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I wrote a review paper with my classmate during our master's program. We checked it in Turnitin, and the similarity was less than 10%. It got published in an Elsevier journal with an impact factor of 5.

After a year, I was reading an old paper by "X" on a similar topic and found three paragraphs to be very similar to our paper. When I asked about it, my friend told me that he had initially taken those three paragraphs from this paper, rephrased them in his own words (no similarity detected in Turnitin), and cited the main paper at the end of the paragraphs while giving secondary citations in the main paragraph lines. He says that he checked each paper himself for the claims made in "X" person's paper.

From the same paper, there was an image that he used as a basis to create a similar kind of image for our paper. Although the images don't resemble each other in style and the content is also changed a bit, the original paper was not cited in the image title.

Is this plagiarism or ethical? And if it is then any suggestions you want to share?

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    The image - was it some kind of diagram, or some sort of graph of data?
    – MikeB
    Commented Jun 12 at 12:53
  • 3
    Too little information about the image to judge whether this is an instance of plagiarism or not. "Used as a basis" can mean many things. Commented Jun 12 at 13:38
  • @MikeB It was a diagram.
    – Akash
    Commented Jun 12 at 16:12
  • @AdamPřenosil Original diagram was depicting a complex pathway interlinking multiple metabolisms, the adapted diagram only depicted a particular metabolic pathway out of the original, and he added one-two new labels in the diagram.
    – Akash
    Commented Jun 12 at 16:15
  • @Akash Cropping out a part of someone else's diagram without attribution sounds like a pretty clear cut case of plagiarism to me. Commented Jun 13 at 14:12

5 Answers 5

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As someone who's dealt with scores of academic plagiarism cases, the following is a red flag, common to how offenders usually describe their work:

found three paragraphs to be very similar to our paper... he had initially taken those three paragraphs from this paper, rephrased them in his own words...

My judgement would be that yes, this is plagiarism. If one can identify on sight that three paragraphs from your paper are parallel to three paragraphs from a prior paper, that's too similar. Starting off by copying someone else's words and then adjusting it to avoid plagiarism-detection is plagiarism; as one example among many, the IEEE says:

... we should be able to agree that changing only a few words or phrases or only rearranging the original sentence order of another author's work will be defined as plagiarism.

For more discussion, see: Is changing some words plagiarism?

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    Why do you think it is plagiarism if they cited the original following the paraphrase? That seems to be proper attribution of the ideas. Paraphrasing is often necessary to avoid copyright infringement when it takes many words to express the ideas. Over quoting is copyright infringement.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 12 at 13:14
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    @XanderHenderson The poster doesn't actually say that the partner changed the text in order to avoid detection by Turnitin, just that Turnitin didn't detect plagiarism after the fact. Also, plagiarism doesn't require a mens rea in order to be plagiarism; people plagiarize accidentally all the time. Plagiarism just requires that one use someone else's work and pass it off as their own. This sounds like fairly normal paraphrasing, with attribution to the original author, albeit a longer chunk of text than usual. Commented Jun 12 at 14:21
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    @WhatTheDuck My feeling is that if the OP can tell that his co-author had based their paragraphs on the other paper, several years later, then they are too close. It suggests that is more "theasurused" than it is "paraphrased". An attribution would usually be take as crediting the ideas to someone else, but it looks like here, its not just the idea that has been taken from elsewere, but also how to express the idea. Commented Jun 12 at 14:25
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    Daniel, you left out the "and cited the main paper at the end of the paragraphs while giving secondary citations in the main paragraph lines" bit that appears right after the first clause you quoted. That part rather changes the situation. (It's still possible that the citations were placed in a location that makes it unclear what bits they apply to, but rephrasing and citing doesn't suggest a mens rea, whereas rephrasing just enough to avoid turnitin certainly would.)
    – Ray
    Commented Jun 12 at 15:05
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    @terdon I think 1) because OP spotted the similarity a year later, and 2) because three paragraphs is a long passage to paraphrase. If someone has turned three paragraphs into three paragraphs with different phrasing but the same information, it's almost certain that they've failed to paraphrase appropriately.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 12 at 15:11
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Maybe, I've misunderstood our guidelines, maybe stuff works different here in Germany. (I think it might a bit different, as "fair use" doesn't exist here)

When writing a paper for university, we were told to avoid verbatim copies for the sake of copyright (not for "academic correctness") and provide sources for each claim made (for "academic correctness"). Unless, they were actual quotes, rephrasing the content in a way relevant to our context and adding attributions, was what we should do. In fact, it was actively encouraged to have as many sources as possible and avoid "second-hand" sources.

This ESPECIALLY included redrawing graphics, adjusting them to our paper and adding sources. If the original graphic was relevant enough already and we had permission of the original author, we could copy&paste the graphic with proper attribution.

So, your second paragraph, given that proper attribution took place, seems completely fine to me. I see an issue with the latter (the redrawn graphic), which insinuates, that no proper attribution has been made.

