I'm currently doing my literature review in preparation for my graduation (masters degree) thesis work at a Dutch university. The past semester I worked as a student assistent on a first-year project, that had quite a heavy focus on learning to properly cite and refer to source material. Together with the project supervisor, we'd run all student reports through plagiarism checking software. If we found anything wrong or suspicious, we confronted the students and explained them that their current practice was not the way to go. For example, when a group failed to put quotation marks if they'd literally copied something, we gave them a warning, even though they did include a reference. We upheld high standards.

Fast forward to my current work doing my literature research, in which I'm trying to figure out and document the exact workings of a number of software programs - in order to make a detailed comparison supporting selection of a subset of these programs for inclusion in my thesis research. Some of these codes are well-known and open source, others are quite obscure. Especially for the less-known ones, I'm coming close to the point of having read (or at least: knowing about the existence of) all sources there are on that program, and where I'm able to basically guess what paper a numerical reference points to - simply based on content.

Today, I've come across a PhD-thesis in which a full paragraph was directly copied (not formatted as a blockquote or similar) from a journal publication, not written by the PhD-candidate or supervisors. That paper is mentioned (on a previous page), but quotation marks are absent from the copied paragraph. This is not the first time I've seen something like this (also noted a few conference papers doing this) and it leaves me quite confused.

  1. If this is acceptable, aren't the standards I used to teach to my student groups ridiculously high? I'm also adhering to these standards, which not always comes easy. For example, I'm sometimes going through hell and back again to find the original source of something and/or including secondary references, other times including lengthy footnotes on how I think contradictory information might have been mangled up in a chain of citations and pointing out potential errors in peer-reviewed publications. Similarly, I feel I'm walking the line when putting "The information in this section is obtained from reference X, unless indicated otherwise", rather than including a reference after every individual sentence in that section.
  2. If this is not acceptable (and the 'high' standards are indeed the standards), what should I do about the plagiarised texts I have come across - and might come across in the remainder of my review? Accept it, shrug it off and do better myself, or take this up with somebody from university?

I realise there might not be an absolute, factual answer to this question - but I'm hoping it is 'allowed'. Other knowledgeable sources that I know are employed at this university and I'd rather first get some external advice/ideas - before becoming the whistle-blower or wrongly accuse people.

Edited the first and second paragraphs (italicized parts) for clarity.

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    Nope. Neither was one of the article's authors part of the committee. – Bram Aug 6 '18 at 15:12
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    Just to clarify for other cases: At least in my uni, its common to copy paste papers (authored by the same person) to a PhD thesis. I know this is not what you are asking, but in some places in the UK is common. Note that the same places w ill directly expel you from uni for plagiarism. – Ander Biguri Aug 6 '18 at 15:17
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    @AnderBiguri Importantly, this is a particular kind of thesis, sometimes known as “series of papers”, and isn’t accepted everywhere so it’s important to check with the graduate office beforehand. You cannot in general just copy your own papers to write your thesis, and you need to explicitly mark such copying in any case. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 6 '18 at 16:28
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    @KonradRudolph The paper is marked as such, but no, it is the 90% of one of the chapters. I consulted and this was the norm in my uni, as they felt it was irrelevant to reword an entire paper if it fitted well within the thesis. – Ander Biguri Aug 6 '18 at 16:34
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    @AnderBiguri Curious: To be honest I’ve never heard of this being acceptable and for my own thesis, mostly consisting of published work, I was required to write chapters from scratch rather than copying the papers (though the resulting text was obviously similar in some regards). But if you asked beforehand I don’t see an issue. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 6 '18 at 16:39

It's also worth noting that conventions on citing and quoting are not universal, and can vary between academic communities. For example, in mathematics, it is quite common to copy definitions or statements of theorems verbatim, or nearly verbatim, from other papers. The precise wording and notation can be critical, so wholesale paraphrasing is risky. However, the convention in this field is that quotation marks are not used in such cases, though a citation should usually appear. Likewise, if a definition or statement is "common knowledge", it might be that every paper discussing it uses almost identical wording (maybe without citations), even though they have not consciously copied from each other.

(I don't really know how this practice arose, but one point is that it often happens that you want to state a theorem almost verbatim, but modify the notation to match what you're using in the present paper. Now it's not an exact quote anymore, so you can't strictly use quote marks, and noting your amendments with brackets could be very confusing when mathematical notation is involved.)

