Managing plagiarism: an approach to dialog between authors and editors

Once a text editor or similar language consultant has detected a block of badly managed citing, some confusing cut-paste writing or a case of clear plagiarism, a decision must come on how to handle the manuscript and what to say to the author. What factors affect how the text is revised and by whom? What are a language support professional’s options?

Textual factors that can affect dialog about revision are the extension of the material copied and what genre or section of an article is involved, how clear the writing is, and how much background information is already explicit in the author’s manuscript so that a language expert can work with it. Personal and contextual factors that intervene include the relative status and experience of the language editor and the author, the status of the corresponding author within the team of authors, whether communication is face-to-face or not and whose native language is being used to discuss the issues. The time frame—including the phase of the publication process when plagiarism is detected—is obviously relevant.

These large issues will be tackled by building on other titles in the MET Workshop series, mainly Righting Citing (which deals with identifying citing problems and taking the first steps to resolving them textually). For some of the principles underlying author dialog, we’ll also make reference to Nondirective Listening (which deals with assuring accurate understanding to provide a basis for any actions taken). In the discussion of rewriting and paraphrasing, reference will also be made to the workshop on theme–rheme analysis: Practical tools for improving text flow: focus on information ordering.

Developers: Mary Ellen Kerans,
Iain Patten,

Facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans

Purpose: To clarify the role of editors and language support providers in dealing with the issue of plagiarism detected before publication. To propose a theoretical and practical framework for handling texts with plagiarism, talking to authors, and paving the way to solutions.

Description: This workshop will briefly review the social context in which professional academic plagiarism has become an important international issue. We will look at how language professionals can respond positively and efficiently in typical scenarios, outlining approaches to talking to authors about how to edit or rewrite their texts. We will discuss situations where translators and language editors who are unaware of conventions in different fields might be the ones who are committing plagiarism. When and how a language editor working for a journal can broach the subject of article rejection (or rescinding acceptance) will also be touched on.

Structure: Brief tasks for discussion will be interwoven into the presentation of concepts. Participants who do the pre-workshop reading, available through the links below, will be in an excellent position to join in.

Who should attend? Author’s or publisher’s editors, translators, specialist writing instructors or anyone involved in helping prepare texts for publication, especially for the peer-reviewed journals. The issues are also relevant to those who provide content for websites and other written media.

Outcome skills: Participants should become more aware of their roles in negotiating the final forms of texts. They will have a theoretical and practical framework to guide the efficient handling of plagiarism and the discussion of issues and solutions with decision-makers, especially authors.

Participants will be more aware of the place of effective citation in scholarly writing. They will be more sensitive to citation problems in the texts they work with and will have practiced a range of ways to deal with citing problems in texts.

Pre-meeting information:
‘Righting citing’

Participants are urged to attend the Righting Citing workshop before this one. If that’s not possible, please at least look at its description and consider the issues raised in the pre-meeting information provided there.

What do we know about how big the plagiarism problem is?

Miguel Roig answered this question for us in his plenary address at METM06 in Barcelona. He’s allowed us to post an abridged version of his presentation slides. Shortly after METM06, a related article by Dr. Roig ('On the causes of academic dishonesty') appeared in The Write Stuff, the magazine of the European Medical Writers Association. (Posted here with the author’s permission.)

What do journal editors around the world think and do about plagiarism?

To find answers to that question, visit the website of the World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) and type ‘plagiarism’ into the search box. In January 2007, 22 items were retrieved from the lightly edited collection of listserve discussions among editors from all over the world.

Following are some excerpts from the thread 'How to Handle Plagiarism Without Destroying the Author' of February 2005. That thread started with a case in which plagiarism was detected after an article had been published:

  • ‘....The investigation disclosed that our author had inserted language from the earlier paper and used the structure of several of its paragraphs. He and his supervisor apologized formally to the authors of the earlier paper, who accepted the apology. The dean of the medical school formally disciplined our author. All parties felt that the act of plagiarism had been the result of inexperience and bad judgment rather than dishonesty....’ – Hal Sox and Cindy Mulrow, editors, Annals of Internal Medicine
  • ‘First let me applaud you for pursuing this to the level of reporting the episode to a medical school dean, and their having a formal investigation. That is an unusual level of thoroughness and due process, and one which I would like to see emulated more often.
    ‘WAME policy suggests that responses to scientific misconduct be titrated to ‘fit the crime’. In this case, there has been a formal apology and formal discipline, and all feel that this was more of a mistake than a deliberate transgression....’ – Michael Callaham, editor, Annals of Emergency Medicine; WAME president in 2007
  • ‘...for authors who are not native speakers of English, defining plagiarism can be extremely difficult. Sentences may be plagiarized not for their contents but for their syntax. Because appropriation of proper syntax cannot be considered plagiarism, the author can honestly feel that he/she didn't do anything wrong at all....’ – Roberto Refinetti, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Circadian Rhythms.

About the facilitator: Mary Ellen Kerans, a biomedical translator and author’s editor, received her MA in TESOL from Teachers College, Columbia University and her background includes specific-purposes English and writing instruction as well as educational materials writing. She is presently the MET Council Chair.