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
  • Anonymous

    That's the dumbest excuse for plagiarism I've ever heard – 'English isn't their first language and they're a bit tired'.

    Passing off someone else's work as your own is wrong, and if you don't understand that, or you are unable to paraphrase and cite sources accordingly, you have no business being in academia

  • Chris Chambers

    For me, the first question that comes to mind here is whether the rest of the article by the Polish authors was of a sufficient standard of English to be comprehensible? If so, then presumably the authors are capable of preparing clear English and they just got lazy with that particular statement – in which case my sympathy just left the building.

    Having said that, I agree that as far as infractions go, this is the equivalent of academic j-walking. Yes it is plagiarism but I definitely couldn’t be bothered to report it, even if it was copied by authors who are clearly fluent in English. Who has the time for this kind of thing? There are bigger fish to fry in the business of scientific neighbourhood watch!

    I’m actually more amazed to hear that as a reviewer you rewrite manuscripts with poor quality English. This strikes me as extremely generous, even altruistic. I’ll admit that I have neither the time nor inclination to rewrite someone else’s paper. That’s a copy editor’s job – or the authors should recruit the services of a fluent English speaker prior to submission.

    As a peer reviewer I consider it my job to assess the science. If the language is clear enough to do this then the quality of language is irrelevant to me (I don’t even point out grammatical errors unless they lead to a misunderstanding of content). But if the English is so poor as to make the science incomprehensible then I would always recommend reject. Maybe this is harsh, but if the science can’t be understood then it might as well not be reported.

  • Unknown

    When I review a paper with poor English, I recommend that the authors get a native speaker or at least a technical writer to review and revise on their side. I definitely agree that it's not the peer reviewer's job to improve their English.

  • Neuroskeptic

    I'm not sure it's a reviewer's job to improve the English, but I think we should do it whenever possible. I mean, technically, it's not a reviewer's job to improve papers at all. Our job is just to decide if the paper should be published. But most reviewers will take the time to explain how the paper could be made better. Why exclude the English from that?

  • Anonymous

    Sorry, you lost me. How do you know *why* they plagiarized and how do you know that – once they got away with it – effectively being rewarded, they won't push the envelope a little further, next time.

    I think it is important to draw a very clear line, as in *any* plagiarism is unacceptable. What am I supposed to tell my students otherwise? They might even cite this post as support that plagiarism *can* be ok, to cure whatever real or imagined victimization their group experienced.

    Finally, if you are not comfortable with the language, don't publish in it. You don't see me attempting to publish Chinese journals (they do exist).

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    ///Finally, if you are not comfortable with the language, don't publish in it///

    This Madam/Sir is the smartest bit of academic flair I ever grazed my foreign eyes upon.

  • Chris Chambers

    I exclude assessing English because, unless it is incomprehensible, it is orthogonal to assessing the science.

    Were I to do the job of a reviewer and a copy-editor/proof-reader, I would have much less time overall to review manuscripts and so would be able contribute much less to science in my area.

    Ultimately it is incumbent on authors to ensure that the language in their papers is of sufficient quality to be understandable by reviewers. If the manuscript is accepted then it becomes the responsibility of paid copy-editors to tune it.

  • Anonymous

    @Ivana: I'm quite serious. Publishing broken english is – of course – only the tip of the iceberg.

    The real issue is that people – for the most part – don't publish because they have something important or interesting to say, but because they *have to* (to avoid perishing).

    This makes for atrocious reading. Generally speaking, there is zero respect for the written word, and I (for one) am sick of it.

  • Anonymous

    Lack of English doesn't seem to be an excuse to me anymore than a lack of Mathematics would be an excuse for poor statistics. It is unfortunate that the language of the day is not their native tongue, but communicating results is a very important aspect of the scientific process.

  • Kate Jeffery

    I'm with the people who think it's wrong. Understandable, yes, and it *is* unfair that non-native English speakers have an extra hurdle to surmount, but then we all have our own hurdles. Wrong is wrong, and plagiarism is plagiarism even if it's just a little bit and even if it didn't affect the results. If people think it's OK to plagiarise text, why not apply the same argument to a little data point, whose nudging didn't really affect the final outcome but made the graph look better? After all, some fields are unfairly plagued by noisy data.

    Sorry – I know you are well intentioned, but I think it's wrong – and yes, should be reported, and a public apology sought.

  • Ken Camargo

    Putting the plagiarism issue aside for a moment, I commend your attitude regarding non-native English authors, but I believe the situation is even worse than you think. I am willing to bet that some reviewers, upon catching any sign that an author is not a native English speaker assume beforehand that the manuscript is poorly written. I may be deluded about my command of the English language, but I am pretty sure that it is not as limited as some reviewers have tried to make me believe occasionaly. I have at least one case where the same paper was highly praised as being exceptionally well written and an example of shoddy penmanship. It was eventually published and I use it as an example in classes I teach about scientific writing.

  • Anonymous

    I'm a graduate student. So these are the ethical issues in science that come up. I honestly don't know what I'd do. I do know that I rely on the moral code of my mentor to shape my own. Looks like most of the posts say to report the copy cats. I *guess* that's what I'd do then, whatever most of you guys would do.

  • pulnimar

    There needs to be a standard for this. I agree that copying and pasting background is fine.

    Maybe cite a review article as sole citation for the background intro and liberally copy from it, with the knowledge from all involved that the copying is verbatim? Or just block everything out in direct quotes?

    In science it's the science that matters, not the literary quality. As long as the science wasn't plagiarized the results can be trusted as much as results can, and we know that no other scientist is being ripped off of actual empirical research 'points'.

    We need distinct standards of plagiarism for literature, the humanities, and the STEMs. Making the standard the same for all of them is unjustifiable. I blame our educational systems for the conflation.

