Letters

Plagiarism: Consider the Context

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Science  14 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5942, pp. 813-814
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_813c

There should be no doubt that any form of covert duplication of data represents a serious threat to the integrity of the scientific record (“Plagiarism sleuths,” J. Couzin-Frankel and J. Grom, News Focus, 22 May, p. 1004). Duplication and other types of redundancy (such as “salami publication”) are a source of great concern for science journal editors (1). In that regard, Skip Garner's eTBLAST and his Déjà vu site should be viewed as a welcomed addition in the arsenal to combat and prevent possible scientific misconduct.

The issue of wholesale reuse of an author's previously published text is slightly more nuanced. It is understandable when non-native authors with limited English skills engage in this behavior, particularly when they have received poor relevant guidance. While adhering to a single set of clear, ethical standards equally applicable to all, we also must recognize that each case is unique and should be treated accordingly. In contrast, substantial text reuse by experienced authors who hold a full command of the language is inexcusable and should not be tolerated. An exception might be made for methodology sections because these contain very complex, technical descriptions of materials and procedures that are often difficult to paraphrase (2). Even slight changes to the wording of these sections could potentially lead to subtle misinterpretations of how an experiment was conducted. However, the underlying assumption in this argument—that previously published methods sections are so well written that they cannot possibly benefit from additional clarification or elaboration—is often unwarranted (3).

Practices such as patchwriting and authors' recycling of their previously published text should not just be regarded as questionable—they should be unequivocally classified as inappropriate scholarship (4).

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