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As an undergraduate student, I wrote a science paper. Because I was learning to write, I used the form and structure of a paper on a completely different topic; in fact, it was a slightly different discipline all together. So my paper has a similar layout, transitions, and structure as said paper, though the information, content, subject matter, and topic are different.

Is this plagiarism? I later contacted the original author, upon discovering the similarities, and he said that it was okay, that he learned the form from others, and that I should go on with life.

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    There are a phrase bank maintained by the University of Manchester to help scientists in writing papers. Why would you feel soo bad about it, if this is something encouraged among academics? Look: phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk – The Doctor Apr 24 '18 at 12:45
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    What others have said about it being ok to copy the structure is all true. Overriding that, though, is the fact that you told the author of the original and he said it was ok. That's all you need to hear. Get on with your life. – Max Williams Apr 25 '18 at 11:24
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    I would add that you have already shown your honesty and integrity by contacting the author and following through on your misgivings. Many people would simply have put it out of their mind and moved on. – senderle Apr 25 '18 at 16:36
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    What do you mean by "upon discovering the similarities"? How could you "discover" these if you intentionally put them there from the start (as your first paragraph says)? I think you should clarify the real sequence of events. – David Ketcheson May 2 '18 at 12:30
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    Okay, I guess you mean "rediscovering" then. – David Ketcheson May 2 '18 at 13:13
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You've done nothing wrong; most manuscripts follow the same structure.

Consider the following recommendations for structure: (1) Introduction, (2) Materials and Methods, (3) Results, and (4) Discussion. Would it be wrong to adopt that structure? No. It's a very common style and is widely adopted.


The OP added:

It's not just the [structure] that I followed, but the language - i.e. transition words.

Transition words, e.g., https://msu.edu/~jdowell/135/transw.html, are standard, so they shouldn't create an issue.

The order of the introduction is the same, for example.

That's just a different form of structural issue, hence, this isn't a problem.

I said why the world needs the paper in a similar language even though there was two totally different topics and subject matters.

Such a style is advocated by many, e.g., Simon Peyton Jones, so that shouldn't create an issue.


Note: Without seeing the texts, we cannot comment on specific issues.

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    Yes. AFAIK, just about every scientific paper follows exactly the same form and structure. Likely enough your research supervisor will give you the template to follow. (And the same is true for magazine & newspaper articles &c: there are a few standard forms that almost everyone uses, which are taught in writing classes.) As for "transition words", exactly how many of those do you suppose there are in the English language? – jamesqf Apr 24 '18 at 16:54
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    I generally agree with this answer, but the beginning of the sentence He told me it was inappropriate but not a big deal... makes me question whether one can say the OP actually did nothing wrong. – Kimball Apr 24 '18 at 22:15
  • @Kimball We won't definitively know whether the OP did something wrong unless they provide more details. Others have assumed the OP has done something wrong, e.g., academia.stackexchange.com/a/108671/22768 Reality might be somewhere in the middle. – user2768 Apr 25 '18 at 6:59
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    If the originial author read through your paper and said it was fine, there shouldn't be much more to worry about. – everyone Apr 25 '18 at 7:58
  • I showed the article to a professor who more or less agreed with the other senior researcher, and with your comments here, that both articles were standard scientific structure and that the author was right not to be concerned. This is not a reason not to be considerate, however. Thanks for your help. – Science123456 May 2 '18 at 15:18
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Academic writing is fairly standardized. Most disciplines follow a standard template, usually a variety of the following:

  1. Introduction
    • Why the world needs this paper
    • What the literature already says on the topic and what this paper contributes
    • How this paper is organized
  2. Background: An elaboration in roughly five paragraphs on the first paragraph of the introduction, setting the stage for the analysis and making the reader aware of the context needed to understand the paper
  3. Theory: An inventory and perhaps formalization of the theoretical concept(s) or model(s) used in the subsequent analysis in roughly five paragraphs
  4. Methods
    • How the theory was operationalized
    • How the data was generated
    • How the data was analyzed
  5. Analysis: Two or three subsections, each making one major claim that relates to the overall research question. Explains how the data/observations inform the theory and/or vice versa.
  6. Conclusion
    • Restatement of the main thesis and argument in theoretical terms
    • Discussion of the contribution to the literature
    • Implications for future research

If you used a format similar to this one, you didn't plagiarize; you just followed academic writing convention, which is good. And so did the paper that you used as a template.

