What would you do if, while reviewing papers written by scholars, you repeatedly found papers to contain around 30% of unattributed, copied work? How would you handle working with these scholars? How would you protect your institution/organization from being associated with such plagiarism? This is a similar situation that Sarah S., subcontractor for USAID, found herself in. Having worked extensively with researchers, particularly from developing countries, Sarah was put to the test to mitigate risks by educating scholars about plagiarism and ethical issues, and using iThenticate plagiarism detection software. Sarah spoke to me about her experiences in this exclusive interview.
April 2013 Interview
iThenticate: Hi Sarah. Thanks for joining us today. You recently participated in a survey about plagiarism and we are pleased to hear you explore some of your answers more in-depth. To start, can you describe your area of research?
Sarah: I am a subcontractor for USAID, focusing on comparative analysis of population, health and international development.
iThenticate: Do you feel that plagiarism in your field is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same?
Sarah: I was recently a university graduate instructor during the course of my PhD studies. So, partly speaking as a teacher and partly in doing capacity-building workshops with researchers from developing countries, I have noticed that it’s just so easy to copy and paste sentences and paragraphs from documents. I personally think it [plagiarism problem] has expanded over the years, whether deliberately or accidently. You take notes and then it starts to bleed into your own work.
iThenticate: Who do you think are committing these acts?
Sarah: Currently, I work with a lot of participants for whom English isn’t their first language (ESL), many of whom were trained in their country of origin. Some scholars are surprised to learn that it is not considered ok to copy a sentence or multiple sentences from someone else’s work without putting quotation marks around it. I know them to be ethical people, but they are surprised that even a few copied sentences in a literature review is not acceptable to us or to most journals. Also, I think lack of confidence in English contributes to the problem. I encourage people to use strategies such as summarizing several articles at once to get away from the temptation to plagiarize. It’s more interesting for the reader anyway if the authors can characterize the literature rather than narrate each study ever done.
iThenticate: Right, that is interesting, especially if they are older and more experienced. These are people from other countries, you said?
Sarah: Yes, I should say that I think it’s a problem in the U.S. and Europe and everywhere, but I happen to work with scholars from developing countries. We didn’t think that would be the point where we would we’re screening their papers through iThenticate and we’d get things back with 30% duplicate or copied content. It’s really surprising.
iThenticate: So then what is the process? Do you go back and tell them to revise the paper and explain it to them so they have a chance to correct it?
Sarah: Yes, we always do. We send it right back and sometimes people complain and they say, “Well we were hoping for some substantive comments.” We just tell them straightforward, we’re not going to take your paper to the next level unless it’s something original. Because it’s a risk for us. We publish things on our website with USAID logos and it would be really serious if somebody copied 30% of their paper. It would look bad and potentially be a risk to the institution. Also, I always inform them that a large number of journals now screen for plagiarism. I tell them that a journal will reject you outright if they see this. We are screening as a kind of professional service to authors who might want to take their research to the next level.
iThenticate: What is the largest contributing factor in cases of plagiarism?
Sarah: I think there’s a tendency to take shortcuts. I went through a lot of college instruction about how important it is to be ethical in your writing. I think in this day and age there’s so much pressure to just get out journal articles that people get sloppy.
iThenticate: What do you think are the main factors attributing to the pressure to publish?
Sarah: I think more and more in research institutes and universities there’s so much pressure now. The university used to fund your research. Now, it’s all external grants, like NIH, which are becoming increasingly scarce. It’s still important to get work published in order to get job promotions, even in the private sector. I think there is just a lot of pressure to get things out the door.
iThenticate: Right. Everyone’s trying to secure those diminished grant funds. What would be the most effective deterrents of plagiarism?
Sarah: [Screening grants and publications before they are considered for money or publishing.] I think ideally, you wouldn’t do it anyway, but if you know that there’s going to be a screen on your work—I mean it definitely for us—once we tell people we’re going to screen your work, it really did cut down a lot on the duplicate content that we saw.
iThenticate: How often and for what reason do you use iThenticate?
Sarah: For screening papers from our workshops, and I probably have screened 35. When it changes from a poorly written phrase to really eloquent English, you can spend so much time Googling every sentence…it’s just not worth it. Having iThenticate really cuts down on staff time and gives us the peace of mind to read and edit the paper without constantly worrying whether it’s original material or not.