Is using material from unpublished in-house sources considered plagiarism?
March 9, 2007 6:39 AM   Subscribe

Is using material from unpublished in-house sources considered academic plagiarism?

Pretty much all research projects require input from a number of sources, and are written up in many forms (grant application, ethics application, lit review, presentations, etc.) before they are written up formally (thesis, journal article, etc.). Often different people play a more active role in the different forms that are written up (e.g. the lab head might write the grant proposal whereas an honours student might give a presentation on the topic). So, when similarities pop up between these different forms, when (if ever) is it considered plagiarism? I am referring particularly to when sections from that first, unpublished group, pop up in that second, published group.

For example, if a PhD student copies-and-pastes a paragraph from the grant application written by their supervisor (with their supervisor's permission) into their thesis, is that plagiarism? Then there are less blatant examples, such as the published lit review that looks a whole lot similar in structure and references (although the content is re-written) to what the project-coordinator put together for the ethics application. Many of these cases would be clear-cut plagiarism if the original material were published elsewhere, but with in-house unpublished material it seems like anything goes. I'm too low in the research hierarchy to have been in the situation where this might apply to me, but I have seen a lot of this borrowing from in-house sources occurring. When (if ever) does it become plagiarism?
posted by teem to Education (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think it's pretty simple: If you didn't write it and you didn't cite it, it's plagiarism. The definition doesn't depend on whether or not it's easy (or even possible) for others to find out.
posted by dobbs at 6:51 AM on March 9, 2007

Plagiarism doesn't care about whether the source is published or not. Whole paragraph - put in quotes and cite source. Others' ideas in your own words - cite source "grant application of..."
posted by caddis at 6:51 AM on March 9, 2007

Basically: If you're using someone else's words without attribution, that is plagiarism. If you're using someone else's sources, that's research. Within a research group working on the same project lines are blurred, and self plagiarism is a stupid term.

But it's not considered good if all your papers have the same title, so even copying your own stuff is considered bad form if it comes across as "republishing" (AKA "milking it"). Copying text from presentation to conference to journal paper to book is just the progression of an idea up the academic publication hierarchy. But if the same text goes from conference to conference to conference? Not going to look good on the CV.
posted by handee at 6:52 AM on March 9, 2007

You seem to be describing some sort of industrial science project.... I'm guessing most of the published output already has several authors appended. The rules of attribution are significantly different when researchers become workers, since they're selling their intellectual property for money, and that sometimes includes the right of attribution.

I'm not a scientist, though. In the one example I'm familiar with, Ph.D. students who use unpublished paragraphs written by their supervisors, with permission, are not committing plagiarism because the supervisor is already considered an author of the work. In academic science settings, they're often given co-author status as a matter of course, but even in the humanities it's taken for granted that they wrote a few lines in the margins that made their way into the work itself. That's why their name goes on the front page.

The lit review you describe: if the project coordinator is paid for her efforts, she need only receive a paycheck in lieu of attribution. Many people are paid to be ghostwriters of this sort of copy, and the team-based science you're describing shades into that sort of writing model. The whole point is that it's clear to all that the named authors had a ton of help, and though ideally all authors would get co-author credit, there are times that some authors are considered unworthy, or are paying their dues, etc. It's a hierarchical and often unfair system, and in that way, it's like the studio system in the arts.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:09 AM on March 9, 2007

Response by poster: I should clarify that I'm not talking about someone covertly ripping off their colleague's unpublished work. Instead I'm referring to what handee mentions, the research group all working on the same project where everyone is quite open and collaborative. It's not unusual for say, the lit review to look strikingly similar in structure even as it is rewritten by different people in the lab for different purposes. When it continues to look the same in a journal article where all of the authors are listed, that's okay. When this similar structure filters through to the honours student's submitted and assessed mid-year report, is that a problem?
posted by teem at 7:13 AM on March 9, 2007

Agreed with all of the above. Plagiarism is the act of using another's ideas as your own, regardless of source. It's considered academically honest to cite yourself in situations where you are re-using content or concepts from previous work.

