Plagiarism In Translation – A Dilemma

By Neuroskeptic | May 20, 2012 11:39 am

Last week I caught a plagiarist.

In a research paper published recently in a minor journal, I realized that the authors had directly copied several sentences from the Introduction to an earlier paper that I’d been reading recently. Even the references from the original were cloned. Given the context, it’s extremely unlikely that they had permission.

This is an open and shut case of plagiarism. There’s no dispute that plagiarism is bad. So I was about to write to the editor of the journal and the original authors when I looked up who the culprits were Polish.

This has happened before. A while back I detected plagiarism on a similar scale, again a very clear cut case, from some Brazilian authors.

I haven’t reported either case. That’s what this post is about.

Why not? It’s nothing to do with the idea that in “other cultures”, copying is regarded differently, so we need to make allowances for foreigners. That doesn’t convince me. No, my concern is that as a native English speaker I have an unfair advantage over scientists from other parts of the world.

500 years ago Latin was the international language of science; a hundred years ago it was German, in many fields. Today, most scientific journals and all of the high-impact ones require papers to be written in English. That’s the way it is, and there’s no changing it, but I don’t think it’s fair.

Worse, many journals don’t just demand English, they expect perfect English. Many editors and peer reviewers will throw out papers with clumsy phrasing or grammatical errors, regardless of where the authors are from, because “It’s not my job to teach you English”. In my own reviews I don’t do this – if a paper is scientifically sound but the English is poor then I’ll rewrite it. But I think I’m in a minority.

So you can see why non-Anglophones are tempted to copy and paste. Who knows exactly how common it is, but given that I’ve found two examples without specifically looking for it, it must be widespread.

Suppose you need a  “boilerplate” summary of some well-worn but complicated issue for your Introduction. And you do, nowadays, although they add little to most papers. You could write it yourself and the English might be bad, or you could copy it from a similar paper in a good journal and be sure…

Is that plagiarism? Yes. Is it illegal? Quite possibly, depending on the jurisdiction. But is it morally wrong? I don’t think so.

You might say that it’s stealing, and hence wrong. But is it so different to copying someone’s paragraph, changing a few words and swapping some around, until it’s “different” enough to pass a plagiarism check? All you’ve added in that case is your own linguistic coat of paint; you’ve still stolen the car. Yet even English speakers do that and get away with that all the time. Indeed, the banal, boilerplate “original” plagiarized text in my two examples could have started out that way.

I’d stress than I would have been writing to the journal in a flash if I thought there was any question of plagiarism of data, or of novel ideas, but there isn’t.

I’m absolutely not encouraging this solution to the language problem. It really is a bad idea, because you’ll probably get caught. The best scenario for you would be that the journal’s plagiarism checker spots it and your paper won’t get published. If you’re unlucky, it will get through, and then one day down the line you’ll end up on Retraction Watch. Don’t do it, however tempting it may be.

But I can’t feel any indignation at those who do it. It’s hardly classy, but it’s not malicious, selfish or damaging to science, and as such I struggle to accept that it’s wrong. Which is why I have not reported my two cases.

I expect some people will disagree, so please feel free to comment. I may change my mind.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, law, science


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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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