Patterns of (Apparent) Plagiarism

By Neuroskeptic | January 15, 2014 5:10 pm

Lately I’ve been investigating (apparent) plagiarism in various areas of scientific publication. It’s quite interesting how many different ways there are to put together an unoriginal paper. No two cases are alike, but I have noticed some patterns.

The illustrations here are all real cases I’m working on. I have disguised the text, for now, but all will be revealed soon.

The first pattern is the “1-2-3-4” – a straightforward kind of (apparent) plagiarism: large chunks are taken verbatim from sources. One source follows the other with at most a few original words to hold them together. In this example, every color represents a different source paper:


The “Frankenstein” – this kind of (apparently) plagiarized article is stitched together out of the chopped up remains of many texts. Sometimes the source even changes in the middle of a sentence, only to revert back to the first one after the full stop. The order of the bits may be shuffled around. In this example, there are two source articles; different shades of the same color represent non-consecutive sections of the originals.


The “Piecemeal Paraphraser” – while simply copying and pasting text is the simplest form of plagiarism, it is not the only approach. More sophisticated word-pirates will then rewrite the text, paraphrasing it – generally to the detriment of the prose quality.

When done properly, this is undetectable. With enough rewriting, an old text becomes a new one. However, paraphrasers often forget the big picture. You can rewrite every single sentence, but if you leave those sentences in the original order, you are leaving clear evidence of your ‘borrowing’. You may fool plagiarism detection software, but not a careful reader.

In this example, each of the 16 clauses here is similar in meaning, though not in wording, to a clause in an (apparent) source document. By itself, this might not seem too suspicious – the two articles are, after all, about the same topic – but the 16 corresponding clauses are in exactly the same order in both cases… oops.


Finally – and most depressingly – we have the “Hydra”. Just as Hercules found that, for every head he lopped off the Lernaean hydra, two more grew up, it sometimes happens than when investigating one case of (apparent) plagiarism, you find that other papers have also been (apparently) pinching from the same sources as the original suspect.

In fact, if you want to find out just how common plagiarism is in science today, take your favorite highly cited review paper published in, say, 2010, and Google a few sentences from the first paragraph. But don’t say I didn’t warn you…

  • LincolnX

    Good post. I wonder whether there’s an analysis anywhere of the prevalence of plagiarism as a function of the major section of the article. Let’s allow that all plagiarism is troublesome and wrong, but would the Introduction of a paper from a very small field be expected to differ very much from a paper from a different group in the same area, and is a similarity there as important as one in the Results or Discussion? Maybe such distinctions don’t matter but the former seems like a misdemeanor while the latter seems like a felony.

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      i suspect anyone with something truly original to present would feel no need to steal from an introduction.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I tend to agree. But the first two examples I used here are both review papers. I think plagiarism in reviews is the worst kind – the whole point of a review is that it’s original writing. There is no other kind of work that goes into it. At least with an experimental paper, the data collection and analysis might be original even if the writing (especially the introduction) isn’t.

      • LincolnX


    • Alex Reppe

      Here is a journal article on your point LIncolnX.

      • LincolnX


    • ohwilleke

      Plagiarism of solely data, while technically the same offense if done without proper citation, would typically involve very different fact patterns and motivations than the more mundane case of lazy copying or paraphrasing to avoid having to exert the effort to write the paper itself. It involves not imitation so much as stealing credit for doing the work, while providing original analysis and writing is still there. That is the sort of offense that one sees supervising professors commit against their graduate students and other subordinates.

  • Stephen Mugford


    Reminds of this true story which I will keep short. Academic A finds
    several plagiarists. A’s boss, B starts asking, ‘how come YOUR students cheat?’
    A finds another she believes plagiarized, but cannot prove it. Gives a C but
    student complains bitterly. A shows B. B announces that it is indeed so—a verbatim
    copy of a high A paper from a previous course. Further research reveals all:
    student (unwisely) complained because he ‘knew’ it was worth more than C; but in
    a nice twist, the copied paper ITSELF was plagiarized but academic B had not
    picked that up. No more questions about ‘your students’—and two students with
    fail grades on their records.

  • Alex Reppe

    Here is a journal article(from 2011) on this exact subject. You’re welcome.

