Related: Miscited in a bachelor thesis

In the above question, the OP mentions that,

...my bachelor thesis had been cited....I have been attributed a conclusion that I haven't drawn, and is indeed counter-indicated by the data I've collected.

Most people are familiar with ordinary plagiarism, where a writer will fail to cite a source for something that actually came from that source. What kind of a violation occurs if a researcher cites a source that says something other than what they claim it does, especially if done inadvertently? For example, suppose Smith (2003) found that "By applying Woot's Theorem to the equation above, we see that the area under the curve is bounded by n to the x where p>3". I, in a rush to get my paper out, mistakenly say, "Smith (2003) found that the area under the curve is always bounded.", not realizing that it had been qualified with the "p>3" condition and that the area might not be bounded in cases where p<=3.

Is this research misconduct or simply sloppy scholarship? That is, if a researcher is "caught" doing this, is the maximum penalty generally article rejection and/or a lowered course grade, or is this a grave mark against the researcher's future career in the same way a founded accusation of plagiarism or falsifying data would be?

My instinct tells me that intent must play a big part in this, and that inadvertent mistakes are simply poor scholarship while an intentional mis-cite ("I'm too lazy to find a real source for this, so I'll just claim that Stephen Hawking said it.") constitutes some type of plagiarism, but most definitions of plagiarism that I have encountered emphasize that intent is not an element, i.e. "Oops, I forgot to cite that" is as much plagiarism as intentionally printing out a copy of a Wikipedia article and submitting it as your thesis.

If this is misconduct, but not plagiarism, what specific kind of misconduct is it? Falsification of data would also seem to not apply, since a citation is not data, and a reader can more easily verify the correctness of a citation than they can verify that the data you claim to have collected in the field was actually collected by you under the conditions that you claim.

2 Answers 2


Yes, intent matters, but scholars need to do due diligence in their studies. If they don't then their infractions become more serious. There are some things that scholars should know and there are some things that scholars should do. In some cases it is just sloppiness. In some cases it is intentional misconduct.

But there is a broad area in between in which the culpability varies even if there is no evil intent in the action.

Like anyone, a scholar needs to take care. We are trying to extend the range of what is known to be true in the world. We are also trying to give originators of ideas proper credit when they are able to advance truth.

So, intent means a lot, but it isn't everything. And if you exercise due diligence but still err, it is just an honest mistake. Worth apologizing for, of course.

In some fields, such as math, it is impossible for a person to know everything. That hasn't been possible for about 100 years. So, research is needed in narrow areas to make sure that you know the background of what you are doing. So, unintentional plagiarism is possible, but sloppy.

But "sloppiness" is an infraction of its own. It isn't "pure as the driven snow". Not the worst infraction possible, but still a blot on your reputation if you do that. So "just" sloppiness might give the wrong impression.


This specific example is very cut and dry. There is no reality where this is plagiarism, this is certain.

This could be a case of research misrepresentation if the matter of always bounded vs conditionally bounded is extremely important for the main treatise of the work; if not, it’s just an oversight, maybe sloppiness but not necessarily characteristic of the entire paper.

Authors can: 1) proactively offer the change of MS if still under review 2) submit errata note if paper is published 3) do nothing, laugh about the mistake over beer, and deal with the occasional email from angry colleagues calling out their gaffe

Mistakes happen and the scientific literature is not immune. There are procedures for correcting this when not caught in advance.

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