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Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Sat, 23-Sep-2006
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Plagiarism. Article by William Megill

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." You heard that once as a kid, so you thought you'd try it, then got teased for being a copycat. Childhood is rough. I'm tempted to mix in another metaphor and suggest that the only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys. By that I mean that where you got teased as a kid, you can now get yourself thrown out of university, or later in life, you might find your career destroyed, or even being sued for copyright infringement. The confusion is the same though as when we were kids - we are told to refer to previous work, to report other people's findings and describe their relevance to the work we are proposing or have done; yet at the same time we are told that we may not use their words. Who are we to suppose that we can tell the story better than the person who did the work in the first place?

The trick is to make sure in our texts that we are citing people properly. In literature, the actual words used by the original author are the important bit, so people tend to quote passages verbatim.

"They do so like this. A block of quoted text is set aside, usually quotated, and often in another font, or differently formatted on the page, always with a reference to who wrote the original words."
-- William Megill, University of Bath website, 2003.

Generally speaking in science and engineering, where the concept is what matters, rather than the exact words, we tend to paraphrase, to say the same thing in another way. This does not mean that we do not still have to reference the original author's words. Look at the following example:

While researching a paper on the mechanics of fibre-reinforced jellyfish mesoglea, I came across a paper entitled, "The fibrous system in the extracellular matrix of hydromedusae," by Christian Weber and Volker Schmid. There is a segment of their paper which is particularly relevant to what I am writing about. It reads:

"The thick fibres vary in diameter (up to 1.8μm). They are composed of many subunits with diameters up to 150A (Fig.13). These subunits closely resemble the fibrils arranged in the three-dimensional network. High magnification micrographs of longitudinal sections reveal the vertical fibres to be woven together by many striated fibrils, which in return seem to be a product of assembly of the subunits (Fig.14)."
Weber C, Schmid V (1985) The fibrous system in the extracellular matrix of hydromedusae. Tissue & Cell 17: 811-822.

When I rewrote this to include it in my paper, what I wrote was:

"Thick fibres (1.8μm dia.) are bundles of <15nm fibrils. They are woven from many fibrils, like a rope (Weber & Schmid 1985)."

I didn't need all of the detail that Weber & Schmid needed in their original paper, all I wanted to do was describe the geometry of the fibres so that I could talk about them further in my own paper. If the reader wants the detail, they are refered to Weber & Schmid's original paper, and given enough information to be able to find it readily.

When describing observations, it is often difficult to do better than the original author. For example, if I had wanted to describe only the diameter of the fibres, then I would have been hard-pressed to do anything other than to say, exactly as Weber & Schmid did, "The thick fibres vary in diameter, up to 1.8μm (Weber & Schmid 1985)." For short passages which are simply statements of fact, this is ok. However, for longer passages, if you really can't paraphrase (not going to happen very often), then make sure to enclose the passage in quotes. If it's really long, then set it aside, as I've done above.

The exercise is not always easy, particularly when you start trying to pull a literature review together out of a dozen papers. There are a number of useful tricks to get around the problem. Here's how I do things - don't feel you must do things this way, but if the technique helps, then help yourself.

I start by reading with a highlighter pen. Usually I will read through the paper once (usually in the order abstract-introduction-discussion-results-methods) to get a feel for what the authors have done. On a second read, I highlight the bits of the text that I feel are important and relevant for the review I'm trying to write. Next I compile my highlighted sentences into a summary paragraph, paraphrasing as much as possible to get down to the details alone. Then I put the paper away, and repeat the process with the rest of my collection of papers. I end up with an annotated bibiliography. It is this final document that I rely on as I write the review. Only once I've written a complete rough draft do I come back to the original papers to confirm and extract further details.

Here's that paragraph again, this time as a flowchart:

1. Read through the paper once
2. Read it again, this time with a highlighter
3. Paraphrase highlighted sentences into a summary paragraph for the paper
4. Repeat the process for each paper
5. Compile an annotated bibliography
6. Write the review, refering to the material in the original papers.

There are obviously many other ways to do the same thing. One other method that I have used successfully in the past uses index cards and a big table. Start as before by reading the paper and highlighting important/relevant passages. Then summarise (don't copy word for word) those passages onto index cards, one idea per card. Include the citation on the back of the card. Lay the cards out on a big table, and organise them by topic, relevance, etc. The piles of cards you end up with are the sections of your review - write up paragraphs, one idea per paragraph, put 'em together, and voilą you've got a rough draft of your review.

I need to make one additional comment about working in a second language. It is difficult to paraphrase in somebody else's language. (Believe me, I know the feeling: I teach in three languages.) The temptation is therefore that much stronger just to copy what somebody else has written. To do this without citing the source is just as unacceptable for allophones (non-native speakers) as it is for anglophones (native English speakers). Don't do it.

My suggestion is this: Try turning the situation around. Use your non-English language skills to your advantage. Instead of copying the English sentences verbatim, try paraphrasing the meaning into your own language. When you translate again later, after you've assembled the structure of the document in your own language, it will nearly be impossible for you to reproduce the exact set of words used by the original authors. Don't forget however to cite them as the source of the concepts. Don't worry too much about your English for the first draft. You can fix that up later as you proofread the document.

© Copyright for this article belongs to William Megill

This document was re-printed with the kind permission of William Megill . Original Source of the article is located here: http://www.bath.ac.uk/mech-eng/units/me50173/plagiarism.dwt

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