What is plagiarism?
Plagiarism can take different forms. Most people think of it as stealing and using someone else’s work or ideas without attribution. But in the world of academic publishing, even using your own words again can lead to a charge of plagiarism.
If someone uses someone else’s writing or intellectual property without attributing to the person who originated it, that’s a form of plagiarism. Sometimes, you must take even more steps and gain permission from the person who originated the material or the publisher who owns the copyright. An example of when permissions are required is when you reproduce an image or graphic that has already been published.
The area where many people who are writing scientific papers find themselves confused is when a journal returns a paper and says that it didn’t pass the “plagiarism checker.” Authors who are using their own words or repeating methods that they’ve used before may find themselves feeling accused unfairly of something that sounds like a crime. How can you avoid this situation?
How to avoid plagiarizing
Obviously, if you quote someone else or paraphrase their ideas, you should attribute to the person or persons who originated them, using the journal’s reference style. You should never use someone else’s words and leave the impression that they are your own.
But what if those words are yours in the first place? If you use already published words in another publication, that’s still a possible case of self-plagiarism. The best way to avoid making this misstep is to write all of your papers from scratch, meaning each one is a new work with no material copied in. If you take this approach, you will avoid the most common problem authors encounter from plagiarism checkers, which is finding that they’ve plagiarized themselves.
A typical part of a scientific paper where many authors might find it difficult to reword themselves is the materials and methods. Most papers will have their own introduction, results, and discussion that are distinct from work that preceded the current study. But methods are often repeated and often quite similar from study to study, especially in the same lab. That means authors need to pay particular attention to ensuring that the methods for a new paper submission are sufficiently different from the language they have used in previous submissions.
Three ways to avoid self-plagiarism
Move phrases around. If you have one published paper describing PCR and you have to describe it again for your current paper, rearrange the phrases in your sentences. For example, a sentence in your already published paper might read, “We performed PCR using SYBR Green Real-Time Master mix (Thermo Fisher Scientific), according to the manufacturer’s instructions.” For your new paper that you’re planning to submit, you can rephrase this sentence as follows: “For PCR, we used the SYBR Green Real-Time Master Mix, following the manufacturer’s instructions (Thermo Fisher Scientific).”
Reference a previously published method without getting into detail.
If you wrote, “We performed PCR using SYBR Green Real-Time Master mix (Thermo Fisher Scientific), according to the manufacturer’s instructions,” in an already published paper, you could write, “We performed PCR as previously described” and reference the already published paper.
Write it afresh.
If you just can’t think of ways to rewrite the parts of your paper that repeat processes or background from earlier papers, your best bet is to write it anew. Start with a blank page and write the section without referencing the older publication.
Still worried that you’ve plagiarized by accident?
Finally, if you’ve gone through these steps and are unsure that you’ve rewritten your text sufficiently to avoid a charge of plagiarism from a journal, you can check for yourself. There are quite a few free-to-use plagiarism checkers online, including one provided by Grammarly.com
Copy and paste your text into the provided window and run the check. The site will immediately return a report that includes whether or not it detected plagiarism after scanning the web for similar material. If you get results indicating that the checker found plagiarism, try some of the steps above—rearrange words and phrases, rewrite entirely—and try again until you get the all-clear.
San Francisco Edit specializes in scientific editing in the United States and we work with scientists from all over the world.