  • SteamyThePunk

    To be fair, your piecemeal paraphrasing type of “plagiarism” isn’t plagiarism, if the source is cited in the bibliography. Plagiarism is akin to copyright violation, where in you reuse someone else’s work without doing something to make it your own, and giving credit to the original works. If you paraphrase, you could argue that you have put in work to make the sentence your own. It is possibly the laziest and a bad way to write a paper, but it’s not plagiarism.

    • Neuroskeptic

      In this case the source is not cited anywhere; a list of authors (who had no part in writing the original) is provided however, which I take to mean that the text was the work of those authors and they alone.

    • ohwilleke

      You are more correct about plagiarism than you are about copyright. While the most commonly invoked stick in the bundle of rights covered by copyright law is the bar on copying without permission (when it does not constitute fair use), another one prohibits the creation of derivative works from the original (e.g. translations, abridgments, new treatments) without the authors permission.

      Derivative works without permission but with credit (for example, fan fiction) are often prohibited even if you have done something to make it your own and give credit to the original (excepting again, cases of fair use which are trickier when the derivative works right is involved — e.g. there are categorical exceptions like derivative pulp fiction and romance plots, as there aren’t many of them to go around).

      • Neuroskeptic

        My example #3 might best be classed as a “fan non-fic” then.

  • Ferdinand Marcos 2.0

    So that explains global warming……..

  • Uncle Al

    Look at it the other way. Plagiarism is like a citation, but better. The most heavily plagiarized texts are the most desirable – or the most obscure, depending on the plagiarist’s worldview.

  • Theresa Katharine Travia

    What you seem to be describing here is a literature review. As long as you cite your sources you are not plagiarizing…

    • Neuroskeptic

      In a literature review you summarize (not excerpt) other papers while making it clear that this is what you’re doing. That’s fine. It is not what is going on in any of the three cases I’m discussing though…

      • empireinrecline

        except that it is. science papers all have the same format: background and context, methods and materials, results, discussion, conclusion. Science research nowadays is typically way down in the weeds of a particular field picking some nits. When it’s time to write up the results you have to refer to all the articles, on the same topic, that you learned from that took you to the edge of knowledge and now the new paper is adding to our knowledge of that particular subject. So, the background and context are always the same, likewise the methods are extremely similar, so why is everyone rewriting it. Who has the time or energy, just grab it from those old papers and modify. The plagiarism is a ‘data artifact’ at this point because the only “real writing” going on is in the results and discussion. did you pare down your analysis to only those sections, since those are the only pertinent pieces to authorship of a research paper? If not then this is a non-issue, I’m a biolgist pushing out results not an artist, this is writing to convey information, not an exercise in creativity.

        • Neuroskeptic

          Both of these articles were review articles.

          But even if they were experimental papers, it would still be wrong to use other people’s work without putting it in quotation marks.

          If you’re a biologist pushing out results and can’t be bothered to write an introduction then by all means copy someone else’s…just remember to type ” ” around it.

          • Wouter

            When you say: “it would still be wrong to use other people’s work without putting it in quotation marks”, are you argueing from a capitalist or scientist point of view? From a capitalist point of view, I understand you completely; the stuff you wrote is yours and can therefore only be re-used under strict terms. But from a scientist point of view, I don’t get it. Isn’t science about coming as close as possible to the truth in any given subject? Then, why care about a scientist copy-pasting an introduction? Is that what science is about? Us writing a new introduction? (note I’m using ‘introduction’ as an example for results-unrelated texts)

          • Neuroskeptic

            If you copy-paste someone else’s work and don’t use quotes, you are saying: I wrote this. Which is a lie.

            If you use quotes, you are saying: I approve of this, but I didn’t write it. Which is true. So you should do that for the truth’s sake if nothing else.

          • Theresa Katharine Travia

            I may have misunderstood what you were originally saying in the article. I’ve never copied and pasted anything I’ve written in my life. However, when I write a literature review, something I do a lot, I often paraphrase articles I am reading. I always give credit but you’ll find I am saying the same exact things they are particular when summarizing the methods section. I wouldn’t considering this plagiarism but I thought that’s what you were alluding to with the paraphrasing comments

          • empireinrecline

            “wrong” is a relativistic and weak argument. are you more concerned with pristine prose are do you want a cure for cancer sooner. There are only so many hours in the day. And review articles, really? The whole point of a review article is to paraphrase what’s already out there. Wouter (below) makes another good point.