This can add up to several paragraphs or pages of "copied" text over the course of a paper. A newcomer to the field might see this and be horrified by the blatant "plagiarism", but within the field it's regarded as perfectly proper.

Additionally, it's completely normal in mathematics to write things like "The material in this section comes mainly from [3]" without adding [3] to every other line. It's more about common sense than following rules.

So, the moral is to make sure you're calibrating your standards properly to the specific discipline in which you're working.

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  • Fair point, I can imagine that situation being somewhat different. In this case, it was a paragraph of text (no mathematical symbols) in an engineering thesis. Regarding your second point, about not referencing every single line: that's what I'm currently doing in my text. The author of the thesis, however, did not make it this explicit, but just wrote "Program A does X and Y [1, 2, 3]". – Bram Aug 6 '18 at 15:08
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    Not only is identical wording common, there are many cases in which it is necessary because there is only one way to state something clearly in English. – jamesqf Aug 6 '18 at 15:09
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    @jamesqf I don't know any examples where that is true. – Kimball Aug 6 '18 at 18:42
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    @Kimball: Try to clearly and concisely describe say Newton's Laws of Motion. You will find your explanation converging on one, or one of a few, previous descriptions - including the first couple of paragraphs of the Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton%27s_laws_of_motion – jamesqf Aug 7 '18 at 4:00
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    @jamesqf 1. Objects move in a straight line without changing speed whenever there is no external force being applied. 2. Force vectors add in the usual way, and are linearly proportional to acceleration. The mass is the ratio in that proportion. 3. If object A causes force vector v on object B, then object B causes force vector -v on object A. I bet I can come up with at least one more law-by-law restatement and at least three clear, unambiguous restatements if you do not require them to be law-by-law. – Daniel Wagner Aug 7 '18 at 15:47

It’s not acceptable, but it happens.

However, the bar about when to report things as plagiarism versus sloppiness can be tricky. Is there a citation and the author forgot to put the quotation marks, or vice versa? There can also be some issues with the nature of the material being “plagiarized.” Is it from a methods section? Then perhaps it’s being reused because it’s the same approach as the new paper.

That said, you are not wrong trying to work to higher standards. By doing so, you insulate yourself from problems later on.

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Yes, the standards should be high. However, people aren't perfect. They aren't perfect in many ways, but one of the ways is just that we make innocent mistakes through inattention. When you write a paper you are swimming in a sea of details. You are focused on your main task and some of the other details escape you in the heat of the moment. It is hard to think both tactically (lets get this done) and strategically (what is the whole thing here) at the same time. Too often we focus on too low a level since the task seems to require it.

Doctoral theses may be a special case since very few people actually read the dissertation and give feedback to the candidate before acceptance. Most of those readers don't have an editorial view, but are also focused on the details. So they let things slip through inattention as well. Articles for publication have more "eyes": reviewers and editors. So the author gets more feedback. I have found that it is also extremely difficult for an authors to read their own work with an editorial eye. It is too easy to re-adopt the mind set taken when writing and miss even quite important details. You see what you think you should be seeing.

Before you "blow the whistle" on anyone, think about what was their intent. Do they intend to deceive or are they just a bit sloppy on some details? The example of the copied paragraph in your question seems to me to be just an oversight since the original authors were named just previously. Sloppy? Yes. Evil? Unlikely.

If you were to catch this before publication it would be good to mention it so that it gets corrected. You are, then, a helpful editor, looking at the document with a different mind set. But if no change in the document is possible it would probably be wrong to raise it as a violation of ethical norms, unless you have some assurance that it really was.

It is good that you help students understand the issues and learn to keep to a high standard. If you can help other professionals better adhere to the standards that would also be good. But the word "plagiarism" is ethically loaded. Don't charge it unless you have some evidence of evil intent.

I'll note that standards change. Self-plagiarism seems to be a recent thing. At least I never thought about it until recently. I understand the concepts behind it (and agree) but it didn't seem to be taken so seriously until a few years ago.

