Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Is self-plagiarism possible?

Let's first define what this is. Basically, it refers to the reuse of significant portions of one's own work, with identical or nearly identical wording or formatting and without citing the original work or otherwise revealing that you are repeating something previously published.

I think the term self-plagiarism is confusing and potentially inaccurate since plagiarism is generally defined as the presentation of someone else's words or ideas as your own.  Based on this definition, it seems impossible to plagiarize oneself.  However, if the definition of plagiarism includes the presentation of words or ideas as new and original, then cutting and pasting from your previously published work without attribution might be considered plagiarism.

Whatever it's called, some ethicists seem to consider reuse of previously published material to be dishonest.  However, there are some gray areas.

Duplicate publications are clearly fraudulent, but what about reusing short descriptions...of methods, for example?  Many of us use the same techniques in multiple studies, and there are only so many ways one can describe these procedures.  How different should each version be?  Earlier in my career, it never occurred to me that reusing a short description of a method was wrong.  I'm sure I've stated some variation on this sentence in many papers: "Data were transformed where necessary to meet assumptions of statistical tests."  Is that self-plagiarism?  Or is it simply more efficient to reuse a standard description?  What about several sentences or a paragraph describing a specific sequence of steps in a protocol?  Again, there are only so many ways one can reword such descriptions without producing a longer and more abstruse narrative.

What I now do is to write methods descriptions from scratch, envisioning each step but without referring to previous written descriptions.  Unfortunately, what happens is that I will often unconsciously repeat what I've previously some cases, almost verbatim.  When that happens, I will deliberately rephrase the new version so that it is different from earlier publications.  Another solution is to describe the method in detail in the original paper and then cite that paper in succeeding articles in which you provide a much briefer summary.  

Another situation is the review paper.  Some authors freely extract summaries and other sections of their published work and combine them into a review article.  Along with text, figures and tables from earlier work may be included in the review.  I know some authors who would not see anything wrong with this since it is their published work they are copying.  However, ethicists would likely consider this self-plagiarism.  If, on the other hand, the review was a true synthesis with a new analysis and novel discussion of the body of work, then brief summaries (rephrased) of previous work would be necessary to lay the groundwork for the new work.

Most people recognize that recycling of published work is unethical; however, it can also be illegal if the author has signed over the copyright to a publisher.  For most scientific articles, this would be the case. This is why you should not reuse figures or tables (in their original formatting) from one of your published articles in a review paper or book, for example, unless you've gotten written permission from the original publisher. It does not matter if you created those original figures using your own data.  When you signed that copyright transfer form, you turned over the rights to those formatted components to the publisher.  The same would be true of any segments of text taken verbatim from a published article and inserted into a new paper.  Most publishers (in my experience), however, will give permission to reuse or modify a figure, photograph, or table, especially by the original author.

Bottom's probably prudent to avoid reusing text from your published articles. It's easy enough to rephrase things sufficiently to avoid charges of self-plagiarism.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Is It Plagiarism?

With the recent news about journalist Farid Zakaria's suspension (and reinstatement) by his employers because of an alleged instance of plagiarism, I thought it worthwhile to again muse a bit about this topic.  In case you've not read about the Zakaria case, you can find more about it online.  In brief, Zakaria is employed by Time Magazine to which he regularly contributes; he also hosts the CNN show, Farid Zakaria GPS.  He has been accused of plagiarizing an article in The New Yorker magazine written by academician, Jill Lepore. 

I don't want to rehash the news stories, so here I will provide just the bare facts: the original text purported to be plagiarized and what Zakaria wrote and published:

Original written by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker magazine: 

"As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the 'mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.'"

Text written by Farid Zakaria and published in his Time Magazine column:

"Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the "mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man."

Zakaria's employers, Time Magazine and CNN, apparently thought this was (or might be) plagiarism when they suspended him, and Zakaria has also indicated that he thinks it was plagiarism by apologizing for his actions:  "I made a terrible mistake. It is a serious lapse and one that is entirely my fault. I apologize unreservedly to her [Lepore], to my editors at Time, and to my readers."

Others argue that this is not a case of plagiarism.  Jay Epstein, writing for The Daily Beast, concludes that it's not plagiarism because Zakaria acknowledged Winkler as the source of the information.  Epstein clearly misses the point because it's not Winkler that Zakaria is accused of plagiarizing, but Jill Lepore.  Those are apparently her words, her phrasing, and her interpretation of Winkler's work.  It's clear that the overall structure of the paragraph, the general points being made, and the specific examples were taken without attribution from Lepore's article.  A few words have been changed here and there, but it's essentially the same paragraph. 

Although some would argue that it's not plagiarism because the paragraphs are not exactly the same, this is a common misconception.  Students and other novice writers often think that, by changing a few words and phrases here and there, they can avoid the charge of plagiarism.  However, this belief is not supported by most definitions of plagiarism: "an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author"  There are a number of definitions out there, but I like this one because it specifies "imitating the language and thoughts of another author", not just the text.  It leaves no wiggle room; changing a few words does not alter the fact that you've taken someone else's ideas and thoughts and portrayed them as your own.  

