Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Copying text without attribution is plagiarism.

Amazingly, there are graduate-level students out there who do not understand this simple, basic fact. When you're writing a scholastic or scientific document, you never copy other people's words - certainly not complete verbatim sentences - without clear attribution and indication that you're quoting someone else. You just don't. Ever. Doing so is plagiarism, and as any kind of professional you should know that it's wrong. Amazingly, some students don't seem to get this point, even when they've been told about this, explicitly, repeatedly, and actually signed documents attesting that they understand this, and when they know that the professor can use this amazing tool called google to figure this sort of thing out.

Just. Don't. Do. It.

30 comments:

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I was wondering how often you encounter this type of plagiarism in physics? Typically I deal with situations when a student copies a report from another student. But I never had to deal with stealing from a book or a wikipedia or some webpage - mostly because in physics we deal with problems that cannot be easily looked-up or cut-and-pasted from somewhere else.

Doug Natelson said...

In my graduate nano courses, I make the students write midterm and final papers (which I grade myself). Here's the webpage for the current class. This class and its companion tend to be quite popular - usually more than 20 grad students, a mix across physics, chemistry, ECE, and materials science. The idea of the papers is that they're supposed to pick a couple of articles from the current literature, summarize briefly, and demonstrate some critical input of their own (e.g., compare & contrast, or explain how one paper came out of the other, etc.). I do this because almost to a person the students can't stand writing, even though they'll have to do a lot of it in almost any science or engineering job they'll end up pursuing. You can see on the course page my description of the papers and my grading policy....

Jonah said...

Something I've noticed, only in passing, is the tendency for people to use language they've seen for something they don't understand without being conscious that it's someone else's. It might be an affect akin to the spread of a coined term, except generalized to the case of entire phrases or even sentences. How to make people aware of that? I suppose teachers can only hope to encourage efforts at independent thinking, the only thing, after all, that leads to original expression.

okham said...

I think at some point you enter a "grey area", though. I mean, when do you stop using the word "plagiarism" and start accepting the fact that sometimes language is limited, and there are not that many different ways of saying the same thing...
I never deliberately set out to plagiarize anyone, but as a graduate student with a relatively limited knowledge of English, writing papers on a subject (high-Tc) that produced dozens of new preprints every day, I am sure many of the sentences that I used regularly (mostly in the introduction and conclusion) overlapped greatly with others I had read in other people's papers... it happens almost subconsciously, I think. Even now, with my foreign graduate students who are writing in English for the first time (some with serious problems understanding how grammar works), I cannot expect their writing not to be seriously influenced by what they read... it's basically how one learns the language.
Formulating clear guidelines would be useful (and difficult).

Doug Natelson said...

Just to be clear, I don't mean accidentally using an idiom or two. I'm talking about appropriating multiple complete sentences.

Schlupp said...

O.k., multiple sentences (in a row?) are clear. Otherwise, I can also see how one could subconsciously use a phrase one has read. Easily in a foreign language and even in your own, because scientific writing is something new as well.

On "See Jane compute", I read a comment by Debora Weber-Wulff about a student plagiarizing in her class. Weber-Wulff is an expert on plagiarism and rather often cited in the media, so that even undergrads who might not normally be aware of their professors' research should know about it. How dumb to you you have to be to turn in plagiarism to a professor working on plagiarism in academia?

Schlupp said...

Forgot to mention: mentioned by German media. And the student was at a German university.

okham said...