  • eternalspinach

    I guess it's a moral gray area. it's pretty obvious when someone copies an entire paragraph. But what if it is two sentences? Or one sentence?
    Among papers on autism, literally 2/3 of them begin with the same phrase: “Autism was first described by Kanner in 1943, it is characterized by “. I'm sure I could find several that were phrased with exactly the same words. Was there plagiarism? Who knows.
    I don't try to defend plagiaris, I do think it is wrong. But I wonder where to draw the line.
    When I had to write a paper in my student years, I would sometimes copy the reference list from a paper on the same topic instead of looking for the references myself. Of course, I would write the text with my own words. Was that plagiarism? By the university standards – no. But if you were strict, you could call it that: I didn't do the literature search myself, I took the list that someone else has assembled, and wrote my own story around that. So, should I have failed that course? :)

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Ken ,

    Thanks for your “documented” comment and for not being anonymous because it adds weight to a very important issue: xenophobia and the “banality of evil”.

    ///The real issue is that people – for the most part – don't publish because they have something important or interesting to say, but because they *have to* (to avoid perishing). ///

  • Peter Hildebrand

    Regardless of whether or not I agree with your position (which I haven't decided yet, but I think that I do) I very much admire your ability to espouse it. Critically appraising the advantage you have over other people is a difficult thing to do, and it's even more difficult to give up a little bit of that advantage to try to make things more fair.

    I think we see a lot of the INability to think about those issues here in the comments. Many people are totally neglecting the argument that there are natural advantages for anglophones. The New England Journal of Medicine is read the whole world over. Same for Nature. Same for Science. Same for Cell. All of these journals are published in English. To the commenter who said that they wouldn't publish in Chinese journals- of course you wouldn't. Through no talent or hard work on your part, you're already on the winning side of the language divide (assuming that English is your first language).

    Yes, this sort of “cosmetic plagiarism” is still against the rules, regardless of your first language. But if the rules disproportionately favor people who were born into their advantage, shouldn't we think of some way to help out others in the scientific community who, through no fault of their own, are at a disadvantage? I say absolutely, and whether or not you agree with Mr. Skeptic, you have to admit that at least he's trying to make things more fair.

    Oh, and NS, I would strongly urge you to email the AUTHORS of the paper rather than the journal itself. Let them know that you think you found some plagiarism in their work, and while you're not going to report them, you think they should be more careful. That makes them less likely to commit this sort of infraction in the future without bringing the hammer down on them too hard.

  • Alba

    well. english isn't my first language either, it isn't even my second. but: i know how to use a dictionary. how to use a spellcheck. how to use thesaurus.

    it may be more work for me to write an english article than it is for native speakers, but i suck it up and invest the extra time. and if i can, others can as well.
    (of course, you can always go for “as author a and b elegantly summarized in their review, …”, but then at least you give credit where credit is due.)

    obviously, there is a difference between copying a whole paragraph, and copying one or two sentences.
    the research field that i am working in is quite small but growing as i write. i have read every article on my topic, and each starts with the same few sentences, much as what eternalspinach said. so, to be honest, when i begin writing, i don't even know whether what i write has been written before. it is all in my head and my source memory has given up on me.

    so, for me, i look the other way when it concerns few sentences, but point the finger when it is more than that.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Sorry a sentence went missing. I intended to write following my sentence adressed to you an answer to Anonymous 20 May 2012 14:40,
    ///The real issue is that people – for the most part – don't publish because they have something important or interesting to say, but because they *have to* (to avoid perishing). ///

    I am glad you answered an other anonymous who wrote:

    ///Finally, if you are not comfortable with the language, don't publish in it///

    Hoping you are not the same person.

    For myself, I took care that both my sons were bilingual in English because I had to choose just to ignore my “English limitations” in my youth when I wanted -for a short time- a career in psychopharmacology.

    Beware: At the end of the day, it is a matter of money or connections :

    If rich enough, you can always pay for a proper English version of your work (and you can always pay for your children being taught proper English from a young age).

    Idem if you have connections and English native speakers working in your field (broadly) as dedicated friends you can trust.

    This written, I agree that -unless you are in love with the person – it is hurting to read foreigners 'prose in your mother tongue because as you wrote:///This makes for atrocious reading.///

  • Anonymous

    Shortcomings of any kind have classically been cited as an excuse to make shortcuts, but it doesn't justify them.

    This could set a dangerous precedent, actually. Is it ok for me to “borrow” your methods part, because I don't understand statistics?

    Also, I think the original authors would take exception to your characterization of their work as “boilerplate”… obviously, it was worth stealing.

    Finally, behavior like this could be understood, if there was an acute shortage of papers. There is not. There is a glut. Given that, I think the standards for publication should be rather high, including a zero tolerance for plagiarism as well as an expectation of impeccable writing.

  • Anonymous

    I am the guy who wrote that I would not dare to publish in Chinese journals.

    Don't make assumptions. English is not my first language. You are free to feel guilty about your ill-gotten advantage, but some of us worked hard on getting to this point. Why discount and discourage that?

  • pulnimar

    “You are free to feel guilty about your ill-gotten advantage, but some of us worked hard on getting to this point. Why discount and discourage that?”

    I'm not the person you are responding to. However, some find it more difficult to learn languages (math, etc…) than others. What may have been hard work for you may be far harder for someone else.

    As another note to Chris Chambers who mentioned they wrote the rest of the paper (presumably) on their own, so why not the intro?:
    The English used in intro sections to papers differs from that used in others sections of papers, just due to convention and what goes into which sections.

    If the paper was parceled out to all of the authors, perhaps only one of them screwed up the intro. A graduate student or undergrad perhaps?

  • Kate Jeffery

    “I guess it's a moral gray area. it's pretty obvious when someone copies an entire paragraph. But what if it is two sentences? Or one sentence?”

    “There needs to be a standard for this. I agree that copying and pasting background is fine.”

