Ask Retraction Watch: Is this plagiarism?

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

With this post, we’re going to try a new feature: Ask Retraction Watch. What we really mean by that is ask Retraction Watch’s readers, who time and time again have shared their expertise and made us smarter. So if you have questions you’d like posed in this space, find our contact info here.

Here goes. A reader asks:

I’m on a committee that has decided to use a non-copyrighted text created by another group to create our own text on the same subject. Ours will be published; the original was not. The pre-existing text was imported into Word and we were told to use it as our “first draft.” My opinion has been that to do this, you have to have the permission of the original authors; you can’t just add an acknowledgment that you’ve used their work as the basis for yours (although you should add an acknowledgment after you’ve secured the original authors’ permission). In other words, someone can’t take something of my work, import it into Word, do some editing, and publish it under their name with a small acknowledgment of my previous work without my explicit permission.

I wonder if you would consider asking the readers of Retraction Watch for their opinion on this kind of situation, because several folks on the committee with me seem to think this is acceptable academic practice, and I have been disagreeing.

The comment thread is open (as is this poll).

[polldaddy poll=7337332]

32 thoughts on “Ask Retraction Watch: Is this plagiarism?”

  1. What do you mean by “non-copyrighted text”? In the U.S., most pieces of written text produced after 1978 will be under copyright protection unless they are U.S. government works. It does not matter if the work does not have a copyright notice or if it was not published. It is still under copyright protection.

  2. Here in Canada, as soon as you have made your creative work it is copyrighted and you need the author’s permission to change it. There is a formal mechanism to register that copyright to prove it was yours.

  3. As Michael Hoffman wrote, the original text is only non-copyright if it explicitly states that it is non-copyright (i.e., in the public domain), or in certain other special situations. If that’s the case, there is no ethical problem with using the material as a starting point, as long as you explicitly and clearly acknowledge where you got it from. However I myself would never do this without permission from the original authors.

  4. I voted ‘no’, but it is not clear from the question what is the nature of the document. Is it a manuscript intended for peer-review publication? It doesn’t sound like it.

    All works are copyrighted at creation regardless of whether a copyright is applied for. The exception to this is works by US government employees for which work there is no copyright. Also, the copyright is owned by the company or organization that employs the workers rather than the authors themselves (in most cases).

    For example, if you are writing a pamphlet on HIV, you are free to use any of the material on the NIH website.

    If, however, you are intending to send this manuscript to a peer-reviewed academic journal then the paper must represent the original work of the authors. You cannot use the work of others even if you or your organization retains the copyright.

    1. +1 to what Dan said.

      The only way the text could be non-copyright is if it came with an explicit mention of its public domain status. Even Wikipedia is not non-copyright, it is distributed under a license that allows re-use with relatively few restrictions. But even if the text is truly public domain — and your “the original wasn’t published” doesn’t suggest it was — there are many cases where the requirements of whoever you’re writing for would still not allow its use. (A trivial case: A student copying sections from Wikipedia or the NIH website for a graded paper and using it without citing it properly is still committing plagiarism. And even if they citing it properly I’d still subtract points for not providing original work, if the borrowing is too large (eg the whole introduction or nearly).

    2. JFTR: While works created by the US government are not protected by copyright in the US, these works are in general still protected by copyright in every other country.

  5. If the work is truly not under copyright protection, that is, that it is in the public domain, then you can legally do anything you want to it. Publish it as is under your own name, if you wish.

    However, academic standards are different than legal standards. An academic work is usually produced to show the author’s skills, or to advance the state of knowledge of a field. Giving credit to sources is often required or expected.

    Also, do not confuse “not registered with the copyright office” with “not protected by copyright”. I have not registered this comment, but as a recent work this comment gains copyright protection at the instant when I created it…even if this comment were not published.

    1. Excellent point. Even if the original work is explicitly public domain, not including an acknowledgment in the derivative is still a breach of ethics. And requesting permission from the original authors is the classy thing to do.

