The Most Common and Serious Types of Research Plagiarism

iThenticate LogoWhen it comes to plagiarism in academic or scholarly work, it’s easy to think of plagiarism as being primarily a student problem.

However, plagiarism remains a problem long after many scientists, doctors and researchers graduate and those problems seem to be increasing. For example, a recent study in medical research found that retractions are up 10 fold in the past 20 years and that over a quarter of that growth has been due to plagiarism and duplication issues.

While it’s easy to think that researchers actively in the field should know better, it’s become obvious that many do not and the routine nature with which papers are retracted due to plagiarism is, at times, breathtaking.

To help understand the issue of plagiarism in research, iThenticate, a company that is owned by iParadigms, which also owns Turnitin, recently surveyed some 334 research scientists from 50 countries. iThenticate presented the scientists with 10 different types of plagiarism and asked them to rank the plagiarism based upon how common they were and how serious they were.

(Disclosure: I am a paid consultant for iThenticate and also helped on this project.)

The results of the study are now published in an interactive graphic and are also available in a PDF.

The findings of the survey were interesting and shine a light on the challenges researchers, publishers and others in the research field are facing when it comes to plagiarism while, at the same time, raising some great questions about how to reduce the amount of plagiarism that is encountered.

The Basics of the Study

The study first laid out ten different types of plagiarism, duplication and authorship issues. It then provided a brief definition of each one. Those types included:

  • Secondary Source: When a researcher uses a secondary source but only cites primary sources.
  • Invalid Source: Citing incorrect or nonexistent sources.
  • Duplication: When a researcher uses work from their own previous studies without attribution.
  • Paraphrasing: Rewriting another person’s words but making it appear that the idea or even the research was original
  • Repetitive Research: Taking data or text from a similar study without attribution.
  • Replication: Submitting a single paper to multiple publications hoping to get it published more than once.
  • Misleading Attribution: Providing inaccurate or insufficient author information on a paper.
  • Unethical Collaboration: Working together with other researchers in an unethical way.
  • Verbatim: The copying and pasting of words without attribution.
  • Complete: Submitting another researcher’s paper as your own in whole.

From there, the respondents were asked to give each type of plagiarism a score on a scale of 1-10 for how common it is and to do the same for how serious it is.

The results were interesting. The most serious type of plagiarism, Complete, was also viewed as the least common. Though it scored an 8.8 on seriousness, it was only a 2.3 on commonness. Meanwhile, the most common type of plagiarism, Paraphrasing, was still though to be at least somewhat serious. It was a a 7.5 on commonness and a 7.6 on seriousness, putting it as the seventh-most serious type.

All in all though, no type of plagiarism or duplication was treated as not being serious. Even the least-serious type, Secondary Source, still scored a 6.4, and as mentioned above, Complete plagiarism was an 8.9, creating a narrow band between 6.4-8.9 that all types fell between.

The band on commonness was much wider, ranging from 2.3 for complete to 7.5 for paraphrasing, indicating that, while there wasn’t a great deal of separation in the seriousness in the types of plagiarism, there was a large amount of separation in terms of how common the types are.

Still, no type of plagiarism scored higher than a 7.5 in commonness, indicating that, while some types were fairly common in the eyes of researchers, the overall view was that plagiarism is something that’s both serious but not extremely common.

Whether this is an accurate representation of what is taking place or simply researchers being unaware of how common plagiarism and duplications issues are is unclear. But with half the types of plagiarism scoring 5.9 or higher on commonness, it’s clear that at least certain types of plagiarism are still on the radar of researchers.

What This Tells Me

The first thing that stood out at me was how seriously researchers took all types of plagiarism. A similar study performed by iThenticate’s sister company Turnitin found that, in the education sector, instructors treated different types of plagiarism with widely different levels of severity. Ranging from .5 to 9.5 and all but two were under a 4.5.

Considering researchers put none of the types under 6.0, it’s a tremendous difference in attitudes about the severity of plagiarism. However, researchers were also less likely to believe that a type of plagiarism was common. The teachers rated several types as being at or above 8.9 where none of the researchers rated any as being above 7.5

Since the two types of studies used different names and types of plagiarism, largely due to the different environments and audiences, there’s no good way to compare specific types of plagiarism to each other. However, the overall statistics still paint a very interesting image.

And that image is one that most people would expect. Researchers feel that plagiarism and unethical duplication in their field is more serious than teachers do but also see it as less common. One would expect plagiarism to be more common and less serious with students who are still learning how to do good resesarch than you would with those who have jobs in the field.

Still, there does seem to be a strong disconnect between what researchers are saying and what their editors are saying. There, one out of three say that they encounter plagiarism regularly and over 95 percent saying the encounter it at least “occasionally”.

So, while researchers recognize how serious plagiarism is and recognize it as being somewhat common, there’s a chance they are underestimating, at least some, just how commonplace it is.

Bottom Line

All in all, the study is interesting and you should check out the full results. However, it doesn’t really harbor any great surprises either. The fact researchers consider plagiarism to be more serious and less common than educational instructors is to be expected.

The most important thing to come from the survey, however, might be the taxonomy around research plagiarism. By providing terms and definitions (not to mention a scale of severity) it becomes much easier to talk about plagiarism in research, something that’s been difficult to date.

So, my hope is that this survey will not only spark a good discussion about plagiarism in research, but make that discussion easier. That would matter far more than any of the statistics and information contained within its results.

(Disclosure: I am a paid consultant for iThenticate and also helped on this project.)