    No! No, no. There is no moral grey area. Copying someone else's work and passing it off as your own is WRONG WRONG WRONG. That's why journals make you sign declarations that the work is your own (and no part of it has been published elsewhere).

    I recommend you watch this (very funny) video and figure out whose side you're on, to get your instincts re-tuned:

  • Anonymous

    Good idea, let's lower the standards for the poor, helpless foreigners.

    So the logic goes something like this? “Original thought is hard, that's why plagiarism is ok, particularly for those perceived to be inferior and without skill or merit (grad students, foreigners).”

    Way to go. A tad condescending though, no?

  • Neuroskeptic

    Thanks for the good comments. I'm going to wade in, in no particular order.

    “So the logic goes something like this? “Original thought is hard, that's why plagiarism is ok…”

    No. If it were a matter of stealing original ideas, then I'd take it very seriously. But as I said, the stolen text is boilerplate stuff, all they “stole” is the wording in English.

    And that's what makes it unfair. Because if I want to write a paper in English, all I need to do is have the ideas. For a non-English speaker, you need to have the ideas and have good enough English to express them. There's no assumption of inferiority, just the hard fact that not everyone speaks English.

  • Catherina

    How many sentences are we talking about? 2, 3, or 10? 5, 10, or 50% of the introduction? Has the plagiarised paper been cited in the plagiarising work?

  • Neuroskeptic

    “Finally, behavior like this could be understood, if there was an acute shortage of papers. There is not. There is a glut. Given that, I think the standards for publication should be rather high, including a zero tolerance for plagiarism as well as an expectation of impeccable writing.”

    Actually I agree with you: there are too many papers nowadays and standards (in all respects, including English quality) are too low.

    However… we can't change that overnight. Standards are too low but they are what they are, given which, it is unfair that some people (English speakers) find it easier to meet those standards, by an accident of birth, not because we're smarter or better at science.

  • Tom Campbell-Ricketts

    My PhD supervisor had a novel solution for this problem.

    He realized that in our discipline, at least, there is basic PR material that needs to be seen in the introduction, and is basically the same in each paper.

    To save time, then, there should be an agreed symbol (his idea was a little square) to represent those standard statements. So you just insert a little square, and then you can get straight on with the science.

    I suppose with most papers being read online, the square could even be a link to the model text, for those new to the field.

    I seem to remember that there were some humorless frowns when my supervisor proposed this scheme to some of the other faculty members, but I love the idea.

  • Neuroskeptic

    “What am I supposed to tell my students otherwise? They might even cite this post as support that plagiarism *can* be ok, to cure whatever real or imagined victimization their group experienced.”

    Well I would reply – Don't do it, it is crazy, because the odds are very good you'll be caught eventually, plagiarism detection technology is already good and will get better in future. The penalties can be extreme because while Neuroskeptic may be tolerant of this kind of thing, most journals aren't. So don't plagiarize.

  • Pascal Wallisch

    So we all agree that
    a) Plagiarism is unacceptable. There is no “grey” area – the fact that some (most?) people write unimaginative intros is not a good thing – it is a problem in itself.
    b) Native (!) English speakers have an undeserved (as in not earned) advantage. Science being the ultra-competitive enterprise it is these days, this matters.

    Given these two points: How about finding a remedy for b) without violating a)?

    Perhaps journals should have to supply a writing coach to authors? That might be a good idea regardless, given the quality of writing of the average bear, foreign or domestic.

  • Neuroskeptic

    “Lack of English doesn't seem to be an excuse to me anymore than a lack of Mathematics would be an excuse for poor statistics.”

    But the difference is that poor stats makes for poor science. Stolen boilerplate doesn't affect the quality of the science. As scientists we ultimately care about the aggregate quality of science published, so poor stats are never OK.

  • ac

    While poor English may not necessarily reflect poorly on the actual scientific process chronicled in a paper, there are some scientific fields which are more reliant upon interpretation than others, and poor English can obviously affect this. For me, this is where the issue of English – and a lack of understanding of English – becomes really interesting. (I don't know how much this actually has to do with plaigerism, but it was a relevant point being neglected.)

    If someone needs to plagiarize another paper for writing an Introduction, surely their English skills are poor enough that the real question would be: How in the hell would they contextualize their scientific findings without resorting to any other shady tactics?

  • Nitpicker

    I agree with most of the others here: there is no gray area here, plagiarism is wrong. Condoning it, even in this instance, sets a dangerous precedent. Many a successful researcher is not a Native English speaker and somehow they still manage. As Pascal pointed out, there ought to be more support for non-native authors to have their writing improved.

    Unlike NS, I have rejected papers as a reviewer when the quality of the English was insufficient. But I also suggest corrections or improvements whenever I come across an error. My golden rule is that when the grammatical corrections start to completely outweigh the scientific issues, or if I can't understand the scientific content in the first place because the English is so poor, I recommend rejection for poor language (in cases like this I'd always be willing to re-review an improved version though).

    I don't like this whining about disadvantages. Many of the reviewers (and readers!) of your paper are non-native speakers, too. This is why it is so essential to write in clear English as anything else is difficult for a broad, international audience.

    Anywho, don't plagiarize. If you really can't thin of a better way to phrase some “boilerplate” statements, then quote the original text and cite the authors. It's not that hard.

  • Alba

    i was thinking further about it, not about the plagiarism (i commented on this in my last comment) but on the suggested origin – the unfair disadvantage of the native english speakers. and the comments about how some people are more talented with language than maths and stuff.

    how i see it: proper english skills come with the job description.
    i mean, i as a vegetarian would not apply for a job as, let's say, a cook in a steak house. or i, with my horrible orientation skills, would not plan to become a taxi driver.

    so this is no excuse.

    i further think, ac has a point: when your english is not sufficient enough to write an introduction, what about the rest of the paper?

    i don't know about other countries, but when i applied for my master's program a few years ago, i had to provide a certificate to prove my english skills (either ielts or toefl), so maybe something like this could be introduced more broadly?
    this way, they also ensure that you understand the textbook information ;).