OK, Doug, let me clarify as well: I am talking about a student using verbatim a generic phrase read on someone else's paper. For example:
"It has been long believed that strong electronic correlations play an important role in shaping the physics of high-temperature superconductors".
If a foreign student reads this on a paper and uses it verbatim in his/her text, whom is (s)he "plagiarizing" ? Can we blame anyone for utilizing a phrase that is surely correct, and conveys the meaning that is sought ? It's English, it does not really belong to anyone.
I mean, to me plagiarism (at least in the sciences) has to do with plots, numerical results, descriptions of new methodologies, experimental data and analysis thereof, equations, and all text that directly follows "We show that.... ", "These are our results...". Everything else... eh... I don't want to say "forget it" but... almost :-)

Schlupp said...

okham, I played around (= fed them to google) with a few phrases that I would have considered such stock phrases, and they are not as common as I would have thought. So, if someone reads the sentence you gave and then writes a paper, that person might remember the sentence, but as long as they do not SET OUT to copy it, their subconsious is probably likely to modify it at least to some extent. And set out to copy they shouldn't.

theboxisalie said...

Okham, that IS plagiarism. Just because the act is small and trivial (a "generic sentence") doesn't make it any less of an act of plagiarism. The English language is very complicated and rich; that's why it's so difficult to learn. That sentence you described, I could probably think of twenty different ways to write it that aren't exactly the same. A few adjectives, adverbs, and modifiers go a long way. It's also embarrassingly obvious when a student who can't speak English writes mellifluous prose. There's no problem with quoting someone as long as you cite them; you learn that in middle school English class. The problem is if you never took that class (i.e. you were in a foreign country). I've encountered this an unfortunate number of times.

okham said...

That sentence you described, I could probably think of twenty different ways to write it that aren't exactly the same.

Theboxisalie, I did not mean to imply that it can only be said in that one way, and I appreciate that some people can speak excellent English... for all I know there could even be as many as twenty of them, who knows....

It's just that the overwhelming majority of people who speak and write in English do so as a second language, and I am simply wondering whether common sense suggests that a big deal be made out of "plagiarism" of this type, especially if the perpetrator is a foreign student who may just need a break... I am also wondering how realistic it is to demand proper attribution for sentences like the one in my example...

Doug Natelson said...

Hi Okham - I understand your point. That's not what was going on here. I think we'd both agree that it's pretty unlikely that someone would spontaneously come up with a sentence like (to make up an example) "Self-assembly can take advantage of specific chemical interactions and the thermodynamic tendency to minimize overall free energy to produce self-organized patterns of remarkable complexity and utility." If you saw that sentence, googled it, and found that it was word-for-word taken from a review article on self-assembly that is not cited, what would you think?

Here's a more gray-area kind of case: a student is specifically writing about paper X, which they have cited at the beginning of the section, and in their discussion of paper X, they actually copy-and-paste text directly from the paper, including citation numbers(!) and phrases like "we then performed..." without indicating anywhere that they're quoting from the paper. It's bad practice, that's for damned sure.

okham said...

what would you think?

I would think that they copied it verbatim from somewhere. No question about it. Now, what action am I taking to sanction this, would depend on the context.
Is that sentence part of some introductory blahblahblah, or is it part of a culminating aspect of the project ? In the first case, especially if the name of the student is one I cannot pronounce :-)

Look, I am obviously not advocating plagiarism, I just think that, when it comes to assessing and sanctioning it, there is Plagiarism with capital P and there is the "minor" plagiarism :-)

okham said...

PS Sorry I am still a disaster at using this interface... I still have not figured out the mystery of the disappearing text. The sentence is:
"In the first case, I may even look the other way, especially if the name of the student is one I cannot pronounce :-)"

aiv said...

I had a recent example with students in an upper level graduate physics course, where two papers were essentially entirely plagiarized - in a ten page report, there was maybe less than a half a page of original text in each one. With the aid of google I was able to piece together the (uncited) sources from which sentences had been lifted almost verbatim in about half an hour. The students justified their plagiarism with "I couldn't find any better way to express the ideas so I didn't feel the need to modify it". This is essentially the same argument as recently made by
Turkish scientists involved in a plagiarism scandal


It certainly is harder to write if English is not your native language, but I would say my class showed examples where the idea that "borrowing" was taken to its logical extreme. It is too easy to be a little lenient here and a little lenient there, and then suddenly you have work where the entire thing has been lifted from other sources. I admit that it is sometimes hard to find imaginative ways to express certain ideas, but if your work is your own understanding of a topic, then surely you can find your own voice to express it in - otherwise the conclusion the reader is drawn to is that the writer did not understand what they were writing sufficiently to be able to add anything at all. Looking the other way at minor instances of plagiarism is avoiding responsibility and putting off the problem for someone else to deal with later and sends the message to the student that this is acceptable behaviour.

