Avoiding innocent plagiarism—the plagiarism of innocència
by authors and their language consultants

METM 06, Barcelona
27-28 October 2006

Mary Ellen Kerans
Saturday 28, 10:20-11:20, Room 3

Compilation of parts of research papers by cut-paste borrowing of complex noun phrases, clauses, sentences and even pairs of sentences is a writing strategy used by many researchers whose native language is not English. In doing so, are such authors displaying good language learning behavior (by acquiring language in “chunks” rather than as individual words) or are they plagiarists? Their belief seems to be that originality in science lies in producing new data sets, not new word combinations, and that copying phrases and sentences—provided references are given—is not only permissible when discussing another’s work or widely known concepts but may even be proper and fitting. Furthermore, the scientists’ belief seems to be supported by the bits of choppy prose we sometimes see in journals and by the use of familiar phrasing without quotation marks. The impression is that journal editors and readers are indeed tolerant of cut-paste writing.

To counterbalance this impression, this presentation will give an overview of recent statements on the subject of plagiarism and writing made spontaneously by journal editors on the email listserve of the World Association of Science Editors ( and will describe cases in which editors have reacted very negatively to cut-paste writing. Finally, ways language consultants—whether author’s editors or translators—might sometimes unwittingly contribute to this practice will be discussed, along with strategies for avoiding it, correcting its effects, and explaining the problem to authors.

The words innocent and innocència in the title of this talk are meant to suggest that while many of these authors are innocent of charges of cheeky plagiarism, their practice arises from simplistic notions of how new and old information fit together in academic communication.

Mary Ellen Kerans has taught English for specific purposes in the health sciences and is now a mainly a freelance translator, author’s editor and oral communications coach in Barcelona, Spain.