  • Anonymous

    Do dyslexics get license to plagiarize “boilerplate”?

    Note the subjective nature of the boilerplate assessment. I would classify some people's entire paper as “boilerplate”.

    Also note that this inherent disadvantage is even more unfair and even more immutable than being born to a non-western tongue.

    What other disadvantages qualify for special treatment?

    Or should we just turn around and say that science is worth getting it right, no matter the background?

    Who forced all these people in such a terribly unfair career, the world wonders…

  • Neuroskeptic

    alba: “how i see it: proper english skills come with the job description.”

    I disagree. If you decide to become a chemist, say, then your job is to know chemistry & research chemicals.

    Now today, if you want to publish your work in good journals, you also need to be able to produce English to a high standard (higher than many native English speakers could manage!)

    But that's not part of your job as a chemist. It's something you find out, as soon as you have to publish, but you could go through your training and not have to face it:

    You could do your whole undergrad degree in your native language.

    You could write your PhD thesis in your language; you might have to read English papers but that is very different to writing them.

    Then you become Dr Chemist and suddenly, you must be able to write perfect technical English as well as knowing chemistry.

    Yes, you ought to realize this in advance & deal with it. But lots of people end up in science & only then learn the true nature of e.g. peer review, the pressure to publish, etc. And those are probably easier to deal with.

  • Anonymous

    One of the economic benefits of the overproduction of PhDs is the availability of qualified native English speaking subject matter experts to edit journal articles for a fee. (Full disclosure: I work for a company that offers these services, although my area isn't the medical sciences.)

    I'm sure professional editing companies could add a service to rewrite plagiarized material into acceptable format!

  • Michelle Dawson

    I'm with a non-English research group, which includes people with, uh, highly atypical and/or sparse English.

    Also there are people in our group who have no English at all.

    And the “native English” speaker in the group (me) has atypical language in any language.

    Never would occur to me that plagiarism was a way to produce acceptably English papers. I'm sure it never occurred to my colleagues either. There are so many other solutions.

  • Nitpicker

    @NS: It may be true that you don't find out that you will need English “until it's too late”, i.e. when you're doing your PhD or even worse when you received your PhD. I already find that difficult to believe because most decent universities in non-English-speaking countries require you to read English papers (even during your undergrad) and they may even have lectures in English. I recall seeing something on the news recently that an Italian university decided to switch an entire course to being taught in English. Personally, I find that goes too far but I think it shows that it really isn't true that people are oblivious to the fact that English is necessary.

    Besides it isn't only science either. Like it or not, English is the international language. It may not always be (it wasn't 100-200 years ago) – who knows, it might be Chinese soon. But at present it is the language that is most commonly used in international communication. I think people clever enough to study science would notice this before they even enroll in university.

    At the end of the day though, it comes down to the ethical issue: you are saying that plagiarism is not wrong under these circumstances. In my mind, plagiarism is always wrong. Having poor English is no excuse. It is not even necessary to do this as you could write it in your own words or quote the original author.

    If we were to liken plagiarism to theft, the situation you describe isn't that of a starving child stealing a bite to eat. I'm sure most people would see mitigating circumstances there. Rather plagiarism is just laziness. In any case, how do you know that language difficulties are the reason they plagiarized the other paper? By the way, I'm assuming that it is relatively obvious that it isn't the Polish authors who originated the work in the first place? Probably the year of publication is a strong indicator but it's not foolproof.

  • Anonymous

    To everybody who is arguing that English language skills are “part of the job description”, please realize that research is conducted in every language. For us to maximally benefit from research around the world, it is in our best interests to publish research from non-English speakers. Mastering the writing style of research publications is a difficult enough proposition in itself, and to expect foreign authors to perfect the grammar and idioms of our language as well is unreasonable. I am not condoning the action of the plagiarizing authors, but I believe there are potential solutions available.

    Journals should provide professional proofreading services to assist with the writing style of non-native speakers. These services can be provided by faculty or graduate students in associated fields who are familiar with the subtleties of manuscript writing. I have participated in such a service for a major journal and have essentially re-written manuscripts for a few different European groups. In each case, the findings and interpretation were substantial contributions and worthy of publication, but the readability of the manuscript required a lot of editing and restructuring. But without the help of this proofreading service, these manuscripts may not have seen the light of day in an English language journal.

  • Anonymous

    The fact that so many here don't have a clear idea of the ethical difference between copying boilerplate and stealing science shows that there needs to be rules.

  • Eric Charles

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • Eric Charles

    It is interesting that there were patent infringement laws long before copyright laws. To use someone else's ideas / science without credit is like a patent violation. To use their words is like a copyright violation. When I am teaching students I care that they use their own words because I want them to demonstrate an understanding of the material. When I read a paper, I want methods and results. Introductions and conclusions are typically a waste of time. If I noticed the plagiarism during the course of a review, I would point it out. If it is a few sentences, and the methods and results are novel and not under dispute, it would be silly to ask for a retraction.

    Oh, and Kate, you are busted big time. A quick Google search revealed 6,720 prior instances of the phrase “There is no moral gray area.” You should retract your post and apologize publicly.

  • Kate Jeffery

    “Oh, and Kate, you are busted big time. A quick Google search revealed 6,720 prior instances of the phrase “There is no moral gray area.” You should retract your post and apologize publicly.”

    Lol – You're absolutely right, I should have cited them all, I hereby publicly apologise :)

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    Michelle Dawson,

    I will never suggest cheating in general as a solution.

    -not even to a non-autistic scientist.

    I am a great and sincere admirer of yours-but also of your boss Pr Morton who gave you a career in science although you never went to university.

    How many professional researchers never went to university Michelle?