However, it is possible that two authors could use similar phraseology to describe something.  Could this have been an accident...that both Zakaria and Lepore, after reading Winkler's work, would write almost the same paragraph? I doubt it, and Zakaria clearly admits that he copied Lepore.  The only question is whether Zakaria thought that by changing a few words it would not be plagiarism or whether he was well aware that he was taking another author's ideas and representing them as his own.  He also might have read Lepore's article and concluded that if he had studied Winkler's work (as Lepore apparently did), he also would have come up with the same interpretation and was equally capable of writing a similarly well-worded summary....hence he felt no compunction about copying Lepore's summary.  I've encountered people who were both lazy and arrogant and would justify taking someone else's wording without attribution because they believe that they would have written something similar, had they the time to read the original work.  I'm not saying that's the case with Zakaria; I'm just pointing out that this is one way some plagiarizers justify their actions (based on my past encounters with such people). 

We will likely never know what Zakaria was thinking when he wrote his article but there is little doubt that this paragraph was plagiarized from another author. It was a stupid thing to do, particularly by someone so much in the public eye.  The question is whether it was part of a pattern of unethical behavior or just an isolated lapse in judgement?  Ultimately, CNN and Time Magazine considered this one instance against all the other work Zakaria has produced and decided that it was an "unintentional error".  Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story.  Others have begun coming out of the woodwork, making additional accusations (which were later retracted).  It will be instructive to see how this ultimately affects Zakaria's career.

Those of us in science will likely encounter a case of plagiarism at some point in our careers......a student's or possibly an accusation made against us.  Even someone who is basically ethical and honest can inadvertently commit plagiarism due to ignorance or sloppy note taking.  And we are all vulnerable to false accusations.  I posted previously about plagiarism but did not explore the subject deeply.  I started out in this post with an example that clearly meets the definition of set forth by a number of authorities on the subject....but one that not everyone understands or believes to be plagiarism.  In upcoming posts, I thought I would examine plagiarism a bit more and particularly consider some types of plagiarism where things are not so clear cut.  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mentor Musings

A few weeks ago I attended a scientific conference and participated in an undergraduate mentoring program run by our science society. The program targets underrepresented groups to increase diversity of people who might consider wetland science as a field.

It was a rewarding experience, but a lot of work. The mentors were each paired with a student, sometimes according to common interests, but not always. Although there were some planned workshops for the students and an overall schedule of such activities, the mentor-mentee pairs were left to their own devices to work out daily interactions. Not having done this before (mentoring at a conference), I wasn't exactly sure how much "shadowing" and meetings to suggest. My mentee was the youngest participant (freshman) and very shy and seemed quite overwhelmed by the meeting. I did not want to push her too much, but did not want to let her hide and not participate.

We met once or twice a day to compare notes and had lunch together a couple of times. I followed her for half of a day to sessions she was interested in and she shadowed me to the session I presented in. During the first evening social and poster session, she stayed with me and I introduced her to various people ranging from non-threatening students to the most well-known scientists in our field. Because she seemed so shy and intimidated, I spent most of that time having her meet and talk to graduate students who were friendly and willing to spend time with us. 

Overall, I think she was confused by the presentations and upset because she could not understand what they were talking about. I assured her that she was not alone (in being confused by speakers), but I don't think she believed me. Some of the other mentors said the same thing about their charges, so perhaps they were a bit too inexperienced to get much out of the presentations. Maybe a really mature freshman might be different, but it seemed to me that the older students were getting much more out of the meeting and the chance to meet scientists and graduate students and to understand science talks.

Several of the older students in this program presented posters of an undergraduate research project they had conducted. I was extremely impressed with them and the poise and confidence they exhibited during their poster session. I spent some time talking to several and also watching their interactions with other scientists. This was clearly a great opportunity for them to present a poster at an international meeting and see what that experience is like before they get to graduate school.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


In previous posts (starting here), I talked about con artists and social manipulators.  I'd like to elaborate on one of the types of con artists that are listed in Gavin DeBecker's book, The Gift of Fear.  The Loan Shark is someone who does you a favor so that when s/he asks you for a return favor, you find it difficult, if not impossible, to refuse. 

Here's a hypothetical situation.  You are invited to participate in an event, and your expenses are paid by your host.  You had never met your host before, but during this event you got to know them a bit better and were not favorably impressed.  At the end of the event, your host approaches you and asks you to write a letter of support for a prestigious fellowship.   

Here's another hypothetical situation:  A colleague nominates you for a prestigious fellowship or award, which you receive.  A short time later, this person asks you to recommend them for the same award.  What do you do if you think they don't deserve it?  If you think they deserve it but resent being manipulated? 