    2. I’m not sure that this is true. I’d like to see a link to the law/case that stipulates this (one can publish a public domain work, unaltered in any meaningful way, and claim authorship). My (very basic) understanding is that one can make a derivative work based on something in the public domain without obtaining any permission… but wouldn’t straight up publishing something that you did not write and explicitly claiming that you did without acknowledgement of the source amount to fraud (independent), especially if you claim ANY (including creative commons) ownership of the copyright (as you would be stealing that from the public domain.

      I ask this from a semi-naive standpoint as a quick search of the interwebs couldn’t find anything on the issue… with that said… I would think that publishing something authored purely by someone else as authored by you would be fraud if you in any way profited from it (which a science paper author would).

      1. Fraud depends upon laws about fraud, not about copyright and the public domain. (But I am not a lawyer) As far as is relevant to a public domain document, anything can be done with it without legal entanglement with the original author regarding the document. If I were to say something libelous or slanderous about the author (for example, by maliciously nastily altering a quotation in a public domain autobiography), then the laws would involve what I said and the original work is not very relevant.

        Profit is only relevant if the laws, contracts, or standards of the field are relevant. In the academic world, a world-class scientist could publish something silly in “The Journal of Irreproducible Results” without profit. However, if that piece was plagiarized (let’s stipulate that the original was not mentioned at all) from the public domain, the scientist’s academic reputation could be affected. Perfectly legal, but academic standards frown upon such behavior even outside the professional field.

        As for claiming copyright of public domain works, go pick up any copy of “Treasure Island” at a bookstore. You’ll probably find a copyright notice. They certainly aren’t protecting most of the words, and indeed you can copy those words which are in the public domain. What they are protecting are any changes, illustrations, and indeed the actual layout of ink on the page. You can’t photocopy that work. And although you can copy the words which are in the public domain, it is your problem to determine which are the original words (unprotected) and what has been altered (protected).

  6. I think this is a good case for teaching our PhD students: in my opinion, it is primarily a matter of academic moral standards and not so much of intellectual property. You simply don’t copy someone else’s work and then tinker with the text to make it look like you wrote it. The least you have to do is to give proper reference to the sources you used and indicate which part of ‘your’ text is actually based on someone else’s work. The problem with tackling this from a legalistic perspective is that as long as you’re legally safe, any behavior that is ‘iffy’ is OK. Compare it to inventing around a patent, no matter how you toss or turn the matter, you have still taken some else’s idea and present it as your own invention. Legally OK, smart business yes, morally iffy.

  7. I applaud the earlier comments for their cogency and their stance. I also voted no.

    I think there are some circumstances in which I would change my vote, however.

    The reader-seeking-advice tells us that the “text created by another group” and “The pre-existing text was imported into Word and we were told to use it as our ‘first draft.'”

    (a) Person Z gave the text to the reader’s group,
    (b) Z was the (or an) author of the original text.
    (c) Z is the one person who told/encourage/invited the reader’s group to use it as a first draft.
    (d) Z’s group didn’t publish it because the group lost interest, cancelled the project, dissolved, or for some other reason have no interest in using the text in any meaningful way.
    (e) The reader’s group was not asked to acknowledge the use of the original draft or, even better, was told NOT to acknowledge the group by Z speaking on unambiguous authority granted by the group.
    (f) The two groups are in the same institution (university, business, whatever).
    (g) The text is a draft policy for the joint institution.

    In such a case, I would say that the suggested use is perfectly acceptable.

    I will leave it to Retraction Watch readers to critique my respond. If it weren’t for (g) – the text is a draft policy – the suggested use would need a justification that has not occurred to me. One or more of the other suppositions were removed the whole MIGHT stand.

    In ethics, as in science, details matter.