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    It's not just the formal template that I followed, but the language - i.e. transition words. The order of the introduction is the same, for example. I said why the world needs the paper in a similar language even though there was two totally different topics and subject matters. It was inappropriate, now maybe we don't retract articles for this sort of thing, I don't know. – Science123456 Apr 24 '18 at 11:49
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    @henning I would add to your answer that there are a phrase bank maintained by the University of Manchester for scientific writing. So this is something encouraged among academics. phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk – The Doctor Apr 24 '18 at 12:49
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    @DavidRicherby You're right; that format isn't used in mathematics. But another format is fairly standard in math: Introduction, background, my great new theorem(s), proofs. So I still agree (and I imagine you do too) with henning's conclusion that the OP should stop worrying. – Andreas Blass Apr 24 '18 at 14:24
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    @DavidRicherby Few experiments in political science, but it's a standard format for us (data/observations can be quantitative but also case-studies). You're right, it won't fit maths. – henning Apr 24 '18 at 14:26
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    @TheDoctor That's www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk (The original omits www and doesn't work (for me, at least).) – user2768 Apr 24 '18 at 14:29
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This is something that has come up in comments, but not yet in answers: you should not have written that paper that way. You copied parts of the other professor's wording (perhaps at long stretches) and plugged in your own material. The content and the quality of writing (e.g. persuasive style, apt wording) are both important in academia. In fields like philosophy or literature, both may be equally important, whereas in experimental sciences many authors and readers would be happier if articles just consisted of figures, tables, citations, and bullet points. In all fields, though, there are people who put extra effort into writing well and would be particularly annoyed at having their structure and unique wording copied.

This is in the realm of plagiarism, but it does not make the top 28 guidelines for avoiding plagiarism offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Research Integrity. Because you appropriated the peripheral wording and not the content, this is more of a gray area (depending on exactly how much was borrowed), and it does not impact whether the scientific record should be corrected: your results still stand, and your ideas are still yours. This is one of the reasons no one so far seems to be in favor of retraction.

I've even heard writing advice that you SHOULD copy the argumentation structure of other papers, but usually there are caveats about not taking everything from the same place. In creative writing classes, there are often assignments to write in the style of some other author, as practice, but the goal is to help the writer pick up different tools of expression, and in the final work for public consumption it shouldn't be obvious that the writer was mimicking someone else.

This issue probably still feels unresolved. The first time I misjudged a traffic light and essentially ran a red light, I was shaken and pulled over and expected the police to immediately find me and ticket me. But I realized that mistakes happen, and sometimes the correct way to rectify them is not to seek out appropriate punishment for yourself but to be vigilant about not making the same mistake again.

You did a good thing by reaching out to the original author, and because they do not want a retraction, you can consider this matter resolved. (You may want to save a copy of that correspondence, on the exceedingly remote chance that someone raises this as an issue later, after discovering it through a natural language processing exercise or something. Plus, if this article ends up in your "Collected Works" someday, as GEdgar suggested in a comment, you can then quote that author's kind correspondence in your commentary.)

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    @Science12345 - you contacted the author and he said it was not a huge deal and no need to retract, just don't do it again. You asked here and dozens of people have said the same thing in different ways. And yet you're still arguing! Take yes and for an answer and move on with your life. If you really find that difficult, it seems like you might be showing signs of scrupulosity. Good luck! – cag51 Apr 25 '18 at 4:17
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    If it helps, it's quite possible that the author was flattered that a student used their article as an exemplar, and the author could probably tell from your sincere concern that this was a mistake you made early on and would not repeat. – cactus_pardner Apr 25 '18 at 4:18
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    @Science12345 - You said, "Yes, this X100," but then you went right into the throes of angst again. I suggest you follow your own guidance, and read the part in bold print one hundred times. – J.R. Apr 25 '18 at 14:26
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    Also, a world where "I own that generic phrase" and "I own that generic phrase" would not be a world worth living in, though of course, I say, be considerate and don't copy other people's styles. – Science123456 Apr 29 '18 at 11:33
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    I'm not sure what your discipline is, but in experimental science, the argumentative structure isn't distinctive. But as said before, I agree with you in spirit. I believe we should write in our own words. I hope that I did not overstep into non-generic stuff (I certainly was not plugging in information on top of someone). Regardless I was right to email the original, and I will follow your advice to be diligent not to make the same mistake (or anything similar). Thanks. – Science123456 May 2 '18 at 15:50

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