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A few years back, while still an undergraduate student, I wrote and submitted a paper to a (low-tier) journal. It was accepted and published. None of the professors in my college were familiar with the subfield in question, so I did it all on my own, without their supervision or assistance.

It was only later on that I realised that I was guilty of plagiarism. I did write the paper all on my own, and always provide appropriate citations, but sometimes I would quote single sentences or parts of them directly from my sources without indicating that they were direct quotes (even if these unmarked quotes were always followed by a citation to the original source).

It has now been several years but I keep feeling guilty about it, and worry that one day someone will notice it and call me out on it. Or at least notice it while reading the paper and think worse of me. But since it has been several years since the paper was published, I also don’t know what I could do about it. I have thought of putting something like a public admission and apology on my website (from which the paper can also be downloaded), but maybe I’m overthinking it and nobody would actually care. In that case it would feel like a bad idea to needlessly draw attention to something that nobody would have noticed otherwise. But the paper has been cited some times, and I have reason to expect that there will be people reading it in the future.

Should I do something about it or just let it be?

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If someone was using sentences (but not entire paragraphs) of my work, WITH a proper reference, then I would not mind. Sometimes, some sentences are almost canonically good at expressing something, so IMHO, I would not mind, as an author. –  Per Alexandersson Apr 22 at 12:17
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Contact the journal and let them know what the problem is. They will decide upon the appropriate sanctions. But it's much better if you do it now, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you! –  aeismail Apr 22 at 12:45
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@aeismail You are contradicting yourself with the comment on my answer. Contacting the journal without asking what your faculty thinks, it sheer academic suicide. The editor might know a lot of people at the faculty (and might contact them). Also, it really depends on who the editor is. EU editors might retract immediately and publicly. So you should be the one telling it at the faculty and asking for advice. –  my.back Apr 22 at 12:49
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@feeling-guilty Did you indicate your affiliation (your university) in the paper? –  scaaahu Apr 22 at 12:56
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Feeling-guilty. I hope you figure out how to deal with the situation. My sincere advice: ask some people around you, people you trust. Get your advice from someone who knows your context (and those might not be the people on this forum). –  my.back Apr 22 at 19:29

3 Answers 3

but sometimes I would quote single sentences or parts of them directly from my sources without indicating that they were direct quotes (even if these unmarked quotes were always followed by a citation to the original source).

"You didn't use quotation marks where you should have in a paper you wrote as an undergrad? My god, you are despicable human being."

Nobody reading your question here will think this.

Rather they will think something like:

"Wow, you wrote a journal paper on your own as an undergrad and it's still being cited?"

I would imagine that the vast majority of readers of your paper, even if they notice, would think likewise.


Though it's technically plagarism, I think it would be quite obvious to a reasonable reader that if your intent was to plagarise, you would not immediately cite the plagarised document you stole the quote from. Omitting quotation marks sounds like a minor transgression to me, particularly if your area is STEM where the (natural) language of the text is a means not an end. (If you did not have the citation(s) at all, I think it would be a different matter.)

Mistakes happen and this was clearly just a mistake.

(I would also add that I think it's pretty common for researchers to be somewhat embarrassed by earlier papers that they wrote when they were more junior. At least I am. But that's just a sign of improving.)

I also don’t know what I could do about it. I have thought of putting something like a public admission and apology on my website (from which the paper can also be downloaded)

I would suggest two things:

  • Update the preprint on your homepage.
  • Keep a list of errata on your homepage.

In my area (CS) people mostly read the preprints (found through Google or Google Scholar).

public admission and apology

I don't think there's a need to apologise. I think you just need to admit your mistake and move on. Again, mistakes happen!

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Maybe you should talk to this guy: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/13489/… –  my.back Apr 22 at 13:05
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+1 for the list of errata. Write in an erratum that quotation marks are missing. That should cover it. –  gerrit Apr 22 at 14:13
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@don.joey, "plagiarism" and "intellectual theft" are the sort of terms I really hate. Why? Because they have loosely defined boundaries and only serve to lump innocuous mistakes and egregious malintent under the same label. Thus they permit your type of argument: taking instances from grayscale and mapping them to black and white generalities and black and white arguments not appropriate to the instance(s) in question. –  badroit Apr 22 at 15:44
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Gah, why did you delete all those comments? Now it looks like I was talking to myself. (I'm not I swear!) –  badroit Apr 22 at 20:19
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I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you this, @badroit, but don.joey isn't real. He's just in your head. But hey, it could be worse--at least when you argue with your imaginary friends (/enemies), you win! –  Kyle Strand Apr 23 at 17:35

I think that you already included in your question the most reasonable answer: upload a corrected copy of the paper to your webpage, and indicate on your webpage what the nature of the corrections was. I don't think you need to be specifically apologetic about it: rather honesty and fixing the paper seem to be called for.