  8. I voted no, although it is not totally clear, what exactly the intention of the original writer (or group) was to allow this as to use it as a first draft; I guess the intention is to use some ideas, but not really the same sentences, half-phrases, but part the logic structure to work on it and add or change some points. It is difficult for me to guess there would be a permission included to use all the words and exactly use that without citing or acknowledging. I know this is done for politicians, that ghostwriters prepare a text for a minister, he just has to read it – and tell the writer before what topic or exact direction it should go… But in a scientific context, it should be very clear to the two sites, if and under which circumstances more such a draft could be used. My bad experience in Germany was, that my whole idea, project, material was used – although it was guaranteed to me everything is exclusively my guest scientists project – and later many others were even promoted master theses, doctorate degree and even to professor (without any successful Habilitation), but then with a full professors salary – without even acknowledging me a single time.

    1. Since there was some permission from the original authors to use the provided text (and ideas?) as a starting point – they may have accepted not being co-author or even acknowledged. Maybe there was something provided in exchange for the permission to use the text. Other aspects include, who really is the recipient, a professor, group leader or other more independent scientist, or a student, or more dependent scientist who wanted to mis-represent himself as the originator of the text and, perhaps, of never published and confidential ideas. In many ways this may have been some academic wrongdoing, but should not lead to major punishments – any possible mis-representation of original ideas could be corrected in the acknowledgement. I don’t know if a published paper could lead to add anyone as co-authorship. Some of my original data and some of my confidential ideas were published later by collaborators – and never corrected, since the editors don’t want that.

  9. The devil is always in the details, but I tend to agree with the group’s consensus and vote that using the original material as described seems inappropriate. But I wonder about the following possibility: Assuming that the contributions of the original group are expected to remain ‘visible’ in some way, can be loosely quantified and are likely to also remain substantive relative to the final product, why not propose coauthorship to the original group with the opportunity to approve the final version.

  10. Maybe I am the only one who doesn’t get it, but what exactly is happening?

    I think it’s perfectly valid to take a piece of text and be inspired by it. That’s how science (and society and the arts) move forward. Words can be copyrighted, ideas cannot.
    So I guess it all depends on how much ‘change’ is going to actually occur. If the committee is going to waste its time tinkering a few verbs to ‘hide’ the fact that this was basically someone else’s writing, than no, I guess that wouldn’t be ethical. If it is meant as a starting point, perhaps because the structure feels like a good idea, or it contains a few concepts that need to be in there, then there’s nothing wrong with it.

    However, if there is an existing piece of text that a committee can basically just copy and paste in full, then the committee doesn’t sound to useful to begin with.

  11. Others have spoken about the legal/ethical side, but there is also the personal side. If you did it without permission and the person/people found out, it would probably inspire a certain amount of unhappiness. Not a good thing in general, but I suspect the person must be somewhere in the relevant field (otherwise, why hijack their prose?). That could cause the unhappiness to land back on your doorstep.

    Just email them, for Pete’s sake.

  12. Is not the working definition of plagiarism “The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” (Google search, first entry!)?

    This case seems to be the very definition of plagiarism.

    As a minor side point, in the original article it says “Ours will be published; the original was not.” I would rather think this should be “the original was not – yet”. Like many full time scientists, very little of what I write does not get published in one form or another. It may be the originators of the text are planning to incorporate all or some of the text into something for publication.

  13. There are several things here that, in my opinion, near to be cleared up (oh, and I voted no above). First of all copyright and plagiarism are not explicitly connected. You can be guilty of plagiarising a piece of work for which YOU own the copyright, and you can be guilty of plagiarism of material that is not (and indeed cannot) be copyrighted. Some examples:

    A student produces a piece of work for an assignment. It is an original piece of work, and they receive credit (marks) for that work. The next year they complete another assignment and use large sections copied word-for-word from the earlier work. They have not broken copyright as they own it on the orginal, but are guilty of auto-plagiarism as they have effectively gained two lots of credit (marks) for the same piece of work. You can think of this as working for a well known burger company and producing 1 burger and selling it to two customers, or working for 1 day and receiving two days of pay.

