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I was recently going over my PhD application research proposal and to my horror I found a few mistakes that might constitute as plagiarism. Even though it is fully cited and even though it is common knowledge, there is half of a sentence of about 28 words that might be paraphrased too closely to the source. The kind of sentence it was was basically x is something that is y. I only added or changed two words for clarity. This was completely unintentional and I didn't realise it was so closely paraphrased to the source till I looked at the source again during a literature review.

I have already been accepted into the program and I feel terrible, like I have cheated my way in. I do have kind of a sense that I might be making a mountain out of a molehill but I can't help but feel like they're going to revoke my degree if it ever was discovered or even if they never do discover it, I feel fraudulent?

Can someone put my anxiety into perspective? They don't throw you out and take away your degree for a few sentences, right? Do I need to address this in some way with my advisor or the university? I definitely will be more careful in the future. I have booked an appointment with the counselling service at the university to see if they can help too.

Edit: In other instances, I found a two word phrase that probably should've been in quotes and forgot a page number.

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    Just so that someone says it: You're making a mountain out of a molehill. Nobody will be interested in 14 words close to the source. That's just not remotely enough to make a case. Commented Oct 28, 2023 at 23:55
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    How in the world did you become aware that some sentence of yours was "too close to the source"? Were you just cutting and pasting and then changing a few words? What the heck!?! General advice: write your own sentences "out of your own head", and don't worry about whether someone else might have uttered the same sentence in the history of humankind. Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 3:25
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    I was looking at the source again when I was reviewing the literature. I don't ever copy and paste except for quotations but in this case it could look like I did. I guess I subconsciously kept most of the words because it was a relatively short sentence that was clear and to the point.
    – AplombPlum
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 10:30
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    Some sentences or ways to phrase something simply get stuck in your head, and you'll write them down as if you just came up with them without noticing immediately that someone else or yourself already phrased it like that elsewhere. It happens. I wouldn't blow it out of proportion, since it was only one sentence. For future papers you can use plagiarism software to check your papers for (self-)plagiarism, however during the review process you'll make so many changes to your manuscript that any of such 'accidents' will likely be removed in the process.
    – Leonie
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 10:52
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    Sure, one way of using someone else's work without giving them proper credit is if you take their writing and copy-paste it (perhaps with minor modifications) without attribution. My point is that plagiarism is about what you did or did not do, not about the distance between a sequence of words in your text and a sequence of words in some other text. "There is a sentence in my text that coincides with a sentence in some other text" is not plagiarism. "I copied a sentence into my text from another text without attribution" may be an instance of plagiarism (but probably a very minor one). Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 12:36

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You seem to misunderstand plagiarism and maybe confuse it with copyright as many do. Paraphrasing, whether done closely or not isn't a guard against plagiarism. Only citation is. And if you have cited the source and then paraphrased it you aren't guilty of plagiarism.

However, copying, even with citation, can be copyright infringement and even paraphrasing may not be an absolute guard against that as copyright owners take a broad view of their rights (especially Disney). Copyright issues are mostly important when they affect the economic (or other) value of a copyrighted publication. That doesn't seem possible here.

You also can't plagiarize "common knowledge", though it can be a judgement call as to what is commonly known. Nor can anyone copyright "common knowledge" though they can copyright certain (creative) expressions of things known. A lot of poetry, for example is creative expression of known things.

Another issue is that your application materials aren't a "publication" so some of the rules don't have the same strength. You can share copyrighted material in a small working group, for example, though you still can't claim the ideas of others as your own, even there.

I'll guess that you are fine. You have an opportunity after acceptance of an offer to update your research goals and statement. Few would hold you strictly to a research plan as it would be foolish to do so. One modifies research plans as one learns more.

If you are guilty of anything, I'd say it is only sloppiness. I suspect that with experience you will correct any such tendencies. Had you made a grievous error it would possibly have been caught and you'd have some explaining to do. But as you describe it, I think you can move on.

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  • Even though this seems to be minor, do you think it is worth telling him 'Hey, I messed up a few things in the original proposal, here is a corrected version for reference'
    – AplombPlum
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 20:46
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    I probably wouldn't do that at the moment, since you have been accepted. But later, it might be worth having a conversation or mentioning it in passing. Establish a working relationship first, I think.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 20:48
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    If that is the only concern, I don't think it applies for me because she is the same supervisor I had for my master's and know each other well. So if you don't have any other objections, I might just do that. And thanks Dr Buffy.
    – AplombPlum
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 22:28
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Others have be provided some good advice. As the lead of a higher degree program my advice would be to have a discussion with the lead of your program and see what they think. Honesty is the best policy. I think you'll be well received. Document the discussion. My other bit of advice is learn from this. Maybe you need to improve your writing practices. Maybe you need to be mindful of not falling prey to the imposter syndrome. Whatever you need to learn, learn it. All the best 😊

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As the top comment to the question says, you are indeed making a mountain out of a molehill. The basic reason is that what you did is not really plagiarism. There are two kinds of "plagiarism": plagiarism of words, and of ideas. The former is more often taught in schools, probably because it is easier to explain to children. This concept of plagiarism of words is the origin of ideas like five consecutive words means plagiarism

However, in higher level academic writing and for research papers, it is plagiarism of ideas that is far more important. It is fine to have a string of 20 or 30 or even 50 words being nearly identical to difference source, if it is a precise description of a technical subject.

In general, in scientific writing, "plagiarism of words" is at most poor practice, on par with bad writing (grammatical errors/word choice) or formatting errors. The worst case is that you will be asked to change it. It is not a form of misconduct like plagiarism of ideas would be.

As a rule of thumb, you should always write your own text rather than copy and pasting. However, you should also avoid rewriting things or changing words just for the sake of avoiding plagiarism. For example, don't change "when the atom is in a strong electric field" to "there is a powerful electric field around the atom" just because the former shows up in another source.

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Most institution use Turnitin and other tools. The main focus is mostly on the percentage of plagiarism because humankind is capable of thinking alike. The principle I made myself is to ensure I don't go beyond 4% if the document is uploaded to Turnitin or similar tools. So I believe you may not need to stress about sentences but rather stress about percentages.

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    I really recommend against relying on percentages from software tools this way. It totally misses the purpose of avoiding plagiarism, and turns it into a game instead. Do not do this.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 14:26

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