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May 29, 2014

PLAGIARISM: Everyone is vulnerable

When it comes to plagiarism, anyone and everyone is vulnerable,  according to the director of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI)’s Responsible Conduct of Research Center.

In a recent workshop, Karen L. Schmidt cited some troubling statistics:

• A recent survey by the creators of plagiarism detection software iThenticate found one of three scholarly editors say they encountered plagiarism regularly.

• The journal Cancer Biology and Therapy rejected more than 221 articles for plagiarism in 2012.

• The National Science Foundation was investigating nearly 100 cases of suspected plagiarism in 2013, representing $96 million in funded research.

• A 2012 study found that plagiarism accounted for nearly 10 percent of the papers withdrawn from PubMed due to fraud or suspected fraud.

“Plagiarism is part of a larger scientific misconduct problem that is currently affecting scientific literature,” Schmidt said.

“There’s plagiarism at all levels and in all different fields,” she said, noting that a book by primatologist Jane Goodall was held up in publication over controversy surrounding Goodall’s failure to properly cite sources, and that Martin Luther King Jr.’s doctoral dissertation was found to have been plagiarized in large part from another student’s work.

“Maybe some is unintentional,” Schmidt said, reasoning, “Who would want to just copy things?” as she and fellow presenter Charles Wessel of the Health Sciences Library System advised attendees on avoiding plagiarism in their May 20 workshop, “Digitally Detecting Plagiarism: Approaches for Protecting Your Science.”


Properly citing sources is an important part of avoiding plagiarism in academic work, Wessel said.

For instance, when summarizing a colleague’s research findings, using data to support your position or paraphrasing someone else’s ideas, the source should be cited. Citing a source for a well-known fact may not be necessary, but could be a good idea. “It doesn’t hurt just to cite it, if in doubt,” he advised.

Schmidt noted that the purpose of citation is not “so you don’t get caught” plagiarizing, but rather to guide your readers to your sources “so they can be part of the conversation on what you’re talking about.”

At times, permission to use a citation in a scientific work may be needed, Wessel said.

For instance, if the material came from a personal conversation at a conference, or from unpublished study results shared via email or from a colleague’s scientific observations, “Seek permission,” he said. And, keep documentation that permission was granted.

The concept of “fair use” factors into whether permission is needed. Among the factors to consider are whether the source is published, the amount of material that was used, and whether the material from the source was used in a completely different way, Wessel said.

He recommended a fair-use calculator devised by the University of Minnesota ( as a convenient tool for thinking through fair-use questions.

Detecting plagiarism

At one time, investigations into allegations of plagiarism required a painstaking page-by-page search that could take weeks or months. Now online tools make the process instantaneous. Pitt users can access iThenticate plagiarism detection software at The service compares an uploaded document with millions of items in academic publication databases and with billions of web pages to detect sections of matching text.

Researchers are encouraged to upload their work — including grant applications — not only to scan for plagiarism, but as a potential check for errors in citations.

“Don’t think of it as catching you in plagiarism,” Wessel said, urging users to think of it as a writing tool. “When writing a grant … it’s good practice when you submit,” he said. “Think about it if you’re a third author on a paper” being asked to sign off on the work.  “I’m on the paper … even though I didn’t write it,” he said. “You want to know it’s kosher.”

When a match is found, it doesn’t necessarily indicate plagiarism.

“You have to determine by reading it whether or not it is plagiarism or something to be concerned with,” he said.

Schmidt noted that the tool can be helpful for checking a bibliography to ensure the citations are correct, or can catch an author’s inadvertent failure to cite material that was referenced in the work.

Wessel added: “It’s a nice tool. In seconds it can analyze and it can actually finish your writing.

“Just remember, the publisher’s going to do it anyway.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow