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Suppose we have some text in a scientific journal article A. It is a verbatim copy of some text published in a related article B which is referenced by A, and this phrase is used to explain the same topic in both articles. However, the phrase itself is short, not a complete sentence and not very relevant (it could have been written in many different ways) but it seems the author of A has taken it from the original (B). Is this text plagiarism? I would rephrase it because it looks like a copy (it's unlikely it happened by chance given that the paragraphs in the two publications are related and the reference to B appears in a nearby paragraph) and that's not elegant according to my style and taste, but is there a general rule?

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There is not a fixed set of rules for what is considered plagiarism (e.g., "5 or more consecutive, not quoted words"), although several guidelines are available. Unless entire paragraphs are copy-pasted, each case has to be evaluated on a single basis.

As for a partial sentence, it is likely not considered to be a bad case of plagiarism.

That said, it depends on what the actual sentence is about. Are those 500+ papers plagiarizing each others because of that partial sentence? Certainly not.

If the partial sentence was about a particular discovery reported in a particular paper, and that partial sentence was copied to a new paper as if the sentence belonged to the new paper, without a direct quotation.. that would likely be considered as a candidate for plagiarism. Quite for sure, it would be considered as plagiarism if a reference was missing, as well.

You might have some fun taking this Turnitin quiz on plagiarism.

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    Thank you, somehow I hadn't thought of searching for "guidelines". In this case the sentence is about a very specialized topic and it is used to explain the same idea as in the cited article. So in that case I think it is not so much a matter of ethics but of a lack of originality (or laziness) in writing style.
    – Stochastic
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 20:48
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    Did the test and the only one I got wrong was the one about secondary sources, so I learned something important. :)
    – Stochastic
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 21:01
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    Got two wrong myself and I have chaired departmental ethics and plagiarism committees.
    – Raydot
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 23:08
  • @Stochastic I got the secondary source wrong, too. I wonder whether there's a problem with the quiz, because I'd say, "you cannot cite Paper A unless you've read it." I've lent my APA manual out, but I'd probably cite B and footnote A if I had not read A. Edit: Aha! I see someone has posted a question, now on hold, about this very thing!
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 23:42
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"Suppose we have some text" (5 consecutive words), your first sentence, already yields 18 hits in Google. As you mention it is "not very relevant", and you know the origin, I suggest you to rephrase it.

There are no general rules, one reason why such matters are settled in courts. One clear rules though: "Give Credit Where Credit is Due". And many guidelines, like in Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing, Miguel Roig.

Two additional food for thought:

  1. A common quote: If You Steal From One Author, It's Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It's Research,
  2. J. L. Borges (my favorite author) wrote a novel on "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", which really makes you think about such matters.
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  • As I commented on the previous answer, the phrase is not very important itself but it was probably copied. I'm suggesting the author to rephrase it (it's a paper we're working on). Thank you for the links. I like Borges but I don't remember that work, I'll check it out (I happen to be Argentine).
    – Stochastic
    Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 21:29
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    Many people use stuff like "Google translation", wich is partly grounded on "already written" texts (which they have scanned, on purpose). I believe is it unlikely that a 6-7 words normal sentence was never written before, but most of the time we are not aware of that. I bought the "Obras completas" in four volumes, to give me incentives to learn castillan enough to be able to read the original texts. Commented Jan 7, 2016 at 21:42

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