Like I tell my students, think of Plagiarism as an ethical it wrong to do this? That's one way of getting to the heart of the matter.
posted by griffey at 7:18 AM on March 9, 2007

Did the grant application list only the supervising professor, or did it list the student as well as an addition investigator or co-PI?

If it really is in solely the supervisor's name, then you ought to cite it. Even if the supervisor is okay with you using it and nobody cares now, it's just safer -- if you're in a nasty tenure battle several years later, you don't want your enemies to be able to discover "plagiarism" in your dissertation.

If your name is on the grant application in some sort of vaguely authorish form, then you could argue that it's co-authored and that you don't need to cite "your own" work leading to the thesis. Still safer to cite it in my mind, at least for the thesis or dissertation. Or for journal submission -- any sane editor would tell you to take the citations out, but then that's you complying with the editor, not you plagiarising.

Norms for dealing with collectively-produced research probably vary from discipline to discipline. While I'd usually advise being cautious, it's also the case that this probably isn't worth being a prig about. If they're following the discipline's norms, then they are.

But if the same text goes from conference to conference to conference? Not going to look good on the CV.

This varies with discipline. It's normal in political science to take a paper to a couple-few conferences, though you should send it out after 2 or 3. OTOH, conference presentations do not count as publications in any research-oriented political science department.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:24 AM on March 9, 2007

Consider two pieces of writing, a 'source' (A) and a 'copy'(B).i The key attributes of whether similarities between the two constitute plagiarism are:

(1) Originality. Is B substantially similar to A to appear unoriginal? Are the similarities merely freely-available facts or definitions, or is there a similarity in style, wording, and structure? The more original B is when compared to A, the less likely it is to be considered plagiarism.

(2) Authorship. Is the author of B different from the author of A? If not, then it is difficult to say that this is plagiarism (it may still be copyright infringement if the copyright holder is someone else!). If there is multiple authorship, this situation is murkier, as an author of one part of A can still plagiarize a part of A that they did not work on and put it into B.

(3) Attribution. Did the author of B sufficiently cite A as a source? IMHO, this is the crucial part of plagiarism. As long as B adequately cites A as a source, then it is not plagiarism. The precise definition of "adequate" is in some ways a judgment call - for example, I would not mark down a thesis that had a footnote at the end of a paragraph that stated "this paragraph is adapted from grant application Z of research group Y," as long as the rest of the thesis demonstrated original work and content.

For a passage to be plagiarized, it must be substantially unoriginal, originally authored by someone other than the present author, and not adequately cited. There are MANY gray areas, but unless these three conditions are met, it isn't technically plagiarism.

BTW, I am a college professor, but YMMV, as standards differ in different contexts.
posted by googly at 7:30 AM on March 9, 2007

Almost all citation styles have a way of citing unpublished sources, so when in doubt, cite it. (Of course it's only courteous to get the permission of the person who hasn't published it.)

This sounds like a stranger example, though, as anotherpanacea is saying. It seems like a case of group-writing. Will the group be part (or somehow implied to be a part) of the authorship of the manuscript? If so, it's probably not plagiarism.

To sum up: just because something isn't published doesn't immunize it from being plagiarized. But the grant culture is a little odd, and without seeing actual evidence, I don't feel right making a judgment about the case at hand.
posted by ontic at 7:32 AM on March 9, 2007

A student's thesis is always solely authored (with a very, very few exceptions), and I don't see any reason to ever cut and paste something not written by the author into it without attribution. There is nothing wrong with citing an unpublished ms or grant application, though you should be prepared to have people ask you for it if it is not publicly available.
posted by advil at 8:23 AM on March 9, 2007

“Personal correspondence” and “unpublished” are perfectly acceptable reference entries. As always, author’s name and date should be noted.