Schlupp said...

Still, Doug, you have it so easy... Believe me, the hard part is when you are a student and your professor proposes to, ahem, reuse an introduction. I know of one such case in AnotherCountry.

Peter Armitage said...

I know of one egregious example in my field where an author copied verbatim 4 pages of theoretical background for an RMP he was writing from another author's theory PRB.

Shameless!

Incoherent Ponderer said...

I disagree with the repeated claims that I see that "plagiarism is plagiarism is plagiarism, no matter how small or trivial".

There's clearly various degrees of plagiarism. Plagiarism of a sentence is different degree than plagiarizing entire paragraphs and pages. In sciences (like physics), text is often a filler, the main part of the paper is data.

Plagiarizing data is far more serious offense than using a generic introduction sentence along the lines of (example): "High-temperature superconductivity is a holy grail of condensed matter physics." And taking this sentence and changing it around to "A holy grail of condensed matter physics is high-temperature superconductivity" technically no longer makes it a plagiarism - but it is still lazy writing. On the other hand, probably not much harm done to science either way.

Plagiarizing stuff for literary works (fiction or non-fiction - e.g. biography) is more serious offense than copying or closely following the sentence structure of introduction for a research paper.

Something that happened to me is when I shared my data analysis code (I spent many months writing) with a colleague who never acknowledged it in the paper. It's a slippery slope, because small parts of code probably don't warrant acknowledgment, but in this case I felt it should have been acknowledged, as my code was 95% of analysis. I would say these examples are more serious than copying a sentence for your paper from a review article.

Of course students writing a report where writing part is crucial part of the exercise (Doug's example) is also different from numerous lab reports where copying a sentence from a lab manual about some piece of equipment is something I wouldn't be too worried about too much, as long as the crucial part is data collection and error analysis.

okham said...

IP,

that is exactly what I was trying to say, but you said it much better... in fact, I can see some major plagiarism of your comment in my not-so-distant future :-)

Doug Natelson said...

Thanks for the comments. Clearly there are matters of degree. Still, IP and Okham, you agree that cribbing whole sentences without attribution is wrong, yes? How would you react if you found out that your own students were doing this in your scientific papers? Even if it was "just" text, not actually stealing or faking data?

Incoherent Ponderer said...

Oh yea, it IS wrong - and especially if the report was aimed at developing writing skills.

If my student wrote an introduction to the paper that was vaguely based on some other work (say, a review paper) - that is if the student made the same general points (along the lines of "X is important because of A, B and C"), but paraphrasing, I think this is perfectly fine. If a sentence or two looked too similar, I would ask them re-phrase it - obviously cut-and-paste is not Ok. But if they plagiarized data, I would throw a major shit-storm.

Another grey area is presentation slides - I see a lot of slides that I *know* for a fact were "stolen" from other people, but no attribution is given. Some of these are generic enough, but still. A lot of senior people do it too, not just students.

okham said...

Doug, let me put it to you this way: when I hear the word "plagiarism" the first thing I think about is scientific misconduct -- stealing data, or ideas. If a student of mine ever does that, (s)he's done being my student.
Anything else I can work with, even if I have to reprehend or send someone to take remedial English.

Anonymous said...

IP, okham, no No NO. Such conduct is a severe violation of the university honor code. Full stop. Every single student enrolling at Rice pledges their honor every semester, as a prerequisite to being part of this community. You make the same commitment we all make, and you live by it, or you don't deserve to be here. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough. People at Rice have become entirely too lenient about the seriousness of keeping one's solemn promise.

