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The Challenge of Repeating Methods While Avoiding Plagiarism

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on May 25, 2013 6:32:00 AM

zhejiang university logoFor researchers, the methods section of a paper presents a unique set of challenges when trying to be original.

The reason is that, even when doing original research, authors will inevitably find themselves repeating steps that they or others have taken before. Whether they are using an established technique to study something new or simply replicating an earlier study, it can be frustrating to try and find new ways to accurately describe something already covered countless times before.

This has caused many authors, especially when they are repeating methods they’ve used before, to simply copy and paste their description and, often times, it’s without attribution to the original source.

Editors, however, have generally found this behavior to be unacceptable. Though a recent survey conducted by Yue-hong Helen Zhang and Xiao-yan Jia found that 20% of journal editors in the biosciences took no issue with up to 40% of duplicated content in the methods section, most editors took a much harder line on the issue.

So how do researchers handle the problem of duplicative methodologies? Another recent survey, this one conducted by Xiaoyan Jia, Xufei Tan and Yuehong Zhang for the journal Scientometrics, asked 178 researchers, mostly veteran researchers with more than 20 published papers, to look at their last three papers and described how they approached the issue.

According to their responses, they used a variety of methods to handle the problem, including using different approaches in the same paper.

The most common solution was to simply rewrite the potentially duplicative content in their own (new) words (294 cases out of 829). However, some reuse was still far more common, totaling 535 cases. Of those cases, researchers were much more likely to reuse their own words than someone else’s and were also much more likely to attribute the content than not, whether it was verbatim or with rewording.

Still, 93 of the cases involved reusing previous content without attribution and 25 of those involved repeating methods, either verbatim or with rewording, from others without attribution.

Two other potential solutions were also explored, one involved reusing no content at all and simply providing a citation to the original methods. This was employed by the surveyed authors 115 times but, according to an analysis of major journals performed by the surveyors, it was rarely employed by journals.

The reason is likely because simply providing a citation leaves the methods section extremely thin and can leave out key details needed for understanding the research, making them only available in other papers.

Another solution was to include the duplicative methods as an attachment to the paper. This helped both ensure proper citation and clarity while keeping the necessary information with the work. However, this method was even less used with only one surveyed journal, Science, making widespread use of it.

The end result of this is that, while it’s clear editors are not tolerant of unattributed duplicative text in the methods section of a paper, there’s no clear way for researchers to address this problem.

For paper authors, the best advice likely comes from an editorial and case study written for the journal Biomedicine & Biotechnology by Yue-hong Helen Zhang, Xiao-yan Jia, Han-feng Lin and Xu-fei Tan. They proposed authors should always cite previous methods being used and, when descriptions of methods are used verbatim, to indicate as such through the use of quote marks or blockquotes as appropriate.

Though the approach might seem inefficient, especially when dealing with standard practices that should be widely-understood, it is always better to provide too much citation your work than to provide too little.

See list of editor papers focused on scholarly publishing & academic ethics on the Journal of ZheJiang University website. Editors of the Zhejiang University-SCIENCE (A/B/C) are users of CrossCheck powered by iThenticate.