Plagiarism: Academic Publishing and Potassium Ions

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Avoiding plagiarism, self-plagiarism, and other questionable writing practices: A guide to ethical writing Miguel Roig, Ph.D.

First on-line version published in September, 2003

Revised on-line version published in August, 2006

Please send any questions, comments, or suggestions to Miguel Roig, Ph.D.

In recognizing the importance of educating aspiring scientists in the responsible conduct of research (RCR), the Office of Research Integrity (ORI), began sponsoring in 2002 the creation of instructional resources to address this pressing need. The present guide on avoiding plagiarism and other inappropriate writing practices was created, in part, to meet this need. Its purpose is to help students, as well as professionals, identify and prevent such practices and to develop an awareness of ethical writing. This guide is one of the many products stemming from ORI’s educational initiatives in the RCR.


Scientific writing can be a complex and arduous process, for it simultaneously demands clarity and conciseness; two elements that often clash with each other. In addition, accuracy and integrity are fundamental components of the scientific enterprise and, therefore, of scientific writing. Thus, good scientific writing must be characterized by clear expression, conciseness, accuracy of what is being reported, and perhaps most importantly, honesty. Unfortunately, writing, or for that matter the entire scientific process, often occurs within the constraints of tight deadlines and other competing pressures. As a result of these constraints, scientific papers, whether generated by science students or by seasoned professionals, will at times be deficient in one or more of the above components.

Insufficient clarity or lack of conciseness are typically unintentional and relatively easy to remedy by standard educational or editorial steps. Lapses in the accuracy of what is reported (e.g., faulty observations, incorrect interpretation of results) are also assumed to be most often unintentional in nature, but such lapses, even if unintentional, can have significant undesirable consequences if not corrected. Intentional lapses in integrity, even if seemingly minor, are by far the most serious type of problem because such misconduct runs contrary to the primary goal of the scientific enterprise, which is the search for truth.  

In scientific writing, perhaps the most widely recognized unethical lapse is plagiarism. Plagiarism can occur in many forms and some of the more subtle instances, while arguably unethical in nature, may not be classified as scientific misconduct by federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Nevertheless, the ethical professional is expected to operate at the highest levels of scientific integrity and, therefore, must avoid all forms of writing that could be conceptualized as plagiarism.  

There are other questionable writing practices, some of which may be quite common in professional scientific writing. One example is reporting and discussing results of one’s research in the context of literature that is supportive of our conclusions while at the same time ignoring evidence that is contrary to our findings. Another writing ‘malpractice’ occurs when another author’s review of a literature is used, yet the reader is led to believe that the current author has conducted the actual review.

On ethical writing

A general principle underlying ethical writing is the notion that the written work of an author, be it a manuscript for a magazine or scientific journal, a research paper submitted for a course, or a grant proposal submitted to a funding agency, represents an implicit contract between the author of that work and its readers. According to this implicit contract, the reader assumes that the author is the sole...
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