Leaving aside the damage one does to personal honor, this plagiarism is blatantly disrespectful to one's professors, advisor, and fellow students. As someone who took this class a while back, I am somewhat familiar with how the assignments work. What Dr Natelson describes is thoroughly unacceptable for the papers. These students need to be nailed to the wall.

okham said...

Yeah, right, so, what am I supposed to do ? Google each and every sentence of each and every paper, in order to make sure that it has sufficiently small overlap with anything ever published before ? And, just how many sentences do I have to find that are not original enough, in order to find the student guilty of plagiarism ? Let's be reasonable....
It's easy to step on a podium, address the audience with a "holier-than-thou" tone, wave the finger and issue commandments, but when it comes to implementing rules in practice, it's hard to stay away from a degree of compromise.
Find me a single college professor who does not have to compromise on a regular basis, either because (s)he feels that it is the right thing to do, or because (s)he is instructed to do so by a chair, a dean or a provost.

Anonymous said...

okham, since I don't know what rules apply to being part of your academic institution's community, I'm not proposing anything FOR YOU. But in an honor code environment like at Rice, if one doesn't handle every bit of plagiarism, one isn't handling any of it. There isn't a middle ground, because people abuse any opening you give them. Word gets around quickly about what you can get away with in a professor's class.

And I think you and IP are incorrect about whether the only thing that matters is copying data and results and such. These people are proposing to engage in a career where you basically write for a living, and what you write about happens to be the research you and your students do, committee meeting reports, referee reports, grant proposals, grant reports, technical reports, and on and on and on.

So, given a situation like this one, with commitments to your learning community like these, what you propose is sheer laziness in grading and assessment. Dr Natelson gives essays and brief paper analysis tasks all semester long. If you do that, whoever is grading will easily be able to tell if a student wrote something. Voice comes through, even for people writing in a second language. If the voice you are hearing in someone's writing isn't theirs, then you know to look for something. If the craftsmanship suddenly changes in quality or style, then you know to look for something. If someone starts turning in something that could be in a PRL and they weren't before, then you know to look for something. If someone quotes a reasonably well known expression without attribution, then you know to look for something.

Faculty in other fields get the job done every semester while laboring under time constraints that area as demanding as those that science faculty face, so its certainly feasible, especially now that there are tools like Google.

nonoscience said...

@anonymous just above this comment:

yes, in general a quick and dirty way to look for plagiarism is to look for a sudden sentence excellent in English :)

In general, as a technical reviewer and academic, I have encountered plagiarism in research papers (verbatim lifted from another) to term papers by students, irrespective of graduate or undergraduate. At my blog I have written about several of these instances.

But nowadays, google and internet in general brings out the truth quickly.

Cheers,
Arunn

Anonymous said...

Doug, I would fail the students, with no opportunity for redemption (at least, not this semester). Do not underestimate the consequences of leniency on the students who did put in the time and effort to adhere to the honor code.

This is not the first time it has happened in your class. It occurred too when I was in your class a couple years ago (and to be fair, similar things were rampant in other classes). I was extremely angry at the apathy of the department(s) to hold everyone to the same standard, not only the mythical honor code, but teaching responsibilites and oral examination expectations.

I can't count the number of times the university trumpted the sanctity of the honor code, but professors refused to enforce it on foreign graduate students. Either uphold the code or drop it.

And no, this is not a xenophobic rant. I am the first to acknowledge life isn't fair, nor do I expect it to be fair. But I do expect a small amount of justice out of one of the few remaining professions that still has a code (and perception) of honor in today's world.

Anonymous said...

If you say
'GnRh stimulates release of LH and FSH. Also, LH and FSH stimulate gonad to promote spermatogenesis in the testes or ovary (1).' without quotation mark
and they are copied word to word from the lab manual do you think it's a part of plagiarism?

dianna.rose83@gmail.com said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.

Senior Facility said...

I never had to deal with stealing from a book or a wikipedia or some webpage - mostly because in physics we deal with problems that cannot be easily looked-up or cut-and-pasted from somewhere else.