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I've honestly been losing a bit of sleep over one of the sections in my materials chapters because I think it has some similarity to text from a published paper. To compel myself to write this section a few months ago, I looked at a paper with the same method and rephrased each sentence in that paper into a question. I then answered each question with methods I optimized from my own research, combined them to form the section, and moved on. So for example if I was writing about western blot, the questions I gave myself to answer were:

  1. What reagents or equipment did you use to run the blot?

  2. Where did you get your antibodies and samples from?

  3. How did you exactly run the blot?

  4. How did you analyze your western blot?

I split each response into four paragraphs like above. If I used the format or order that a former student used to describe his Western Blot to describe how I ran my Western blot (different antibodies, concentrations, incubation times, samples, etc...), would that be considered plagiarism?

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  • Is the other, published paper written by you? Jan 25, 2023 at 20:38
  • Was the method in the other paper unique and did that contribute something to the literature of your field? Or was it standard stuff?
    – Buffy
    Jan 25, 2023 at 20:46
  • @Snijderfrey No
    – cambelot
    Jan 26, 2023 at 2:00
  • @Buffy It was just a standard Western blot protocol, performed differently than mine
    – cambelot
    Jan 26, 2023 at 2:01
  • @Buffy... different in terms of some reagents, incubation times, antibodies used, samples/size and membrane. The former student left before I joined and I made/performed this protocol myself.
    – cambelot
    Jan 26, 2023 at 3:23

2 Answers 2

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Certain aspects of publishing are formalistic. For an experiment for example, one needs to give a description that is sufficient to repeat the experiment. The question of what is necessary and what is superfluous is decided by the "sense of the community", embedded by what paper reviewers and thesis readers give as feed-back. If you are still learning academic writing, using good examples as templates is perfectly fine and even advisable. My suggestion would be to not look at only one example.

As far as plagiarism is concerned: Give credit where credit is due. You might put yourself in the shoes of the author from whom you take your inspiration. If it is about what data is needed to describe an experiment or simulation, I would not be wronged if you were to use this as a template, because I just followed a common recipe. Now, if I use a smart trick to make the experiment work, you should give me credit. If I use a bon mot, you might want to ascribe it to me, because I am rather proud of it. But if I give a recipe for Butter Chicken, and you use this as a template for your recipe for Mumbai Dal, no credit is due, because recipes are written in a very formalistic way and what matters is the mixture of ingredients and sometimes the way they are cooked. You just learned how to write recipes using mine as an example.

Now, in an ideal world, you would be able to speak with an advisor about all of this. In fact, if this were to happen at my university, the fact that you could not resolve your doubts easily would indicate a break-down in the relationship between advisor and advisee. I just assume that you are not in these circumstances.

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  • your recipe analogy makes quite a bit of sense. I'm not sure there were any smart tricks in his blot; it was quite standard. With the exception of some overlapping reagents/equipment (Imager, and skim milk) the amounts added were different. I think my advisor is a bit fed up with my Qs this week; I thought I would test the waters here first before escalating the situation.
    – cambelot
    Jan 26, 2023 at 2:17
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Don't expect much originality in a Materials and Methods section! [1]

The main goal of this section is to describe what you did, so that readers can understand how it might affect your results and the conclusions you draw from them. Precision, rather than originality, is the overarching goal. Consequently, if you use the same method as Jones et al. (2022), your methods section is probably going to look somewhat like theirs too. You certainly should not copy text verbatim [2], but no one should be alarmed or suspicious if the organization and details are generally similar. There are only so many ways to describe doing a Western Blot, even if you make heavy use of a thesaurus. In fact, some tools are now even suggesting that users describe the methods in a standardized way, so that it is easy to compare within/across papers; check out this page from NIPreps.

In other writing, you might be tempted to avoid this issue by including just a citation. However, this isn't ideal for Methods sections because it means the reader now needs to flip through other papers to figure out what you did--and it probably isn't exactly the same either.

Instead, I prefer a hybrid approach. Start with an overview paragraph that cites the paper(s) from which you derived your methods. Note any major changes here. In the subsections that follow, provide a complete description of your/their methods, adding in other references as needed. The methods section does not have to be purely procedural--you can also briefly discuss why you used specific approaches, or mention other methods that did not work as well. This can help make these sections feel more "original" if it's bothering you.

This ticks all the boxes:

  • Credit is prominently and appropriately given to other work, so no one can complain about plagiarism.
  • The paper contains a complete description of what was done.
  • Readers know where to direct their attention. Someone familiar with cited work can skip the Methods entirely--or jump straight to the differences. Others who haven't read it gets a complete description, without having to chase papers.

Good luck and don't overthink this. Your advisor or committee should be able to help you with any specifics too!

[1]: The bar is obviously higher if you're claiming that the method itself is novel. Even there though, you'd probably test it against standard methods and those can have pretty formulaic descriptions.

[2]: Copying between your own paper and your thesis might be an exception. Some places permit "sandwich" theses where you literally include the published manuscript. If so, even literal copying might be fine (with a citation, of course).

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  • Thanks for this description. I was tempted to add a citation but this student had no involvement in my project and I optimized the conditions for this assay. I felt Western blot was so standard and giving the reader a citation might mislead them to reading a protocol that works less optimally with my study. I don't think you can give a citation for sentence or paragraph structure, right?
    – cambelot
    Jan 26, 2023 at 2:32
  • Rephrasing is normally not enough to avoid plagiarism. The kinds of paragraphs used with different specifics should be fine. But when in doubt add a reference. It will protect you and actually can improve the quality. A method from someone else has been tried before, so has some additional validity. Jan 26, 2023 at 19:38

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