Similarities v plagiarism: is there a margin for debate?

When compiling relevant data for publication, certain common terms and phrases will inevitably be apparent. Many such texts will be researched by different authors and organisations for publication within their publications and websites. Common references and occasionally whole phrases may be embedded in the copy and constitute stylistic language appropriate to the sector under discussion. As a result certain sentences are likely to resemble those written by others of the same subject matter. Is this plagiarism?

It is often from academic studies that certain words in common uses evolve within a sector.  By way of example, to transform a sentence that made reference to the strict code of confidentiality, consent and ethics in scientific research would be almost impossible without mentioning the terms ‘confidential’, ‘ethical approval’ and ‘informed consent’. It would be inappropriate to claim plagiarism as there is very little alternative to express sentences like:

“Written informed consent was obtained from the patient for publication of this case report/study/series and the accompanying images. A copy of the written consent is available for review by the Editor-in-Chief of the journal.”

“Reviewers should continue to keep details of the manuscript and its review confidential.”

“The protocol of this study has been approved by the relevant ethical committee related to our institution in which it was performed. All subjects gave full informed consent to participate in this study.”

“No permission is required for non-commercial use or redistribution of any part of these guidelines”

“All authors contributed to the conception, design, and preparation of the manuscript, as well as read and approved the final manuscript.”

This is a stated fact in everyday use within the scientific research discipline and peer-reviewed publications. Indeed, it may be commonly used in written or spoken text without particular copyright restrictions. However, the question arises as to where to draw the line of balance?

The accepted code of practice in publication of any research paper or study is to substantiate phrases and terms whereby there is direct reference to a published work in a book, magazine or online. A comprehensive list of references used should be printed with corresponding links to any similar material. This would avoid any questions being raised regarding suspected plagiarism or copying.

What about incidental similarity?

The author may not have intended to copy but various common references, which constitute familiar and recognised terms within the industry, may have been used from background research and reading matter. In this case the UK Copyright Service may be consulted and a certificate confirming copyright registration issued. The document may also be passed through software such as ‘iThenticate’ or ‘Grammarly’. The author must take reasonable measures to prevent any accidental infringement on copyright belonging to any other party.

Consider two different authors using the same source material and producing similar works: it would be wise to reference any vulnerable areas to eliminate potential copying or duplicate material. Is it fair to penalise an author when the concept described within a journal or document is similar to another published piece? Surely a different way of expressing a standard rule cannot be disallowed by one party or another. The fact that the wording contained within the concept is completely different should overrule any plagiarism.

In summary, one can argue that common terms and phrases cannot have intellectual property copyright imposed upon it by one source or another. However it is expected to reference all words or phrases which could have been lifted directly from the published work of another author or organisation.


36 responses to “Similarities v plagiarism: is there a margin for debate?”

  1. S Campbell Avatar
    S Campbell

    Very nice blog from the publication integrity and ethics. Plagiarism is about giving the impression to the reader that the text that you have written represents your ideas and own words. As long as there is appropriate referencing and even if the text is identical to the text in the referenced article, then this is not plagiarism. All academics around the world agree on this as well as the universities. Obviously there are some eccentric groups trying to declare this as plagiarism but it will be impossible to do so if you reference the original article.

    1. Sammy Avatar

      Definition of plagiarism in English (Oxford University Press): The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

      1. Steve Avatar

        Thank you. It is always good to keep reminding ourselves of the definition of plagiarism. Nowadays, the term is used by anyone with no understanding of its meaning. It is considered the most serious academic misconduct and care should be taken before starting to accuse others of plagiarism; in case you are wrong, then you have caused defamation and become liable for all the damages occurred to them: reputational, psychological, financial…etc.

        I started to notice that all the accusations of plagiarism on the net are made by anonymous people aiming to undermine or to damage the reputation of others. The fact that you do not announce who you are when making serious accusations speaks volumes. I think the authorities need to blacklist the people who use “defamation on the net” as a business and ban them from using the internet for life, just like hackers. They are hackers of our way of life and human evolution and should be stopped.

  2. Rawan Avatar

    Common words are common and no one should claim ownership or copyrights. It is like having monopoly on the literature. Academics trained by the same supervisor tends to have similar writing style. Also medical and dental schools tend to teach their students to write using specific techniques and students will end up having similar writing styles. Identical original ideas can also originate from different people in different parts of the world. This doesn’t constitute plagiarism as long as both side can explain the process that led to the original idea. I enjoyed reading the blog and looking forwards to more new ones.