Plagiarism exclusively refers to taking someone else's work and disguising it as your own. Straight-up copying someone else's work, but giving proper attribution, is a copyright violation and lazy and would be graded accordingly, but would not be plagiarism, from my understanding.

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    Yes!. This answer correctly distinguishes between copyright and plagiarism. Over quoting can be a copyright violation, even with citation. Citation avoids plagiarism, even with paraphrasing.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 12 at 13:05
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    @Buffy Citation does not automatically change the nature of something from "plagiarism" to "not plagiarism". The core of plagiarism is passing off another's work as your own. It is not hard to directly copy someone else's work, then selectively edit it to obfuscate which parts of the text are the original author's ideas. Moreover, if a significant portion of your paper is paraphrasings of other people's work, it is likely to run afoul of plagiarism, citations or not. Commented Jun 12 at 13:25
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    @XanderHenderson we are talking about three paragraphs here; can't really be "a significant portion" of the work. We all read papers, learn from them, and then reproduce that knowledge in our own words while citing the original authors. I don't see any reason to assume the OP went much further than that. Especially if the text was changed enough to satisfy Turnitin. It sounds to me (I may be wrong, of course, we don't have a clear picture here) that the OP just wrote three paragraphs making the same points in the same order as the original—cited—paper, but using their own words.
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 12 at 15:00
  • @terdon I've said very little about this particular situation---I've only responded to the general idea that "citation abrogates plagiarism". In a general sense, simply adding a citation to text which would otherwise be considered plagiarism does not automatically make it not-plagiarism. At an extreme, there is the patchwork paper, where every paragraph is essentially a paraphrase of a different author (i.e. a significant portion of the paper is paraphrased). This particular case seems to fall nearer to the opposite extreme, but that wasn't what I was responding to. Commented Jun 12 at 15:19
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So plagiarism is usually formally defined as passing off someone else's ideas, words, or work as your own, without proper attribution. By that very straightforward definition, on the surface this isn't plagiarism, since the ideas were cited and the words were your classmates own. I think this is a trap that many students fall into.

But (and this is a big but) usually when we talk about plagiarism in academic writing, it includes paraphrasing and other less obvious actions even if you then cite the original author. For instance, I cannot (or should not) just lift entire sections from another's work, rewrite it, cite it, and then pass it off as my own. I always reasoned that you were essentially using their work (as opposed to ideas or written words) without proper attribution. Unless you clearly mark something with quotations or make some statement to the effect of "this has been adapted from X" you are not giving proper credit.

Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to catch using traditional plagiarism methods - tools like turnitin are essentially only good for catching direct word-for-word repetitions. They are very easy to circumvent and yet are still prone to false positives. On top of that, I don't think it's a very intuitive definition. It takes some experience to delineate inappropriate paraphrasing from synthesis even for well intentioned writers.

It doesn't help that there are legitimate shades of grey to this. Sometimes there are really only so many ways to state certain facts or certain results. I think a lot of students struggle with making this distinction though. I won't speculate about your paper in particular, but it doesn't sound like this is the case.

That's all to say, this was not ethical and falls somewhere on the spectrum of plagiarism. Whether or not it was intentional I think makes some difference, since I would argue that intentionally changing words to circumvent a plagiarism detector is absolutely plagiarism. However, I have encountered plenty of well intentioned students that just don't make this connection and think that by paraphrasing they are doing the right thing.

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    Why do you think they are "passing it off as their own"? A citation points to the source of the ideas. Paraphrasing doesn't require quotes and they would be wrong in any case. Paraphrasing with citation is NOT plagiarism.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 12 at 13:00
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    @Buffy It depends; paraphrasing too closely can also be considered plagiarism. A citation suggests you've merely taken meaning, but it's possible to also copy the structure and pattern of the writing by just using synonyms and changes to sentence structure. For something as short of a sentence, that's okay, but for longer writing it's much better to just admit you're quoting the original and quote it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 12 at 13:15
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    @BryanKrause, please stop deleting my comments.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 12 at 13:16
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    @BryanKrause I think the MIT reference there is one of the best explainations we've seen, and we use a very similar set of examples with our undergraduates. Commented Jun 12 at 14:32
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    @Buffy I disagree, a citation alone does not stop plagiarism in its tracks. Paraphrasing, even with a citation, can still be plagiarism. Per the OP, their coauthor lifted several entire paragraphs from another's work. The changes that they made were apparently small enough that the section was immediately recognizable in it's original form - it appears even the citations were left unchanged. Paraphrasing should capture the original meaning, not the original structure and form.
    – sErISaNo
    Commented Jun 13 at 3:35
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Citation does not exclude plagiarism

There are several possible reasons to cite existing work, including (non-exhaustively):

  1. Indicate topical relevance.

  2. Acknowledge discovery priority.

  3. Import that work's claim to support a broader argument.

  4. Use the work as additional evidence for your own claim.

  5. Present the work's claim as an object of study. (For example, "X says Y but we think ... .")

Plagiarism is the misrepresentation of someone else's work as your own. Just because a sentence or paragraph ends with a citation of the work it is based on does not automatically mean it can't be plagiarism. You must ask yourself:

  • Would a reasonable reader, who has not read the cited work, think the material in question is original to the author?