    I have a second question for you :What would be for the many other solutions solutions you mentionned on the subject of that post -that is for poor young people living outside of any English speaking country?

    PS: Except in maths, I know several rather autistic intellectually very gifted persons who fail to complete a PhD or do get their PhDs but after that quit academia.

    Their scientific abilies might be great but “atypical language in any language” -as you put it- (among other atypical behaviors) forbid them to be part of the academia.

  • Neuroskeptic

    nitpicker: “Besides it isn't only science either. Like it or not, English is the international language. It may not always be (it wasn't 100-200 years ago) – who knows, it might be Chinese soon. But at present it is the language that is most commonly used in international communication.”

    True – but I can't think of another profession in which so much emphasis is placed on international communication. And where your career can depend on the quality of your international communications.

    if you're Chinese and you go into politics, if you're going to be Ambassador the USA you need good English. But if you want to be Mayor of Beijing you probably don't. There are different paths for different people… same in most other jobs. Maybe tourism is an exception.

    But in science there's really only one path – there is no way to dodge needing English, unless you dogge writing papers & get someone else to do it for you, which a lot of people do (including English speakers) but that can be a drawback.

  • andrew

    “Worse, many journals don't just demand English, they expect perfect English.”

    FWIW, expectations vary by field. A lot of top people in physics write papers with very iffy English that do get published.

    I've offered a couple of times to copyright for English usage and grammar (spelling is usually fine), for physicists whom I respect with unreadable prose in their preprints.

    What really needs to happen is that less fluent academics who need to publish in English need to develop a network of quality translators (which is hard for technical work, but can be handled by having a local translator or academic do a first draft and having a person who speaks only English and knows the field but won't demand an authorship credit (like an upper divsion American undergraduate major in the field) do the edits.

  • Gweemus

    Is there a particular reason why the 'boilerplate' taken from another article cannot be included as a referenced paragraph? I don't buy what you are selling in your post.

  • julia

    “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 completely agree. The value of prohibiting plagiarism for the discipline itself has more to do with tracking the evolution of ideas and knowledge. It is useful to be able to track data back to its creator so we know it's legitimate, and also useful to track an original idea back to its author to understand its context. It's useful to have a timeline.

    Cutting and pasting sentences to fluff up an article might offend the original author, but I don't think it takes away from the discipline itself or the progression of knowledge.

  • Anonymous

    We are talking about a sentence or two in the introduction to a paper. Boilerplate. That does not even rise to the level of the previously mentioned j-walking infraction.

    Many papers (most in some fields) are riddled with cleverly disguised dishonesty, misrepresentation, bad statistical analysis, unrecognized systematic errors due to willful ignorance and magical thinking yet they still get published. I guess they dotted their i's and crossed their t's though. Jeez.

    People too often focus on what they know and fail to admit when they have ventured beyond their level of expertise hence their fixation on minutia like this.

  • Nitpicker

    @NS: You are right, science depends a lot on international communication. And so do economics, politics, advertising, global health, foreign aid, etc. Yes, there are no doubt different requirements for the mayor of Beijing but the mayor of Beijing presumably also has to do a lot less international communication. But in many other professions you do.

    I am not saying that the current state of things is perfect. The situation should certainly be improved through more thorough copy-editing, translation services and, most importantly, through improving the way English (or Mandarin in the future?) is being taught in universities. There is a lot that can be done. And as several of us here have already said, if you really can't get around quoting somebody else's writing then just cite them. There is nothing wrong with this as long as you credit them.

    To advocate plagiarism in any form cannot be the right attitude towards this problem. And to say that this is “understandable” is frankly highly offensive to the large number of capable non-native speakers who do good science and publish great papers in English journals.

    Finally, with regard to the joke above about Kate saying a sentence that appeared thousands of times on Google: in all seriousness there is probably some scope for certain phrases or statements to become part of the vernacular. But if you at some random sampling of the literature recognise a few sentences (including references) I don't think this counts.

  • Eric Charles

    One problem with this discussion is that for many people there is only the declaration “Plagiarism is wrong”, there is not a reason why plagiarism is wrong. It teaching plagiarism is wrong because 1) it involves taking credit for other people's ideas, and 2) it makes it difficult, if not impossible to assess the students thinking. The first is a character issue that some schools are concerned about and others are not. The second is an educational issue which all schools should be concerned with.

    But why plagiarism a problem in academic publication? There could be many reasons, but whatever reason you choose it will make some types of infractions worse than others, and some will be so minor as to not be worth making a fuss about. The main concerns I can see in academic publishing would be concerns about 1) ensuring that publications advance the field, a scientific concern; and 2) ensuring that people can be evaluated for their actual contribution (getting credit when they should and not getting credit when they should not), a professional concern. With these two criterion there is certainly some plagiarism we wouldn't really care about.

    I would be interested in other people's reasons to consider plagiarism wrong.

  • theambler

    Is the punishment the same for all forms of plagarism? If so, then that is a problem. Might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb and all that. If these researchers were going to have their careers destroyed for this minor transgression, then that is far too much.

  • Roger

    I strongly agree with the comment left by Pulnimar about the need to differentiate plagiarism between different academic disciplines.

    As a science undergraduate I see little point in finding alternate phrases to describe the same biological mechanisms, for example. These are simply the toolbox of the subject in hand. The scientific worth of an essay is in its success in evaluating a subject.

    Equally the work of the STEM researcher is to present his or her findings and the use of an existing and accepted toolbox of phrases (and indeed background information)is, in my opinion, to be encouraged not criminalised.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Seems to me that NS was writing about some elegant and clever looking way to resume a scientific issue and not as you wrote:///alternate phrases to describe the same biological mechanisms, for example/// or the history of autism description in 1943 as someone else described.