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    I can't imagine there was evil intent, but I feel that forgetting about something (in this very relatable sea of details) and being lazy are in fact different things. Everybody can miss something as proofreading your own work is difficult at beset, but not being bothered to put in the quotation marks (or paraphrasing) in my opinion is more like 'active wrongdoing'. Not the same as plagiarism, but still wrong. I guess I'll just continue my quest to improving the world :). – Bram Aug 6 '18 at 13:28
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    @Bram It's possible that a paragraph was pasted in and a comment in the LaTeX (or whatever typesetting software) said "Come back and rephrase this later." And after writing and proofreading 200 more pages and preparing a defense, the author forgot about that comment. It may not have been an active "I'm going to use this paragraph exactly, quotes be damned." It could have been "Oh, I like how they said this, I'll circle back later and paraphrase" where the later didn't come due to other time constraints/brain fry. – tpg2114 Aug 6 '18 at 15:50
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    Self-plagiarism isn't a type of plagiarism. It's a different crime. Perhaps you might have a closer example of standards on plagiarism itself evolving over time. – Jirka Hanika Aug 6 '18 at 16:18
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    @JirkaHanika, actually it is called self plagiarism at least, and people have been severely reprimanded for it. The issue isn't ownership, but the ability of readers to trace ideas back to the original source - the paper, not the person. It disrupts research. Knowing the original source lets you see the original context. – Buffy Aug 6 '18 at 16:30
  • i think the issue of self-plagiarism is that the author is trying to get a lot of mileage out of a single effort. what should be one paper becomes several papers, each looking original until people track down the previous publications of the same author. it's an old trick. – robert bristow-johnson Aug 6 '18 at 18:33

It's not acceptable, but unfortunately more common than it should be. I'm expecting Debora Weber-Wulff to show up any moment, as this is her specialty. Back when we had a very public scandal about then-minister of defense Guttenberg's thesis consisting 60% w/w of missing quotation marks, his defense was "but everyone does it!" And when people started looking they did indeed find evidence of the practice left and right. You might chat with some of the VroniPlag people, as they have surely accumulated a significant amount of experience with reports of plagiarism by now. (Although be aware that their opinions will tend to be more zealous on the subject than the average researcher, after spending 7 years invested in this topic.)

Before the advent of plagiarism checkers, there was unlikely to be any consequence to this type of sloppy practice because only rarely does someone know the literature closely enough to notice. If you never see anyone calling out this type of problem, it's easy to start thinking that it's not great but probably acceptable. Now that it's becoming easier to attach at least some amount of shame to it, that should help reduce rates. If it's only one passage that ought to have been in quotes or paraphrased, mild embarrassment is probably enough to change people's practice. An e-mail to the authors saying that you've seen this and suggest they not do it in the future might be enough to make them change their habits, but you might want to weigh the risks of them getting angry at you (a common reaction to embarrassment).

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    Here I am :) It's not acceptable, in any field. And if you found this paragraph, there probably are more. This kind of plagiarism is called a "pawn sacrifice", as the source is mentioned, but the direct quote is not marked. A doctoral dissertation should demonstrate that the author is able to work as a researcher. Just because many researchers don't follow the rules doesn't mean they are not valid any more. If this is a German thesis, you can contact the "Ombud" of the university. I'm afraid the VroniPlag Wiki site is only in German: de.vroniplag.wikia.com/wiki/Home – Debora Weber-Wulff Aug 13 '18 at 19:11

I've always believed in keeping myself to a higher standard than I expect of others. That said, if I care for that person than I might bring it to their attention privately. If the result of the plagiarizing would result in harm to another then I would feel obligated to report or publicize it. As to quotations, it is lazy to simply not rewrite the paragraph in one's own words however the end result is the same. I have a low opinion of Academic honesty due to too many ridiculous journal articles that in theory went through "peer review" by those preeminent in the field. An example was one of my professors, who came to question one of the truisms in our department's teaching program. She showed that the senior academic who had published the research of the truism was incorrect (honest error?). I mean truism in the sense that many younger academics had based their research on this truism, as well as even younger academics had based their research on that research. And this is not the only case of incorrect or outright fraudulent (discovered well after publication) journal articles becoming the basis of subsequent significant works. Considering how well those who cheat and lie seem to make out in this world (e.g. the US President), the plagiarism you mention may be a start to a great career for them.

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  • Even if you rewrite, you still have to reference the source! You want people referencing your work, don't you? – Debora Weber-Wulff Aug 13 '18 at 19:12

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