I would only consider doing more than this if:

(i) The standards for quoting text without attribution in your field are more stringent than the academic norm.

and/or

(ii) You have some reason to believe that the unattributed quotes played a role in the acceptance of your paper.

In the academic circles that I run in (mathematics, and more generally STEM) neither of these apply and the second one is especially dubious: math papers are -- alas! -- not accepted for their dexterous phrase-turning.

If (i) and (ii) do apply, then I would next consider whether this paper is playing any significant role in your current academic profile. (You say it was published in a low-tier journal; on the other hand you say it is still being cited.) If all these conditions are met -- i.e., you have reason to believe that the paper might not have been accepted if the quotes were attributed properly and you feel that you have profited in some non-negligible way from publishing the paper, then I think you are ethically obligated to contact an editor of the journal. I would begin by sending them a copy of your "corrected" paper and take it from there.

I think it is very unlikely that this almost harmless kind of plagiarism (and I think we should agree that it is plagiarism: there are just more and less egregious versions of that bad practice; this is very unegregious, if I can make up a word) will get you in any kind of academic difficulties in your current job or even your future career. However, I think that academics should hold themselves to a higher standard than avoiding what could get them in trouble. From your post it is clear that you have high ethical standards and this has been bothering you for a while. If you do what I advised, I hope that you will sleep a little more soundly.

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From the etymology (from "ex", out of and "grex", a flock; so standing out from the flock), I'd suggest "gregious" as the opposite of "egregious"; or maybe "ingregious". :-) –  David Richerby Apr 23 at 9:25
    
Excellent advice and thanks for being clear that it is plagiarism, although this doesn't mean it isn't a minor mistake. If you put a clarification on your website you could also email either the journal editor and/or the author of the cited work. You are extremely likely to get either no response or a response saying that they don't care. This will cover your back in case the thing is dragged up in the future by someone who has it in for you. –  jwg Apr 23 at 19:59

I honestly don't think this counts as plagiarism. Plagiarism is presenting someone else's work as your own. All you did was use the same phrasing as the article you cite. Since you're giving credit where credit is due by citing the papers, I don't think anyone would object.

If you had done this with one of my papers, if anything I would be flattered. Had you failed to cite me, I would be very annoyed but if you cite my work and then use one of my phrases, I would simply be pleased with myself since you clearly thought that my turn of phrase was so good that you couldn't say it better. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that.

So, personally, I would do absolutely nothing. I really doubt anyone will be bothered by what is at worst "bad form". Of course it's better to place direct quotes within quotation marks but as long as the relevant paper is cited, you are very unlikely to anger anyone.

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You're right that this isn't nearly as bad as not citing the papers at all, but it could still be a real problem (and it's still "presenting someone else's work as your own", just their writing rather than their ideas). I think the key question is how often it occurs. If you copy a single sentence fragment without quotation marks, then it's more likely to be written off as a forgivable mistake. If you copy twenty sentences in a ten-page paper, then it looks like a much more serious pattern. –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 22 at 13:18
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But I think it's really misleading to say "I don't think anyone would object". The worrisome part isn't the people who will treat it most leniently, but rather those who will treat it most severely, and your personal reaction doesn't get at that question. –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 22 at 13:20
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@AnonymousMathematician yes, fair enough. If the copied content represents a significant percentage of the article that would be a problem. I just feel that as long as the sources are always clearly cited, it's not such a big deal. Bad form perhaps, but hardly cause for prosecution. –  terdon Apr 22 at 13:21
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@AnonymousMathematician no, my personal reaction is just that, personal. This is how I would feel if I saw my writing reproduced and cited in another's work. As long as it's cited, I would not object. Also, this clearly depends on the size of the quotes in question. Lifting whole paragraphs would bother me, single phrases or a sentence here and there would not (as long as it's cited). –  terdon Apr 22 at 13:23
    
terdon, you might have no objection to an unquoted sentence being lifted from your [cited] paper, but someone with an ax to grind (a rival) might some day make a stink about it. Academic, political, and writing careers have crashed and burned from even mild plagiarism. I would get on record as having corrected the oversight (and it was nothing more than an oversight) and set things straight, but there is no need for @feeling-guilty to beat himself up over it -- he'll do the right thing by correcting the issue. –  Phil Perry Apr 23 at 18:15

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