I’ve often seen references to previous publications by the same author in a published work. There would be no call to say “Self, 2006, unpublished” — because you’re publishing it now. If you eventually publish that unpublished work, you would cite the first publication. (Exception: “Self, 2007, in publication.”) Yes you own the work, but in science you need to be clear what parts of the paper/ presentation/ thesis in question are original and separate from any other, and which parts can be found elsewhere.

In addition, a bibliography that lists all the documents used in the preparation of the paper/presentation is a fine addition to any work, especially if you have lifted things like the references and bibliography from a work as opposed to copying a paragraph.

Listing lots of references and including a generous bibliograpy is a good thing. It demonstrates that you’re both thorough and a team player. When in doubt, cite.
posted by kika at 9:26 AM on March 9, 2007

This is sort of an outlier to what everyone else was saying, but in my lab (where I was a Ph.D. student) there were a couple of stock paragraphs (especially introductory or explanatory ones) that, depending on your topic, seemed to get recycled over and over. Nobody ever thought that was a bad idea.
posted by nekton at 11:45 AM on March 9, 2007

I'm not in the sciences, and the accepted rules may be very different there. But I've dealt with this to a certain extent (because a lit review turns into a grant application turns into a thesis chapter turns into a conference paper turns into a journal article...) and I put a footnote right at the beginning saying, "this paper draws upon/ builds on/ relies upon /etc Previous Work A, B, C." Personally I'm not comfortable lifting huge sections of text and reusing them repeatedly, but you see it done all the time (you can see some authors reuse pages and pages of text from one article to another, and then into a book, and it seems pretty accepted practice; there is a certain amount of self-citation, but not as much as people above are suggesting should be the rule).

This is an issue where I'll bet there are big differences in accepted practice from one field to another, and generalizations may not help.
posted by Forktine at 2:41 PM on March 9, 2007

Yes, it's plagiarism. The little book Writing With Sources by Gordan Harvey is a great resource and addresses these sorts of questions clearly and directly.
posted by buriedpaul at 3:57 PM on March 9, 2007

I think this depends a bit on the nature of the unpublished and published material.

For example, a PhD thesis, or other document submitted for a degree, serves two purposes. The first of these is as a traditional academic publication: a writeup of a piece of science or whatever. The second is as evidence that that particular student can work in and write about the subject area. Therefore, including anything that is not your own work without attribution is clearly plagiarism.

In a publication such as a journal paper, only the first of these is basically the case. I think it could be acceptable to include a small amount of text with the permission of but not reference to the original author. For example, some supervisors like to encourage their PhD students to publish papers in their own name, alone. In such a case, I can see it being acceptable for the student to include a few paragraphs from, say, grant proposal written by their supervisor, as long as the supervisor is happy with this. Some people would say that contributing a few paragraphs of background is not sufficient contribution for full authorship. Some journals are dubious about direct quotations from non peer-reviewed sources, as they believe that this can give the quote spurious authority.
posted by Jabberwocky at 4:17 PM on March 9, 2007

Plagiarism's not just about copy-and-pasting -- it's about passing off someone else's ideas as your own. What conceivable reason would there be for not citing the in-house unpublished source you're quoting from? Citation makes your argument stronger, not weaker.
posted by buriedpaul at 4:47 AM on March 10, 2007

I misunderstood when I responded.

I was referring to situations where say, we write a grant proposal that has a paragraph in the introduction that's like "The wangle-dangle is a small rodent that lives in the forest. Within the past fifty years they have become endangered due to the increasing value of wangle-dangle pelts. This is a particularly serious problem in the Amazon, where there are co-existing land use issues" and then when the paper from the grant is written up, that same paragraph (written by the same people writing the paper) is used in the introduction.

I don't think there's a rule saying you have to re-write your own writing for each new item. What everyone else was saying about plagiarism applies. Document the source of every piece of information you publish, even if it's a reference to a phone conversation with the forest ranger in charge of counting wangle-dangles.
posted by nekton at 7:35 AM on March 10, 2007

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