  3. W Fountain Avatar
    W Fountain

    Thank you Publication Integrity and Ethics. Good start for a first blog. I like the fact that you recommend that authors consult software like ‘iThenticate’ or ‘Grammarly’ if they have any concerns. I hope all authors do so prior to submitting their articles. Although I have nothing against the UK Copyright Service but I dont think that you need to copyright every piece you produce. It is rather excessive, however it can be used when writing research protocols to ensure that your original ideas are protected.

    1. W Max Avatar
      W Max

      I do realise that the word plagiarism is commonly used nowadays to undermine academics but “university research conduct or misconduct committees” have rarely proved a case of plagiarism against an academic. You have to understand that the public understanding of plagiarism is different from ours. Very commonly, plagiarism complaints are made against academics and it turn to have no basis.

      1. Haddad Avatar

        W Max is talking about the decent academics. Please remember that there is always an ugly side to every group and academics are no exception. Over the years there has been an increase in the number of academics who are trying to cut corners in science and publishing. Unfortunately, plagiarism has increased in certain academic circles in both the developing and the developed world. Now the problem here is that the majority of the cases of plagiarism are committed by very junior researchers, and many of those have no clear understanding of plagiarism and its implications. No matter what, it is an academic crime and the punishment should fit the crime. Obviously there are different levels of plagiarism depending on the damage its causing.
        What concerns me is that there is no real education when it comes to plagiarism. Nearly all universities around the world dont teach about plagiarism, but punish anyone who commits it. Even worse, I cannot remember a senior academic in my University who actually sat with his/her junior researchers and explain terms like plagiarism, duplicate publication, data manipulation…etc. Yes I know it is common sense but education is always important. Nevertheless, if you commit plagiarism (honest, accidental, deliberate…etc.) you should be referred to the misconduct team and be investigated; there is no question about that.

      2. JJ Patel Avatar
        JJ Patel

        A very good point made here. That is why the news/blogs should never publish these accusations as facts (which is commonly done) until a university committee looks into them. Many reporters, bloggers and non-academics think that similarity is plagiarism and that is causing a great deal of confusion for the public.

        1. Kanton Avatar

          You have to understand that many magazines in the US make their living through publishing lies or exaggerate findings. You have to attract readers and this technique appears to be a very successful way over there. In general there are 2 routes: you can choose to publish real investigative journalist news/work or just chill, sit behind a desk and activate your imagination.
          “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” – Virginia Woolf

  4. S Hameed Avatar
    S Hameed

    I have been reading some posts recently on other websites and came through some terms called self-plagiarism and text recycling. Are they for real? can you plagiarize your own work? Please advise

    1. Harris Avatar

      Self-plagiarism and text recycling are terms created by some western publishers for political reasons against academics and scientists. As far as I know there is no university in the world which accepts these terms. Make sure you reference the original articles you wrote when including sections from them in your new manuscript. My answer is that: NO you cannot plagiarize your own work

      1. JJ Patel Avatar
        JJ Patel

        I agree you cannot plagiarize your own work, but if you re-publish very similar paragraphs or methodology lifted from your previously published paper or papers, then you should include the references. Otherwise this could represent some form of deception to the reader (most likely unintentional) by giving the impression, for example, that the methodology or the mechanism is original and never been published before. I have never heard of “text recycling” before.

    2. Waseem Jerjes Avatar
      Waseem Jerjes

      I personally do not know where these terms originated from, but I agree you will not find an academic or scientist who would acknowledge the existence of “self-plagiarism” and “text recycling”. You cannot plagiarize your own work. Obviously if you have included some similar paragraphs from your previously published articles then you should cite the references. This commonly occurs if you research a novel technique in a small scientific discipline where methods are similar and you are limited to a small number of studies in your literature review. It is even more challenging if you are a world authority on the subject and most of the literature represent your studies or studies from people you know or worked with. Most importantly is to cite the references of the original articles so the reader is informed that the text or methodology has been published before. The terms “self-plagiarism” and “text recycling” do exist in the publishing sector but do not represent academic/research misconduct.

      On the other hand the term “duplicate duplication” is different and it applies if the author re-publishes a new article that highly resembles one of his/her previously published articles, and it is even worse when you re-publish the data again. This constitute academic/research misconduct and dishonesty from the author’s side. In certain circumstances, the author (with the approval of the Editor-in-Chief) decides to re-publish all or part of his previously published article and this falls under “corrected articles” or “republished articles”

      I hope this helps. Please refer to the Publication integrity and Ethics Guidelines on Practice – Specific Issues:

      1. S Hameed Avatar
        S Hameed

        Thank you for your explanation. It was very helpful. I have found the Publication Integrity and Ethics guidelines on these issues long but detailed. I think a shorter version will be better for the reader and maybe some flow charts.

