How many ways can you say something without plagiarizing?

In a recent post by Derek Lowe on a Chinese journal’s finding that 31% of its submitted papers contained plagiarized material, an editor for a scientific journal noted in the comments that he randomly selected a Tetrahedron Letters paper from a developing country and Googled the first sentence. That sentence (“Multicomponent reactions (MCRs) are important for generating high levels of diversity…”) shows up in very similar form in three different papers, all from institutions in Iran and China. In two of the papers, the second sentence of the paper is exactly the same, all 22 words.

Also, compare the two first sentences, the first by Shaterian et al.[1] and the second by Adib et al.[2]  The highlighted words are the same.

Multi-component reactions (MCRs) are important for the achievement of high levels of brevity and diversity. They allow more than two simple and flexible building blocks to be combined in practical, time-saving one-pot operations, giving rise to complex structures by simultaneous formation of two or more bonds, according to the domino principle.”

Multicomponent reactions (MCRs) are important for generating high levels of diversity, as they allow more than two building blocks to be combined in practical, time-saving one-pot operations, giving rise to complex structures by simultaneous formation of two or more bonds.

While cutting and pasting other people’s introductory sentences is certainly embarrassing and almost certainly plagiarism, there is some difficulty in summarizing a set of facts in a different way each time. It certainly can be done — below are three different labs’ introductory sentences for chemistry towards the total synthesis of the azaspiracids, which are marine natural products. Again, the same words are highlighted in red.
Nicolaou et al.[3]: “The azaspiracids are a group of notorious marine neurotoxins whose accumulation in mussels causes serious human poisoning known as azaspiracid poisoning syndrome (AZP) upon their consumption.”
Geisler, Nguyen and Forsyth[4]: “The azaspiracids are remarkable natural products that combine a unique, complex structure with an acute and perhaps chronic human health hazard.”
Evans et al.[5]: “(-)-Azaspiracid-1 is a structurally complex marine neurotoxin that is implicated in seafood poisoning.”
You can see that Nicolaou, Forsyth and Evans all have specific ideas they’re trying to get across: what the compound is, where it comes from and what it does to people. But they’ve all managed to have relatively few words actually overlap.

Is this sort of cutting-and-pasting ‘real’ plagiarism? — it’s just the quotation of a particularly useful string of words, one might assert, not the stealing of ideas. I don’t think this is a very good way of thinking about things, but I can’t quite reason why. In addition, I doubt that any of the authors of the MCR papers were native speakers of English. Clearly, that plays some role in their choice to cut and paste; again, not an excuse, but another contributing factor. I’m trying to see if I can come up with extenuating circumstances, but I just can’t.

My adviser in graduate school held out “the same five words in a row” as a general rule of thumb for how to spot and/or avoid plagiarism — what about the same five ideas in a row? What do you think, reader? How do you avoid cutting and pasting? And what should we do (if we should) to stop this sort of thing? Do we need TurnYourJournalSubmissionIn.Com?

1. Shaterian, H.R.; Yarahmadi, H.; Ghashang, M. Arkivoc. 2007, 16, 298-313.
2. Adib, M.; Mahdavi, M.; Bagherzadeh, S.; Zhu, L.-G.; Rahimi-Nasrabadi, M. Tet. Lett. 2010, 51, 27-29.
3. Nicolaou, K.C.; Frederick, M.O.; Petrovic, G.; Cole, K.P.; Loizidou, E.Z. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2006, 45, 2609-2615.
4. Geisler, L.K.; Nguyen, S.; Forsyth, C.J. Org. Lett., 2004, 6, 4159-4162.
5. Evans, D.A.; Kvaerno, L.; Mulder, J.A.; Raymer, B.; Dunn, T.B.; Beauchemin, A.; Olhava, E.J.; Juli, M.; Kagechika, K. AngewChem. Int. Ed. 2007, 46, 4693-4697.


  1. As a chem student plagiarism is always on my mind when writing essays and the reasons for that are obvious, but I think that when it comes to journal submissions the rules should be slightly relaxed when applied to introductions and only introductions, by which I mean the first and maybe second paragraph. I’ve found in my small experience of journal reading so far that most introductions in papers of the same field tend to say exactly the same thing as each other which is to be expected due to the nature of the scientific process. How then could one make a plagiarism claim if the offending paper is merely repeating prior knowledge. Surely the only thing that could be plagiarised then is the hypothesis research and conclusion contained in the paper which would be inherently pointless as someone would call you out fairly quickly.

    tl;dr plagiarism should only apply to novel intellectual content not regurgitated base knowledge

  2. I think self-plagiarism is taken more seriously than it should be. How many 2nd editions of textbooks read exactly like the 1st edition? I don’t see the scientific community screaming plagiarism when this happens.

