There’s been a bit of discussion lately about the issue of “self-plagiarism” in science. Beyond that, Chemjobber recently posted about plagiarising the work of others and how you define that in sciences. After all, when you’ve got 10 or 20 or 50 people writing on the same system or compound or reaction, there’s a good chance some of you are making the same points about your subject, and there are only so many ways to organize the words in a logical and readable fashion. Although there’s some overlap of word usage in the second example provided by Chemjobber, I wouldn’t call that plagiarism. In science, I would even argue that near exact phrases in certain cases should not be considered plagiarism; after all, there are only so many ways to say “Enzyme X catalyzes reaction A” without ridiculous linguistic contortions.
But what about entire blocks of text, as in the first example? In the comments, some argued that it is not plagiarism; that in science, plagiarism is only the copying of ideas not words. I disagree. Someone, somewhere, has taken the time to summarise a concept or finding in a way that is clear/concise/captivating. As someone who takes pride in her writing (almost) as much as her research, it may take a great deal of time and multiple edits to find the right words, and frankly, I would not appreciate someone ripping them off and using them as hir own.
However, commenter Tom Noddy replies:
I don’t see why the simple strategy of quoting a statement – with adequate references, and if necessary quotation marks and/or indentation – shouldn’t be used in chemistry papers. This is normal practice in the humanities and social sciences. Plagiarism can then be easily avoided.
If you turn out a well-crafted sentence or paragraph which ssummarises a compound or class of compounds, it may drive up your personal citation index, as an additional benefit.
Why don’t we use the quoting strategy in the sciences? I think it comes down to the point that scientists want ideas and key concepts–and not wordsmithing–to be the primary basis for citations. Many departments are shifting to the use of citation-based metrics to assess the productivity and impact of a candidate’s research program. As Tom points out, if we allowed the quoting with attribution strategy in science, then a clever sentence or paragraph could inflate citation indices, which would reduce their utility. Tom’s responds, “Sorry, but I’m a sceptic about productivity measures via citations. It is likely to lead to skewing of research from interesting to popular as often as not.” No metric will ever be perfect, but it’s better than assessing research significance on the sole basis of journal impact factor. It’s one reason why I stand behind the tradition of no quotes in the scientific literature with the rare exceptions in which one is making a historical point.
Do you think scientists should adopt the strategy used by humanities? Is reuse of words even plagiarism? I leave you with the question of how you define plagiarism. (Note added in proof: I should probably clarify that by reuse of your own data or figures, I mean reuse of previously published data or figures in a new manuscript.)