          • Neuroskeptic

            I want a cure for cancer sooner and I don’t see how a plagiarized review paper helps with that.

            On the other hand, the main culprits in this kind of plagiarism are (in experience) clinicians who want to get a publication but can’t/won’t do it properly.

            If those clinicians spent more time in the clinic instead, they might cure a few extra cases of cancer, or other diseases – a far more productive activity than copy-pasting I’m sure you’d agree.

          • Thanuja Bachala

            When we rewrite the sentences for introduction or literature reviews section, the sentences are not copied (so can we quote them in quotation marks when not copied exactly?” but written how we understand and were given citation from where we actually read them. I hope that’s not plagiarism? Also, when we start writing a review article or an introduction to a particular topic, what would be the appropriate way to write them?

          • Neuroskeptic

            Well, I always start writing from a blank page or from a series of notes that I’ve written.

            Rewriting sentences copied from prior sources can be acceptable (it is widely done – although I don’t do it) but only if:
            – you cite the sources
            – you rewrite the text to be really new and, preferably, add some new ideas or a new slant as well as new words
            – you limit it to sentences, not whole paragraphs.

            If you do that, then I don’t think you need quotes, BUT it would be better to just write it yourself if possible.

          • Thanuja Bachala

            Good to know and thanks Neuroskeptic….!

        • gretty

          I agree, to some extent. It’s why PhD comics can make amusing cartoons Mad-Libs-style of researchers writing abstracts for conferences, or replying to reviewers in the journal review process, or writing a proposal, etc. Because there is a standard formula that has emerged over time. I’m not talking about cut & paste phraseology, but the “piecemeal paraphraser” example above.

          For the intro to a standard original research paper in a given journal, the patterns are formulaic. Paragraphs, one, two, three and four have standard content in them. Depending on your particular angle you’ll cite a different set of papers, including your own, and your final paragraph that summarizes your work with differ only in the specifics of what your data reveals. I assume all of our work “suggests that further research is needed…” as we each enjoy job security. But the fact that there is an overview, a zoom-in to the specifics, the demonstration of the hole in the research you and 20 other labs are attempting to fill, then the summation of your work. If you wanted to go outside that framework, it would seem odd.

          I find that being able to focus my attention predictably on one paragraph (the final one) in an Intro saves time. I don’t need the first 3 paragraphs in papers within my own field, though I appreciate them when I’m edging into a new one. The formula works. If it’s paraphrased, the citations are specific to the research that follows and the last paragraph summarizes the study I’m about to read, then I’m not sure how that’s a problem. I see it as a benefit. We’re scientists. Keeping certain parts stable while altering the variables is a comfortable, workable pattern for most of us.

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  • Michele Scandola

    for me, as for many non-native english speakers, writing a scientific paper is a big effort… but, considering how papers have to be write in the current system, plagiarism or verbatim copy is not an option.
    clearly this post is speaking about reviews… but I’ll generalize it to make a little reflection.
    IMHO is how scientific papers are written not so adapt… a scientific paper is not an essay… so why don’t forget about “literature” and use an even more standardized system? Like filling an online form, with everything clearly stated such as bullet lists for the introduction and conclusions, etcetera… thus is a little provocation, but why focus on how something is written instead to be worried about the content?

  • RogerSweeny

    It’s good to see you–and other volunteers–going after plagiarism.

    In regard to another Neuroskeptic campaign, the 3 January issue of Science (Record Setting Gamma Ray Burst on the cover) has a two page Policy Forum, “Promoting Transparency in Social Science Research.” It’s a lot of high-powered people sounding like you.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Oh! Thanks. I missed that one, will check it out.

  • Neuroskeptic

    Firstly, a first-rate review paper is more than just a summary of previous work, it points out connections and contradictions, forms new hypotheses etc.

    However, even if you believe that a second-rate review paper (a collection of paraphrased summaries) should be copy-pasted, you would surely agree that there’s no harm in putting ” ” around the copy-pasted bits?

    And as for clinicians and bench time, they would be better served not publishing second-rate review papers at all. Not copy-pasting them and not writing them.

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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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