoretical position or a fundamental methodological step that is necessary for an experiment to work as described. An example of the latter situation that eventually led to a correction of a published article (i.e., Anastasia, Deinhardt, Chao, Will, Irmady, Lee, Hempstead, & Bracken, 2014) is described by Marcus (2014).  Judging by some of the reader commentary appearing in various emerging outlets, such as PubPeer and Retraction Watch,, these types of oversights occur relatively frequently in the sciences, particularly when dealing with controversial topics.

Other errors include situations in which an idea claimed to be completely original by its author/s 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 relatively close timeframe. In some cases, these “new” discoveries are completely independent in that it is possible for the new proponents to appear to have no knowledge of the original discovery. In other instances, it is possible for the new proponents to have been actually exposed to these ideas at some point but to have genuinely forgotten. A recent example of a rediscovery of an old phenomenon occurred when Dieter, Hu, Knill, Blake, and Tadin (2013) claimed to have discovered that moving one’s hand from side to side in front of one’s covered eyes causes visual sensations of motion. However, as a subsequent correction points out (Dieter, et al., 2014), these authors were apparently unaware that reports of this phenomenon had been published earlier, starting with the work of Hofstetter (1970) and followed by the work of Brosgole & Neylon (1973) and Brosgole & Roig (1983). The latter study reported at least one experiment with similar methodology and results as one of those reported later by Dieter, et al.  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 misattribute the idea to them (see Brown & Murphy, 1989; Brown & Halliday, 1991; Marsh & Bower, 1993). Unfortunately, it is often difficult to establish whether prior exposure to ideas has occurred.

Other unintentional errors occur, such as when 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 occur with some frequency in the sciences. Unfortunately, in some cases, such lapses are thought to be intentional and therefore constitute instances of unethical writing and quite possibly constitute research misconduct. 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 (PHS), the other two being falsification and fabrication (U.S. Public Health Service, 1989). Most often, individuals found to have committed substantial 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). Let us take a closer look at this type of misconduct.

Source URL: https://ori.hhs.gov/ethical-writing