  3. Self-plagarism is not an issue in the sciences. Science is about concepts, not words, and having the same five words in a row is meaningless. The first paragraph of every single paper published in my grad said the same thing, whether or not is was an exact quote.

  4. Bunsen Honeydew says:

    I have to agree with this, up to a certain point. Word for word regurgitation is not acceptable but the azaspiracid papers are examples of how it should be done.

  5. I think a few words here and there that might be the same is something that is going to happen. Maybe the focus should be on the novelty of figures, graphics, schemes, tables, etc. If the topic of chemistry publications is at hand, that is what should be the most important thing, that the data is original and not plagiarized.

  6. I do not think that your samples of cutting and pasting other people’s sentences from a scientific paper was an example of plagiarism. This is not literature. Plagiarism would be if someone copies your data and presents as her or his, for instance.

    Cutting and pasting sentences often it has more to see with non-native authors trying to write correct English.

  7. I agree that self-plagiarism is one of the issues in the sciences. I find repugnant when I see the same author (or group of) publishing virtually the same paper in different places and then citing all the references when applying for funding.

    I find also repugnant a recent famous scientist who has just published a laymens’ book where he says virtually the same than has been known for about 20/30 years but present it as new… and journalists and many readers wondering because the new ideas are so exciting where many critics point out that there is nothing new… just more of the same.

    A recent case of massive plagiarism with withdrawn of works was reported next

  8. Casey commented, “Self-plagarism is not an issue in the sciences.”

    Um, some might debate that… like the authors who were forced to retract a paper due to self-plagarism. There may be an issue of redundancy, as well, depending on whose side you go with. Nonetheless, self-plagarism is a point of contention and debate.

    Regarding plagirism of others’ words in sciences, I can see both sides of that argument. Someone has already stated a central point in a clear or concise way-why not just use it? But if I’m the one who wrote it originally, I don’t particularly want others claiming my turn of phrase as their own. It’s something that many journals do look at during review. IMO, if there’s a case of blatant copy/paste of entire paragraphs from another author’s publication, it should not be grounds for outright rejection of the manuscript, but they should be asked to rewrite that portion. When it comes to self-plagarism, I have mixed feelings. Personally, I view it as a challenge of creativity to start from scratch, to say the same thing in a different way. Inevitably, I’m certain after reading/writing on the same subject multiple times, there are phrases or sentences that are repeated, even without copying another work word for word. I suppose I would classify plagarism as quoting entire blocks of text (e.g. paragraphs, multiple consecutive sentences) without attribution.

    As for textbook editions, that’s a completely invalid argument in this context, as new editions are intended to be updates on the material, not a new work unto itself, and it is done with implicit permission (and at behest of) the publisher.

  9. I don’t see why the simple strategy of quoting a statement – with adequate references, and if necessary quotation marks and/or indentation – shouldn’t be used in chemistry papers. This is normal practice in the humanities and social sciences. Plagiarism can then be easily avoided.

    If you turn out a well-crafted sentence or paragraph which ssummarises a compound or class of compounds, it may drive up your personal citation index, as an additional benefit.

  10. If you turn out a well-crafted sentence or paragraph which ssummarises a compound or class of compounds, it may drive up your personal citation index, as an additional benefit.

    This is precisely why the quoting approach creates a problem in sciences. People already complain about improper/unnecessary citations. This approach would really screw with metrics like h-index that are dependent on the number of times a paper is cited. Individuals and departments are starting to use such this number as a measure of productivity and the impact of an author’s work on the field. If you start balooning the numbers with quote citations, those metrics become useless.

  11. Sorry, but I’m a sceptic about productivity measures via citations. It is likely to lead to skewing of research from interesting to popular as often as not.

  12. There’s a name for it, Tom – Goodhart’s law – “as soon as something is measured, it changes”.

  13. Pingback: Did someone say that already? | There and (hopefully) back again

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