    The fact is that when you didn't learn English early in life, chances are -except in maths and some theorical physics – that you will be ridiculed easily when speaking against someone else 's opinion-

    Xenophobia helps there for sure in rebuking expressions like “Obviously your command of English didn't permit you to understand my take on the issue ….” but it is “no big deal” since other intolerant to frustration people will use the color of you hair or whatever to try and intimidate you into silence taking the risk of retaliation- a risk any behavioral therapist will teach his clients asking for more self-affirmation.

    They take that retaliation risk lightly because the real moral issue of NS's in that post is:

    One non maternal English speaker- living outside of an English speaking place- has got a real and unfair handicap in writing a paper: one cannot help appearing less intelligent than they would appear in their mother tongue.

    To speak and write in English-for foreigners scientists not living in an English speaking country- is as severe a handicap as severe performance stress for a professional musician:

    One of the greatest living pianist PIOTR ANDERSZEWSKI explains it in Bruno Monsaingeon's documentary film (end of the movie):As much as he works on his interpretations he cannot help that stress make him loose part of his hard workbenefit -and he sometimes play twice a piece when he feels stress has let him down too much as an artist (telling the public they can go home if they are tired).

    (PS : Alexandre Taraud, another great pianist, said publicly that antidepressants made performing a nighmare for him and only homeopathy helped him to overcome atrocious stage fright.)

    NB: it is an analogy only and I wa not concern here about the stress of oral presentation for non maternal English speaker scientists.

  • Thhh

    to all those who wrote “if you can't write a perfect english, then don't”
    keep in mind one thing:
    my science is as good as yours, even if my written english is not.
    If I should start publishing only in my native language, you are the one with the biggest losses.
    As reading is waaaay easier then writing, I could read your works, you wouldn't read mine.
    I would know what you find out, you wouldn't.

    There's no minority disadvantage, the whole humanity has an handicap in communication, and we solved it by using an “international language”, my problem with communication is also your problem (you already know… you found an interesting article, abstract in english, then paper in Latvian. who's the one pissed off?)

  • mariawolters

    My comment ended up being a blog post of its own
    on helping
    researchers whose first language is not English write. This is a very big problem – the skills required to do good science don't overlap that much with the skills required to learn a foreign language or write well. We need to recognise this as a community.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Good try on the debating front but actually what would happen would be that your work will get little credit and citations outside of your country – may be even if it were to be a crucial advance in knowledge.

    At worst, somebody might read your abstract in English and stole your idea to publish it in an international review-that is a review in English. And if that person works in a richly doted lab in a senior position , it would be possible to produce the work at high speed by putting enough good people on the task- with the added benefit of being highly motivated into writing the paper rapidly in impeccable English (pay if you may since you have a big lab behind you) in order to pretend that the same original idea occured to them as well as to you.

    Science history is full of that kind of battles fo ownership of discoveries- battles sometimes rightly fought and sometimes not

    remenber the USA Gallo vs French Pr Montagnier case;

    I cite wikipedia:

    ///Assignment of responsibility for the discovery of HIV has been controversial and was the topic of 1993 American television film docudrama And the Band Played On.(…)Investigative journalist John Crewdson[19] suggested that Gallo's lab may have misappropriated a sample of HIV isolated at the Pasteur Institute by Montagnier's group.[20] Investigations by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the HHS ultimately cleared Gallo's group of any wrongdoing.[16] (…) The conclusion was that virus used in Gallo's lab had come from Montagnier's lab, a patient virus that had contaminated a virus from another patient. On request, Montagnier's group had sent a sample of this culture to Gallo, not knowing it contained two viruses. It then contaminated the pooled culture on which Gallo was working.[21](…)In awarding the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2008, the Nobel Committee decided not to grant Gallo the award. The rules limit the number of winners to three people, and the Committee chose to split the award to include both the discovery of HIV and the discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer. The award was given to Montagnier (HIV), Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (HIV), and Harald zur Hausen (papilloma virus). Montagnier expressed his surprise that Gallo was passed over by the Nobel Committee.[16]///

  • Ivana Fulli MD

    One should not underestimate the risks of having to trust an English speaking person to rewrite your English for you when this person is not working for the publisher :

    If not a scientist but an officil scientific translator that person takes a lot of money and risks deadly mistakes by lack of scientific understanding-always unpleasant when you spend money to spend time in addition- lecturing a stupid about science.

    If a scientist, that person can -honestly or not – transforms your work in order to fulfill his own hypothesis about the subject-or scientific political agenda .

    Anyone reading French will learn about my present point in the French wikipedia article on the Pr Gallo vs Pr Montagnier controversy on the HIV discovery-but not in the English wikepedia article:

    In Natrure 5/20/1983, Robert Gallo facilitated the publishing of Luc Montagnier's paper, but he wrote the abstract alterating the meaning of the French discovery. The abstract written by Robert Gallo (for the Pr Montagnier article) classified the viruses LAV and HIV in the same category.Between 1983 and 1984, Robert Gallo will go as far as changing the meaning of the abreviation HTLV, from “Human T-cell Leukemia Virus” into “Human T-cell lymphotropic virus” in order to displace the HTLV from oncovirus to antivirus…

    Pour la revue Nature du 20 mai 1983, Robert Gallo facilite la parution de l'article de Luc Montagnier, mais il rédige le résumé, qui modifie le sens de la découverte des français. Le résumé de Robert Gallo classe les virus LAV et HTLV dans la même catégorie.

    Entre 1983 et 1984, Robert Gallo ira même jusqu'à changer la signification de l'abréviation HTLV , initialement “Human T-cell Leukemia Virus” en “Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus”, pour faire passer le HTLV des oncovirus au lentivirus…

  • Neuroskeptic

    Roger: “As a science undergraduate I see little point in finding alternate phrases to describe the same biological mechanisms, for example…”

    I think it's different for students. As a student you ought to be able to re-describe the ideas you learn. That means you've learned them, rather than just memorized the names. This is why plagiarism in student work is cheating as well as plagiarism.

