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I am writing a paper examining performance among female athletes in a particular, less-well-documented sport over a certain time period. Unexpectedly, I have discovered a paper addressing very similar questions to those in my paper, but about (exclusively) male athletes in the same sport.

The earlier paper is, in my view, very readable. The structure is easy to follow; the (potentially difficult) choices about which tables and results to present (and which to omit!) is also well done. In other words, the earlier paper could provide a great model/template for my paper on women athletes.

If I were to closely follow the structure and choices of the earlier paper, a reader of both my paper and the earlier one would find it easy to make comparisons. My question is how that kind of structure-copying would be viewed by an editor. Plagiarism? ... or just a sensible (homage) choice?

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    If you plan to use an existing paper on male athletes in sport X as a template for your paper on female athletes on sport X, then this should be explicitly stated and acknowledged in your paper. Whether failure to do this counts as plagiarism or not is a moot issue, because as a reasonable and honest author there is not a single reason for you not to say "btw this paper is closely modelled on paper XYZ" somewhere in the introduction. Dec 16, 2022 at 20:13

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There are a few things to consider when checking whether something constitutes plagiarism.

  1. Ethics: Are you presenting someone else's work as your own or using it without proper attribution?

In this case, I think you're well in the clear. You can rest comfortably knowing that you have created the information entirely on your own, and any similarities to other works are coincidental.

  1. Optics: Even if you've created the work entirely yourself, will others recognise that? Do you need to take steps to avoid the false suspicion of plagiarism?

The ethical question is the more pressing, but we can't discount the pragmatic reality. You knowing you've worked honestly won't be much help if someone gets it in their head that you've plagiarised something, so sometimes we might make sure to keep away from any false suspicion. In this case, an excellent question to ask is whether this information could be presented otherwise, or if this is simply the most reasonable/efficient method of doing so. Many people have used "2+3=5" or "In this paper, I will demonstrate that...", but that doesn't make the usage of such plagiarism. And, to extend the analogy, structuring a paper in a particular way will likely have been done before. (I'd be more surprised if it hadn't!) Structural similarities will, barring any other suspicions or dodgy scenarios, be dismissed as simply a necessary part of the process.

  1. Support: Is such a similar work actually a benefit to your work's credibility?

If you've done work and come up with a similar (or in fact the same) result as other people, that's likely a good thing! It not only gives your work a boost in credibility right off the bat, but it also helps the former work, as now it's being verified or corroborated.

So, in summary, I think that it would be ridiculous for anyone to claim plagiarism on your work, just because another paper about nearly the same subject had a very similar general structure. You seem to be in the clear both ethically and pragmatically.

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    A nice, well=organized summary! I thought that the ethics, support, optics approach also gave good pointers of what else one might read on the issue. Dec 17, 2022 at 3:35
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Plagiarism is using someone other's work, ideas, formulations, etc in a substantial way without attribution.

In your case, you now have a paper that repeats essentially the work of someone using a different data set. If your conclusions are interesting, then the paper as such is publishable. Just make clear what the connections between the two papers are. Following the same structure has actual benefits because it makes a comparison section easier to do.

The structure of scientific papers in a subfield often follows a given pattern that cannot be attributed to anyone. If you go much beyond this, you can just insert a phrase as "following the lead of X [x], we first do this, than that, and then we analyze using this and that". Since plagiarism has an extensive gray zone, it is hard to give general answers.

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  • Actually, it could be "without attribution" or with misattribution. And usually, if you need to be concerned about plagiarism, you likely also need to be concerned about copyright which is about creative expression.
    – Buffy
    Dec 15, 2022 at 23:15

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