        1. Feng Avatar

          I agree, the Publication Integrity and Ethics ought to produce flow charts advising authors on how to avoid plagiarism, duplicate publication, citation manipulation as well as advising editors on how to avoid editorial misconduct. I noticed some example charts and exercises on your website:

          Where are the main pages of these charts and exercises? How can we access them

      2. S Campbell Avatar
        S Campbell

        I agree with Waseem Jerjes but you have to remember that this is not a perfect world. Let’s be realistic here, we live in a world where lying and committing defamation is a business and rather lucrative in the United States. Bloggers (commonly practicing under “alias” names and registered with fake addresses) are paid well to target prominent people and organisations. Obviously you need to have no self-esteem and no conscious to do this, but this is not a problem in this day and age. So a blogger accusing a respectable academic with plagiarism will receive attention even if all these accusations had no basis, and the academic is faced with a problem to try and clear his/her name. It is a real shame what is happening but this is the way of life and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects anyone who commits these heinous crimes. What we need is something like the Anti-Defamation League but for academics.

        1. W Fountain Avatar
          W Fountain

          Although I fully agree with Waseem Jerjes and S Campbell, but please remember that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech and hence democracy. Please remember that those Chaotic Evil (from D&D character’s personality) bloggers are very few in the world and I personally know so many academic bloggers who actually aim to promote science and disseminate knowledge through their blogs.

          1. Peter Avatar

            I have to say that, from experience, nealy all bloggers in science respect their colleagues and mainly aim, through their blogs, to promote research integrity and publication ethics. Yes there are few who took the wrong path, but the majority are good people. Thank you Publication Integrity and Ethics for this nice blog.

          2. L Gardner Avatar
            L Gardner

            Yes this is all fine, but we still need an Anti-Defamation League of our own (as in academics) which can write “expressions of concern” about bad bloggers that are paid to defame scientists. It needs to be international so it can contact authorities at a very senior level to remove these dishonest anti-academic bloggers. I am sad that nearly all originate in the US. They are giving such a bad reputation to their own country.

          3. Waseem Jerjes Avatar
            Waseem Jerjes

            This is fine. But there are many bad examples of bloggers who are paid very well to do the dirty work of some organisations by undermining and bullying honest academics. I, as well as a number of my colleagues, have been bullied by certain online entities which was well planned. The Publication Integrity and Ethics has been bullied and harassed on several occasions. I have to say the network of those bullies are very well organised and they are connected to a number of prominent organisations which is a worry. We continue to look into the unusual behavior of these entities. Obviously the recent step by Google is not bad but it is not good enough.

        2. W Max Avatar
          W Max

          I am slightly confused by the comment made by S Campbell, I believe it is more appropriate for the previous blog. But on the account that it talks about bloggers and plagiarism, I ll give it a pass. I agree that we as academics need our own Anti-Defamation League; at least it will provide support and highlight any untrue blogs and blacklist them. However you have to understand that blogging (good or bad) in academia or outside academia will continue. I am one of the believers that you should take responsibility for your own words (actions) and you shouldn’t write about someone or something without evidence but at the moment, bad blogging in the US falls under freedom of speech even if this hurts decent and hard working people, even if it promotes racial inequality or violence. We are still living in the prehistoric ages where people are punished only for physical crimes and all other forms of crimes go unpunished. Maybe things will change in the next century. I hope the Publication Integrity and Ethics will publish this comment as it is.

        3. Randall Avatar

          At certain stage someone needs to look into the psychology of these people – psychoanalysis. I mean why on God’s green earth would you dedicate your life to do such insignificant acts (as in anti-academic blogging)? rather that concentrating on being a effective member of the society. What are the real motives? Who funds your addictive habits to spread chaos in the academic community?

          1. Cammell Avatar

            I am not sure if you are aware of this term: Cyberstalking
            Cyberstalking is the use of the Internet or other electronic means to stalk or harass an individual, a group, or an organization. It may include false accusations, defamation, slander and libel. It may also include monitoring, identity theft, threats, vandalism, solicitation for sex, or gathering information that may be used to threaten or harass. (definition from Wikipedia).
            Food for thought….maybe what we need is “Cyberstalking in Academia” List…name and shame

          2. Samir Khan Avatar
            Samir Khan

            Is there any study on the psychology of anonymous bloggers? It ll be interesting to know the underlying reasons that pushed these people to undertake this kind of blogging. If you are confident about everything you write why do you stay anonymous; wouldn’t you feel better and happy that you produced a nice piece of work. US bloggers are now increasingly sued in the US and exposed for who they are and all their conflicts of interests. Sadly the majority of the exposed ones are misguided university students.

