Plagiarism is listed among the three deadly sins in research, along with fabrication and falsification, in almost all international literature on research integrity. The moral status of plagiarism is not, however, on par with the two other cardinal sins. The dominant view is that plagiarism does not corrupt the content of science, only the distribution of credit in it, whereas fabrication and falsification do both.

Plagiarism, in other words, is not harming science in its endless search for truth, while fabrication and falsification do. For instance, Bouter et al. worked towards quantifying the effect of plagiarism on truth (relatively small) and trust (bigger).

Plagiarism is intricately tied into cultural positions on ownership of ideas and of text. Ownership of ideas and text are not the same, nor are conceptualizations of ownership of both. Most of the discourse on plagiarism is western centric and refers heavily to individualistic norms for originality. Practically, many of the guidelines and codes-of-conduct available refer to both ideas and text. In practice, however, enforcement is often centralized on text, for practical purposes.

Ownership and Language

Pennycook, for instance, shows that our culturally, and temporally divergent ideas about ownership shift how we think about plagiarism (and how we act accordingly). As a result, the way professionals and students think about plagiarism and originality cannot be separated from the teaching or research system they are embedded in. The research and teaching culture performed through infrastructures co-determine what counts as cheating, fraud, or decent academic behavior, see Ashworth et al.

On top of this, plagiarism is intertwined with language. Many researchers publish in languages different from their own (English in the case of most scientific and scholarly work). This creates practical problems because, however good researchers get at English, they never become native speakers, forever limiting their ability to express themselves in myriad ways. Originality on the level of sentences becomes harder with every paper a researcher publishes who is not so proficient at English. Currie has studied a case of plagiarism in detail, in which this and a number of other issues feature prominently. The choice to reuse sentences used before, motivated by various reasons, does not restrict itself to the writing of others, but may mean that researchers re-use descriptions they have used before. This practice has been named self-plagiarism, which features increasingly prominently in research integrity discussion. 


Strictly speaking, self-plagiarism is an oxymoron, for it would imply stealing from oneself. It is also not labelled as misconduct by the Office of Research Integrity [read more] and regularly referred to as text recycling or duplication. Horbach and Halffman have, as a pilot study, scanned nearly a thousand publications of prominent Dutch researchers in a variety of disciplines and learned that the practice is rather common, but also very unevenly distributed among those disciplines. While estimates of the incidence of self-plagiarism vary, Horbach and Halffman, through a conservative methodology, diagnose 6%. 

Deviating from plagiarism proper, self-plagiarism’s moral status is unclear. While many find the practice unacceptable, others argue that it is unavoidable or does not exist. Horbach and Halffman cite Callahan as taking a position in favor of self-plagiarism, as helping and assisting the development and maturation of ideas through multiple written iterations. Even if, in a legal sense, self-plagiarism is problematic, copyright infringement is less so. The re-use of text touches upon both.

Understanding practices

As a consequence, when it comes to plagiarism – the international rules are often expected to provide clarity, yet usually require deliberation and negotiation. That does not mean that plagiarism is to be excused or approved. It just means that if you want to have a decent conversation about plagiarism – or work towards minimizing it – you need to take local research infrastructures and local research cultures into account. Avoiding plagiarism is not as simple as it may seem, as Fisher and Patin demonstrate in their study. They join the chorus in research integrity discourse, calling for additional education on proper conduct – an important way to socialize new researchers into complex social and political practices. However, additional teaching or telling people how to behave is not effective if that particular behavior is either not perceived as deviant or wrong, or if no stimulus exists to change it.

Further Reading

Avoiding Plagiarism, Self-plagiarism, and Other Questionable Writing Practices: A Guide to Ethical Writing

Ashworth, P., Bannister, P., Thorne, P. & Unit, S. O. T. Q. R. M. C. 1997. Guilty in whose eyes? University students' perceptions of cheating and plagiarism in academic work and assessment. Studies in Higher Education, 22, 187-203.

Bouter, L. M., Tijdink, J., Axelsen, N., Martinson, B. C. & Ter Riet, G. 2016. Ranking major and minor research misbehaviors: results from a survey among participants of four World Conferences on Research Integrity. Research Integrity and Peer Review, 1, 17.

Bretag, T., & Carapiet, S. (2007). A preliminary study to identify the extent of self-plagiarism in Australian academic research (Vol. 2, No. 5, pp. 1-12). Plagiary.

Callahan, J. L. 2014. Creation of a Moral Panic? Self-Plagiarism in the Academy. Human Resource Development Review, 13, 3-10.

Currie, P. 1998. Staying out of trouble: Apparent plagiarism and academic survival. Journal of second language writing, 7, 1-18.

Dellavalle, R. P., Banks, M. A., & Ellis, J. I. (2007). Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Self-Plagiarism: How to Avoid Recycling Fraud. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 57(3), 527.

Fisher, E. & Partin, K. 2014. The challenges for scientists in avoiding plagiarism. Accountability in research, 21, 353-365.

Horbach, S. P. J. M. & Halffman, W. 2017. The extent and causes of academic text recycling or ‘self-plagiarism’. Research Policy.