In asking this, you must consider the multiple possible reasons for a citation and which one the reader is likely to assume. If a reasonable reader would conclude the material is original, but it is not, then that is plagiarism.

If your intent is to cite for purpose 3, claim importation, then you must either quote, or else paraphrase while saying you are paraphrasing (and of course cite in both cases). You might also summarize and say you are summarizing.

If your intent is to cite for purpose 4, claim support, then the claim must be your own independent formulation.

The question states:

he had initially taken those three paragraphs from this paper, rephrased them in his own words (no similarity detected in Turnitin), and cited the main paper at the end of the paragraphs

I judge this to be plagiarism. It deliberately looks like purpose 4, mere claim support, but is really (at best) purpose 3, claim importation.

The citation mitigates the severity of the offense only.

Figures and images can be "paraphrased"

If I see someone's image and then create something based on it, presumably with similar organization, choice of what data to include, perhaps choice of graph axes, etc., then I'm doing something like paraphrasing but for an image. (I'm not sure what the right term is for this. It is related to the legal notion of a derivative work but this question is mainly about ethics and academic integrity.)

As with text, if a reasonable reader would conclude that the image is entirely the original work of the author, but is in fact based on someone else's image, then that is plagiarism.

The question states:

there was an image that he used as a basis to create a similar kind of image for our paper. Although the images don't resemble each other in style and the content is also changed a bit

From "used as a basis" and "content is also changed a bit", I think it is clear that this image was not the original work of the author. Therefore that fact must be made clear to the reader. Failure to do so is plagiarism, regardless of where the citations are.

What now?

At the end of the question, it asks:

And if it is then any suggestions you want to share?

Although I do think this is plagiarism, it is toward the milder end of the spectrum. As a co-author, I probably wouldn't try to do anything about the already published paper in this instance, but I would try to talk to with a trusted advisor to double-check that decision. This could come back to bite you in the future, particularly if you think you'll apply for a faculty job at some point.

But:

  • Make it clear to your co-author that this is plagiarism, and that by doing so they have jeopardized both their and your careers. Three paragraphs and an image is not insubstantial.

  • Be careful about working with people who have shown lack of concern for academic integrity. Be particularly wary of those who offer excuses about deadlines or whatnot, as that is advance cover for a repeat offense.

  • Try to read, or at very least skim, all of the papers your paper cites, even if you did not add the citation. You would likely have caught this before publication if you had, especially the similar image.

  • Going forward, resolve to always strive to be clear with your readers when material is not entirely original. There is nothing wrong with using and building upon others' work so long as there is clear, proper attribution.

Related

The question Is paraphrasing with citation considered plagiarism? makes similar points but the facts there are a little different and do not include the image aspect.

The question I found out that I have plagiarism in my published journal papers, what should I do now? has some ideas that may or may not be applicable.

The University of Virginia article Understanding Citations, Plagiarism, and Paraphrasing states:

[...] even where you have cited the original author, you may, in the manner and extent to which you go on to convey the author's ideas, be found to have represented that author's ideas or work as your own.

although they then give a more obvious example than in this question.

Regarding possible future repercussions, the article Plagiarism Among Applicants for Faculty Positions by Harirforoosh et al. says:

As such, it is essential to check all application materials submitted by faculty applicants for any evidence of plagiarism.

Now, they are primarily talking about the application itself (like the statement of purpose, etc.) rather than digging through past publications, but the latter is not inconceivable.

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It might be unethical but it is not plagiarism.

Plagiarism is falsely representing an idea as your own. Since he was an originator of the idea in previous work, this is not plagiarism. There is some question in this case whether he his pretending to be a sole originator as opposed to a co-originator, so it might fall into a boundary. However, plagiarism may be the highest academic crime and to accuse someone of plagiarism for reusing their ideas is probably going to far, even when they're not giving all due parties credit.

However, citation and credit are important for many reasons: Novel research is more important than other research. All the originators of an idea deserve credit for their work, including coauthors. Journals deserve to be recognized for publishing important work. Others deserve to know the accurate history and development of an idea. And so on. When a citation trail is incomplete, inaccurate, or missing, these important features of good academic work are incomplete.

This case sound in particular like it might give a false appearance of novelty.

The norms of citation are clear: you should cite conceptually prior work that you are aware of, even if you are extending or elaborating on the ideas. Knowingly not citing prior work for any reason is unethical. This person clearly knows of the prior work and even consulted it in the production of the present one. Unethical is a matter of degree and many specifics are missing to judge whether this is seriously unethical.

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  • "Since he was an originator of the idea in previous work" - I don't see this mentioned anywhere in the question.
    – jpa
    Commented Jun 13 at 18:07

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