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Case study: ‘accidental’ plagiarism

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

Sakura is coming to the end of her postgraduate studies. Her research has gone reasonably well, and she should have enough material to write up her PhD thesis.

Her supervisor, Professor Norris, suggests they write up one part of her work as a paper for submission to a journal. He feels it will stand a good chance of being accepted.

Having a publication to her name when she submits her thesis will reflect well on her research and boost her confidence. He says it will be good experience for her to draft the paper and be responsible for submitting the final version to the journal as writing manuscripts and dealing with the publication process are important aspects of research projects.

Sakura is very happy to hear that Professor Norris thinks some of her work is ready for publication, and she is keen to take on the roles he’s suggested. She’s heard some of the other graduate students complaining that their supervisors always insist on doing all the writing and manuscript submission themselves so that their papers stand the best chance of being accepted. This means the students don’t get any experience in these areas. Sakura is grateful her supervisor is giving her the opportunity to develop her skills in these tasks.

After discussing with her supervisor what will go into the paper and how it will be presented, Sakura starts to create the first draft. As she sets about this, she starts to wish she’d kept better notes on her background reading and information gathering. There are quite a number of places where she’s not sure which are her own thoughts and ideas, and which are those of others. She does her best to sort things out, finishes the draft and passes it to Professor Norris for feedback. He makes some suggestions for revisions and says that when she’s incorporated those she should submit the paper to the journal they’ve discussed.

Sakura submits the manuscript. It gets through peer review and is accepted after some minor revision. Sakura and her supervisor are thrilled!

Sakura’s elation doesn’t, however, last long. When the paper is published online she quickly realises that a small number of what she thought were her own words (about 50) actually come from a review article that was published about 20 years ago. She has cited this review in her paper, but not in the specific place she’s spotted the duplicated text. She wonders if this will be enough for adequate attribution, but has no experience in this area and isn’t sure what to do.

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you think the accidental inclusion of this small amount of text – 50 words – from someone else’s article without direct attribution is acceptable? Do you think the journal Editor will find it acceptable?
  2. What should Sakura do?
  3. What are the possible ways of resolving this case?
  4. How might Sakura guard against this sort of situation arising again?
  5. Do you think it’s a good idea for graduate students to take an active part in drafting and submitting manuscripts for publication? What would be the optimal arrangement?

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