          3. Hopper Avatar

            I have to say that it is beyond my comprehension why would someone operate in the dark. Anonymous blogging is bad clear and simple. Some people use this method for personal reasons, but in academia these people should not exist. They are a disgrace the the community of clinicians and scientists and the fact they choose not to reveal themselves makes me very suspicious of their interventions and motives. A true scientist would not operate in this manner.

        4. Shmrahi E Avatar
          Shmrahi E

          Even if someone is accused of committing plagiarism by an online entity this accusation remains insignificant. At the end of the day if your institute is not bothered about these accusations (assuming there is no plagiarism) then why you should be bothered. Some people would be tempted to respond to the accusations but this will only make things worse. You ll find yourself entering in a time-consuming and mentally-exhausting argument which will affect your academic performance. It is now very common and effective practice in the US and used by some bad scientists to distract their colleagues in order to eliminate competition. That is why all online writers should be identified and registered under their real names.

      3. S Kumar Avatar
        S Kumar

        Agree, “self-plagiarism” and “text recycling” do not really represent research misconduct and in reality they do not exist in academia. But I think authors should try and avoid copying and pasting whole paragraphs from their previously published articles even if all are referenced. A better alternative is to re-write these paragraphs again and adding your knowledge/experience that you have gained after publishing the original articles. This will actually promote critical thinking and the generation of original ideas and new research projects.

  5. Lawrenson Avatar

    It is very simple. If you are worried that your literature review or parts of your article is similar to others, then there is no harm in referencing all the sections you are worried about. I take the point about accidental/incidental similarity, if you think that you work is 100% yours and you don’t want to reference it then you have to be prepared to explain your thought process. It is a fine line and will lead for scientific debate for a longtime.

  6. Hopper Avatar

    Unfortunately I have noticed that terms like: plagiarism, duplicate publication, citation manipulation and failure to declare conflicts of interests are now commonly used by a number of publishers against authors and board members without having clear understanding what these terms mean. Some publishers have created their own “special” definitions of these terms and the fact that they lack serious knowledge in the subject (science) is deeply concerning.

    1. H Lloyd Avatar
      H Lloyd

      I have had some problems with one of the publishers few years ago. I have to say that most of the publishers are helpful and supportive to their editorial board members and authors. Unfortunately very few follow their own agenda and put financial gain in front of science.

      1. Hopper Avatar

        I ll tend to disagree here. Publishing is a business and a publisher’s primary aim is to generate revenue and the more articles they publish, the more is the revenue. Publishers usually have little understanding when it comes to science. This is the duty of the journal editors to ensure that published articles are scientifically sound. This is why the publisher should never interfere with the editors’ duties and any interference will lead to serious and unethical conflicts.

    2. Randall Avatar

      I found your comment unusual and a bit concerning if such acts exists. Publishers follow strict ethical codes and their definitions of the terms (plagiarism, duplicate publication, citation manipulation and failure to declare conflicts of interests) are in line with the most prominent institutes and universities in the world.

  7. Sarah L Avatar
    Sarah L

    I agree with the Publication Integrity and Ethics post. There are many standard segments that are used in everyday research and publication, for example: confidentiality, consent, ethics committee approval, some segments in inclusion/exclusion criteria, statements about competing/conflicts of interests…etc. They cannot be copyrighted and cannot be owned by one author or one party. Sometimes there is only one way of writing these which will without doubt lead to high similarity when compared to other articles. This cannot be classified as plagiarism. Resemblance or similarity of texts or ideas can happen in certain circumstances and again it will be unfair to call this plagiarism. I started noticing that this word “plagiarism” is now being used as political weapon rather than to reflect a serious academic misconduct.

    1. Haddad Avatar

      Of course “plagiarism” is being used as political weapon, not recently but for the last 25 years. You have to understand that it is the easiest way to undermine an academic. No reputable university or institute will consider appointing an academic that was accused of committing plagiarism whether the allegations were true or false. It is all about reputation nowadays and even if you are cleared from plagiarism, some colleagues will always have some reservations when it comes to collaborating with you. In certain places, it is used as an effective weapon to eliminate competition. So here is the deal:
      If the accusations are true: simply you have committed the crime and have to do time.
      If the accusations are false: then you have to ensure that the whole world knows that you have been falsely accused of plagiarism by……. Also you have to use the formal channels to make that person apologize for all the grief you went through when these allegations were made…

  8. BT Avatar

    Those examples quoted in this article are so commonly used now, I very much doubt anyone can lay claim to copyright or ownership of those statements! I agree with the spirit of this article….

  9. K John Avatar
    K John

    At the end of the day, you can use anyone’s words in a publication as long as it is correctly referenced. If you don’t reference you’re asking for trouble and should really steer clear of academia.

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