Do you:

1. Agree and write a glowing recommendation because you owe them.

2. Agree and write a lukewarm recommendation because you suspect they will retaliate if you decline.

3. Decline and make up some lame excuse.

4. Decline and tell them exactly why.

If you find yourself in such circumstances, it's important first to recognize that you've been manipulated and that the people you are dealing with are not ethical.  In both situations, you've been deliberately put into their debt so that you cannot easily refuse their request; you know this because they've asked for a favor in return.  Even if you cannot satisfactorily extricate yourself from this situation, you will be forewarned regarding any future interactions (and avoid them like the plague). 

Reading the above options, some people will say that #4 is the only choice.  However, if you've ever been in such a situation and actually face-to-face with someone, you know it's difficult to actually decline such a request in person.  This is what the manipulator is counting on.  You've been backed into a corner and to fail to comply makes you the bad guy.  Some people, however, will feel that they do owe a debt and should reciprocate.  In some cultures, such reciprocity is not only common but expected.  Others may feel they have to do whatever it takes to protect themselves and pick #2.  There is no easy choice, which is why it's a dilemma.

It's also instructive to recognize that you stepped into this trap by accepting their support/nomination in the first place.  How do you distinguish between people who genuinely wish to help you and those who are looking for a way to help themselves? There may be few or no clues, especially if you have not had any extensive interactions with them previously.  One clue is how ambitious the other person is, especially in relation to their qualifications.  The greater the discrepancy, the greater the likelihood they use tactics such as loan-sharking to get their way.  It's wise to be cautious in accepting favors, especially if you do not know the other person well.

In the case of the manipulative host, you are actually not in their debt if you performed whatever the invitation entailed.  You've already reciprocated by showing up and doing whatever you were invited to dom whether it was to serve on an advisory panel, give an invited lecture, or collaborate on a project.  There should be no additional obligation to the person who invited you.  Consequently, you may accept/decline the request based on other criteria, such as whether you know them and their work well enough to make an informed recommendation.  If you decline, though, there is the likelihood that they will react badly.

In the other case, it's likely that the person who has to ask to be nominated is not qualified. Otherwise, you or someone else would think to nominate them without any prompting.  If they are not qualified, then you will have a very difficult time writing an honest letter of support.  If they do happen to be qualified for the award, do you then take into account the fact that they put you in their debt or do you just forget about it and write something based only on their qualifications? Again, there is no easy answer.

Such ethical dilemmas are not uncommon in science, and you may find yourself at some point in your career struggling to deal with similar situations. 


If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I have changed the title of this blog from "Women in Wetlands" to "The Singular Scientist".  After much thought, I decided to make this change because much of the blog content is not focused on either wetlands or women, although I have discussed many gender-related issues.  I originally established this blog to be a forum for a society section I wanted to support, but it soon grew into more than that.  Also, that group has created a more open-forum blog, which serves a different purpose (sharing society/section news and information). 

My intent with this blog has always been to encourage science practitioners to excel in their work and in life, whatever their field or gender.  With the change in title and emphasis, however, I think the blog will better reflect my overall intent.  I'm not changing the URL as yet, partly because I'm unsure how to do this without screwing everything up on Blogger.  Maybe I will do this in the future, but for now, I'll leave it alone.  I plan to continue talking about the challenges that women face in STEM fields, but want to ensure that the blog content does not appear to be restricted to that topic or of interest only to female readers. 

I've also worried about giving the wrong impression that women in science need "special help" to succeed. That is certainly not the case, but it is invariably the reaction I get from some people.  There's a lot more to be said on this topic, but I'll leave it for another post.

After some thought, I came up with the title, The Singular Scientist.  The term, singular, means extraordinary, exceptional, remarkable, one of a kind.  The new name refers not to me, but to you, the reader.  Too often, we settle for less than this, especially when being exceptional in your work is discouraged by peer pressure.  I know this pressure all too well and continue to experience it, even as a senior scientist.  During the almost four years of writing for this blog, I've become painfully aware of the difficulties that many students, postdocs, and early-career scientists face, which eat away at their confidence and desire to persevere in their chosen fields.  Female scientists and students working in male-dominated fields are particularly susceptible, but anyone can find themselves in a similar situation at any stage of their career. 

You may wonder why anyone would shun the opportunity to be outstanding.  For some, the desire to be accepted overrides the desire to achieve one's potential.  For others, there is simply a lack of basic confidence in one's ability to excel, which may be rooted in early experiences and/or inherent personality traits.  Even for highly successful people, there will be instances when we are faced with new challenges that appear to exceed our capabilities (such people are possibly most vulnerable, not having had much experience dealing with failure). In other words, we all need help and encouragement from time to time. 

I've worked through a number of challenges that I faced in my career by writing about them in this blog, which helped me to see solutions and/or to gain some perspective on the problem.  By simultaneously sharing these thoughts with readers, I have possibly helped others who might be experiencing similar challenges.  I also wanted to contribute to the growing online documentation of the experiences of scientists and especially those of female scientists.

Anyway, those are the main reasons I've changed the title.  I don't anticipate changing the content of posts, but hope to write a bit more frequently than I have in recent months.