Penders, B. 2017. Beyond Trust: Plagiarism and Truth. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, 1-4.

Pennycook, A. 1996. Borrowing Others' Words: Text, Ownership, Memory, and Plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly, 30, 201-230.

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The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) offers, as a strategy to avoid plagiarism, to diligently include sources and ask for permission when including larger amounts of someone else’s work. In contrast, the Office of Research Integrity offers a more complex list of 28 guidelines to avoid plagiarism. However, despite the explicit inclusion of intellectual property – or ideas – in the definitions of plagiarism, operationalizations strikingly target text. For instance, in the 2011 COPE discussion paper, plagiarism is operationalized as a problem of ‘text similarity’ (p.8), explicitly discussed in the context of the tools available to detect such similarities (ranging from old-fashion peer reading, to complex algorithms). It makes similarities concrete by suggesting that duplications of >100 words are to be labelled at ‘major plagiarism’, while duplications <100 words are only ‘minor’, with different sanctions attached. To be fair, unauthorized attribution of hypotheses, data, finding and arguments are mentioned too. 

Quite a few open norms exist in the various guidelines available, for instance excusing the verbatim inclusion of descriptions of common, or standard techniques. Which techniques are considered standard or common by whom, is still up for debate. Similarly, authors may disagree whether a description is similar, or not, knowledge is common, or not, and whether ideas are original, or not – all, of course, on a gradient ranging from very to slightly. 

Avoiding Plagiarism, Self-plagiarism, and Other Questionable Writing Practices: A Guide to Ethical Writing

The list of 28 guidelines by Office of Research Integrity

A variety of definitions for plagiarism circulate. We will not reproduce all of them. However, to understand conceptualizations and existing suggestions, codes and guidelines to prevent and deal with plagiarism, a few help to sketch the landscape. For instance, the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) defines plagiarism as: [T]he use of others’ published and unpublished ideas or words (or other intellectual property) without attribution or permission, and presenting them as new and original rather than derived from an existing source. [WAME Website] 

Learning objectives

  • Knowing definitions of plagiarism in relevant codes of conduct and understanding plagiarism as a phenomenon that can take multiple forms
  • Being familiar with intellectual property rights
  • Developing an understanding of how various outlets (e.g. publishers, institutions) remediate plagiarism
  • Understand the importance of institutional/local practices in establishing and maintaining integrity-supporting practices in research


Plagiarism involves unauthorized use of another’s work, in which a text, graph, program code, image, or other work is presented as one’s own. Self-plagiarism, that is presenting one’s own prior work as new without indicating where it has been published before, is also a form of plagiarism. Plagiarism can take many forms, including using text/image/etc. produced by someone else as one’s own by failing to credit the original author; using text/image/etc. produced by someone else by slightly changing the original (e.g. altering words); and failure to indicate direct quotations (Walker, 2010). The strategies that novice writers use often resemble plagiarism without necessarily having the intention involved in deliberate plagiarism (Hyytinen et al., 2017). However, cases that occupy the work of research integrity board members and officers generally do not involve the work of novice writers but rather allegations of theft of research plans, manuscripts (or parts of them), images and even results in which the origins of these are disputed among more experienced academics.


Hyytinen, H., Löfström, E., & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (2017). Challenges in Argumentation and Paraphrasing Among Beginning Students in Educational Sciences. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 61(4), 411-429.  

Walker, J. (2010) Measuring plagiarism: researching what students do, not what they say they do, Studies in Higher Education, 35:1, 41-59. 

Cases and Questions - Plagiarism

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Case Plagiarism

Dr. Zang is professor of psychology at a European university. She supervises several domestic and international doctoral students. One of the students spends most of the time in her home country in another part of the World. This means that the professor does not have that frequent contact with the student, but when they meet at conferences, they always have a work session. The student appears to progress.

There is, however, one aspect that has bothered Dr. Zang lately. The e-mails from the doctoral student, Ms. Lee, where in the beginning well written, and grammatically correct, but lately, the quality of expression has clearly deteriorated. Zang suspects that Lee has had someone to help her with writing. It seems obvious that Lee’s English language skills are not at a level where she could independently produce text. Zang, nevertheless, continues to work on an article draft of a study, which she designed together with Lee at one international conference a year and a half ago. Lee has conducted the study according to the plan in her home country.

The writing process, however, is slow and Lee seems unwilling to put in further effort to work with the text, but would like to submit the paper. Because of the writing process, Dr. Zang and Ms. Lee now have more frequent e-mail contact. In her e-mails, Dr. Zang has had to maintain several times her standpoint to Lee that the paper is not ready for submission yet, but needs substantial work before submission. Time passes and thigs do not seem to progress.

Then, Zang receives a request to review a manuscript submitted for publication in an international scientific journal in her field. Based on the manuscript she recognizes this to be the text she and Lee has been working on. She asks Lee why she has submitted it despite professor Zang’s advice not to do so before the text is ready. Lee answers that she has not submitted the manuscript. Zang recalls her earlier suspicions that someone is helping Lee with the language. Could this person have submitted the paper? Or is Lee simply lying about not having submitted the paper?

- What should Dr. Zang do next?