    But in the real world, no, you rarely need to redescribe things. Indeed it might make your paper worse, if the original description was clear and yours was a mess.

  • Nitpicker

    My previous comment vanished (never published or deleted?) and time has moved on but here goes:

    Why plagiarism of text is wrong: it is strictly speaking theft of ideas. It's true that in research papers the scientific content is more critical than the prose (although it would be interesting to find out how much the prose matters). Still, it is not that trivial where you draw the line between just copying the writing and copying somebody's ideas or interpretations. And even if we only copy somebody's “boilerplate” prose, it nevertheless is a heinous act to use the result of somebody else's creative work without giving any credit.

    Yes, you can do excellent science in any language and it would indeed be a great loss if research done in different languages were ignored simply because of the language. But there are positive ways to deal with this:

    1. Improve the standards of English in foreign universities. Train students (and researchers!) to get better at communicating their science in English. You won't need good English only for writing papers, you will also need it if you ever serve on international grant committees or for giving presentations at conferences or when you're invited somewhere.

    2. Journals should make a greater effort to enhance the quality of papers. When I review a paper with bad English I will flag this up to the reviewer. I never reject a paper only for the reason of poor English alone but if I can't understand a paper I can't review it. In cases like this the journal should support authors to improve the writing before review – but as this will be difficult to enforce the pragmatic solution is instead to find someone who can help improve your English before you submit. It doesn't have to be a professional translator – most people should be able to find a friendly colleague who is willing to do this.

    3. If you like a paragraph so much that you can't get around using it as boilerplate material, then why the hell not cite the original author and give credit where it's due? It's a simple solution that doesn't constitute plagiarism.

    I must also say that I find the suggestion that plagiarism of prose is excused in this situation is rather offensive to a majority of international researchers who worked hard to do science in English despite English not being their first language. I read a lot of papers by non-native speakers and most of them have excellent English. Writing is a skill and many native speakers also struggle with learning it. Many English lit majors would roll their eyes in disgust at many examples scientific writing, including those by native authors. In some respects, I think non-native speakers actually have an advantage because they learned English with proper grammar and are aware of the importance of simplifying your argument to make it understandable.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Nitpicker – Sorry, your previous comment got put into Spam Folder Limbo, fixed now.

    “I must also say that I find the suggestion that plagiarism of prose is excused in this situation is rather offensive to a majority of international researchers who worked hard to do science in English despite English not being their first language.”

    I don't see it that way. I think a lot of people – including me until I sat down & thought about it writing this – just ignore the extra challenge that non-English speaking scientists face.

    The fact that so many cope with it so well is entirely to their credit & I respect that a great deal – because it's a big challenge.

    But that's also why I can understand where this kind of plagiarism comes from.

  • Nitpicker

    @NS: Thanks for rescuing my post, even though it now looks like I'm repeating myself 😉

    I don't see it that way. I think a lot of people – including me until I sat down & thought about it writing this – just ignore the extra challenge that non-English speaking scientists face.

    I suppose I don't perceive to have any extra challenge then! And my main point is really that a large majority of non-English speaking scientists do not seem to have this problem. The majority of the scientists who trained me were also non-native speakers. I also met a large number of international researchers, including students, who don't seem to have any issue with this either.

    Of course, our situation is a bit different as we live and work in English-speaking countries. And I have no doubt that some people struggle more with the language barrier than others. Certainly a Star Trek-style universal translators would be an improvement over the status quo but this isn't feasible in the immediate future. For now English remains the international language and the language of research. So what people who struggle with the language should do is seek help, not copy other people's writing. Not only is this plagiarism, it also doesn't help you improve.

  • Haitham Seelawi

    I have been following your blog since you posted the 9 circles of scientific hell cartoon some two years ago, and to date it is the poster that has persisted the most on our publishing department board. Some terms found there had even entered our office parlance.

    Having proceeded, hopefully, along the proper lines of the first comment etiquette, I think I can now jump into the heart of the subject. A small part of my job is doing a couple of quality reports on academic papers almost every few days, and so I am very familiar with the crux of the problem here. I concur on that grammatical errors and nonstandard usage of English should be a secondary concern, especially that the use of a language editor to fix them is unlikely to solve the real problem, but it is to this extent only that I agree with you.

    The real problem can find its roots in more than one origin, but let’s focus on the one germane the most to the subject of your post, which not so coincidently happens to be a foundation that your argument rests on: writing in a language that you don’t command sufficient mastery of.

    Here is why: I think the “Discussion” section of an academic paper should be second in importance and originality only, if not equal, to its “Results”, unlike the “Introduction” where copying few sentences verbatim from other sources is benign, and arguably condonable, but seriously how can somebody discuss the results of her study by lifting sentences from other sources? Let me assure you that this is not a hypothetical scenario, but rather that it is often the case that large chunks of the “Discussion” section are unabashedly plagiarized. It might also come to your surprise to know that some EICs are fully aware of this type of plagiarism and when confronted, they defend it on the same grounds that you are offering here.

    That is only one manifestation of the problem. Another is that sometimes you read sentences genuinely composed by the author herself, but since her fluency is less than functional, you find them to be effectively vacuous. To be sure, she means to say something meaningful, but because she is most probably thinking in her mother tongue and then translating her ideas using a naive technique of words’ “mirrorizing”, you get what you get.

    In my opinion the solution would be to somehow (I admit that the finding of this somehow is a problem of its own) encourage researchers with low standards of English to publish in their original language along with bilingual abstracts (since an abstract structure is strictly predefined and too simple and hence does not demand an advanced level of mastery of any language). If such an article happened to catch the attention of the concerned scientific community on a global level by means of its English abstract, then a proper translation might be produced. But unfortunately, that is not the only source of the problem here. The prestige of publishing in English, regardless of quality, is more than compelling, and sometimes even institutionalized in the academic communities of the developing countries. There are other contributing sources which I can’t state at the moment, but may be in few months, when I am free of any ethical obligations that bind me not to mention them now.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    Why are you using “herself” in “the author herself” as a generic pronoun instead of the conventional “masculine generic” ?

    I take for granted that -to use your own expression” – you had not been thinking in your mother tongue and then translating your ideas using a naive technique of words’ “mirrorizing”?

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    You realize, of course, that by expecting teaching in English at university in non-English speaking countries:

    1) You just make a class selection where rich kids will look more clever than poor kids because their command of English will be on average better- since nowadays rich people are effortlessly raising bilingual in English children (some are also adding chinese just in case-and I am not kidding.When you have the money it is less difficult that having kids able to play the violin.

    A very serious thinktank (Institut Montaigne) once proposed to drop foreign languages tests in the admission exams to the French Grandes Ecoles in order to adress the ever shrinking number of working class students in those schools.

    Plus, in psychiatry research we have been doing so poorly -on the whole- up to now that it would not be clever to get a uniform scientific academic world.

    (Just to give an example: For myself I wish I knew more about the Russian psychologists' studies published in Russian during the cold war and after be it on hallucinations or on their take of what is depression.)

  • Nitpicker

    @Ivana: You do raise an important point here. But I would bet you that this isn't simply a matter of who learns English but who gets to go to university in the first place. This is a terrible situation, a good education shouldn't be restricted to the wealthy. All nations should make efforts to alleviate this problem.

    Furthermore, I would certainly support any system to deal with this dilemma in a better way. I think medium to high impact journals should probably provide more translation services etc to enable non-native speakers to publish more easily. But for any such changes to occur I think nations that aspire to doing internationally recognized research will have to go out of their way to affect those changes. That includes changing their education systems to improve standards in English language skills. I am not saying that this is a good situation but it is simply unrealistic to expect that journals, editors, reviewers, grant authorities and the like will change their policies by themselves.

    But there is of course value in raising awareness of this problem and I commend Neuroskeptic for bringing it up. I am not opposed to any movement that would encourage better recognition of the problems non-native speakers face in science.

    My main gripe is really with the notion that a practical solution is to condone plagiarism. I don't think we can draw the line there very easily and it is not controllable. For all we (including Neuroskeptic) know, these Polish authors were actually quite capable to good English – it's likely that at least one author had a good command of English. Hell, for all I know at the moment it could have been the native speakers plagiarized from the Poles!

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    To my mind, you have to decide whether or not you agree with the proverb:

    “He that will steal an egg will still an ox”

    For myself, I take the proverb with a pinch of salt but:

    1)I trust great lawyers like the marquee Cesare Beccaria and after that the duke of Montesquieu who wrote that excessive punishment has a pervert effect on society and what makes punishment useful to society -i.e. preventing crime- is the certitude of the punishment.

    2) In that scientific publication context and I will not trust their curves (or photographs or whatever results) because if they are “English challenged- they might as well be short in funds and in subjects of study publication.

    And here another drum you need to make noise with again: making public the detail of the data-as important as publishing the research protocol.

    – as nitpicker put it (20 May 2012 19:54):

    ///Anywho, don't plagiarize. If you really can't thin of a better way to phrase some “boilerplate” statements, then quote the original text and cite the authors. It's not that hard.///

    We are in such a mess in psychiatry and psychology research and practices that a little more moral is urgently needed.

    PS: As Ken Camargo wrote:”Putting the plagiarism issue aside for a moment, I commend your attitude regarding non-native English authors,” and I thank him for speaking out about xenophobia in science.

  • Ivana Fulli MD


    I am on your side about plagiarism and find interesting that the German commentator, yourself and at least a non native English speaker anonymous were also on that same side.

    To your other point,France is a false meritocratic society. Broadly, there is universities for the multitude (often to fail to get any undergrad diploma at an alarming rate ) for the happy few.

    It is supposed to be meritocratic and when you enter one of the three ENS (Ecole normale supérieure) or the Ecole polytechnique you get paid to study there and for other Grandes Ecoles any bank will be happy to give you a loan.

    Trouble is that in the last 30 years less and less poor kids entered the Grandes Ecoles.

    It is not the only factor but it is generally acknowledge that the poor kids very low admission rate is due to very poor scoring in the foreign languages and general culture entrance exams to the French Grandes Ecoles. (NB: it is not to say that the rich student who enter the Grandes Ecoles are not clever and hardworking).

    In case you can read French, here a link “Institut Montaigne”:

    You didn’t answer my mentioning of the usefulness of having different kind of scientific minds from different university culture.

    In autism, I do not think it is by accident that one of the most interesting non autistic herself researcher, Olga Bodgashina comes from Ukraine.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Haitham Seelawi: Many thanks for a fascinating comment. I agree that the Discussion should be more important and more novel than the Introduction.

  • seriousstats

    On quality of English in journals – I have a slightly different perspective. As a journal editor I would try to weed out most of the poorly written papers prior to review and suggest that the authors work on the presentation before resubmission. However, many of these poorly written papers are incomprehensible or have other flaws – so it is rarely the only reason to reject without review. It is also possible to point authors to publisher resources that may help them (including specialist editing support) and/or suggest that they enlist help from a native English speaker.

    Of course, some papers do slip through the net and others are just about good enough to send to review. At that point reviewers can comment on the English and recommend rejection, but its up to the editor to make the decision. If I had negative reviews that only found fault with the English I would give a revise and resubmit decision (regardless of whether the reviewers had recommended rejection).

    From my point of view what matters is that the reviewer is clear about why they made a recommendation.

    As it happens, the one time (after it had gone to review) that I rejected a paper for poor English the paper had at least one native English speaker on the author list.



No brain. No gain.

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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