    There is also ‘ideas’ plagiarism which is where you pass of the ideas (intellectual property) of another person as your own without giving them credit, and as far as I am aware ideas cannot be protected by copyright. For example, say some one has constructed a beautiful argument that disproves some theory, if you read that paper and then rewrite it in your own words but using the original ideas and argument of the first author (without referencing and acknowledging that first author) then you are guilty of ideas plagiarism.

    These are some tough things to get your head around, and something I have been teaching to undergrads for over 10 years. Not everyone gets it at first… May be I still haven’t got it?

  14. We reported on a similar case in our study: Street, JM, Rogers, WA, Israel, M, Braunack-Mayer AJ. Credit where credit is due? Regulation, research integrity and the attribution of authorship in the health sciences. Soc.Sci.Med. 70(9): 1458-1465 2010
    In an interview with a junior researcher, who was from a nursing background, the participant revealed that a selfpublished handbook by the researcher and another junior colleague was substantially plagiarised by a senior internationally-acclaimed colleague without acknowledgement. No action was taken by the junior colleagues because the participant felt ‘‘It is very difficult to prove plagiarism particularly when they are a professor and that [research area] is their speciality.’’
    The action described by the questioner in the case under discussion here is plagiarism. Whether it is legal or illegal is beside the point. Why not approach the other group and get them on board so that you can publish together?

  15. I think that missed here is the violation of the rule of confidentiality when you “use” unpublished material without specific permission of the author. There will be no plagarism as they are going to acknowledge the original work.

    To weskaggs:
    You said: “As Michael Hoffman wrote, the original text is only non-copyright if it explicitly states that it is non-copyright (i.e., in the public domain), or in certain other special situations. If that’s the case, there is no ethical problem with using the material as a starting point, as long as you explicitly and clearly acknowledge where you got it from.”

    The above is wrong because 1) when the material is in public domain it doesn’t mean it has no CR; it usually has, 2) if material is unpublished, it is not in public domain and you cannot simply “acknowledge where you got it from”. You got it illegally – you violated the rule of confidentiality. You must explain how you got it and ask permission to quote it (usually as “personal communication” since no publication exists).

    Next, Ken Pimple brings two kinds of examples for cases he would vote YES: 1) where permission is already given, and 2) where confidentiality is, in practice, often violated in institutions. I believe that the group 2) remains as violations, and some can be unhappy here.

    Renee and others are asking how “ethical” it is, while the question should be: Is there a plagiarism here or violation of CR or some other rule, such as rule of confidentiality.

    “Ethics” was deliberately invented in academia to put most serious violations of the law, including fraud, into the supposedly existing gray area, still unexplored, where judgements can vary even in cases that used to be abundantly clear in the past. That’s how the industry of “integrity”, “ethics” and “misconduct” gave hundreds if not thousands of people their degrees, their jobs, their conferences and retreats. And that’s how the fraud in science spread: the rules now are in the realm of ethics, i. e. outside of the law. Astonishingly, the rules are often described as “the best practices”; violations, therefore, are no big deal. We are witnessing the corruption of science in progress.

  16. The public domain issue is a red herring. In the opposite case – text of which you’re the author, but someone else owns the copyright, it’s clearly not plagarism; indeed, most journal require you to transfer the copyright of the text to them anyhow, so your papers are almost always copyrighted by someone else.

    It’s possible there are weird exceptions – I think if it was a really old, very recognisable text, I might think differently. An abstract that parallelled a Shakespeare soliloquy or a Bible verse probably wouldn’t strike me as plagarism.

  17. It could mount to plagiarism and violation of the author’s moral rights regardless of the “non-copyright”.

  18. The reader asks if using another’s work as a “template” is acceptable academic practice. The answer is that it is *common* academic practice; especially in a situation where more senior group members use ideas and formulations created by more junior members without correct attribution.

    However, in the process of creating a new document based on an older one, it is common for there to be numerous changes and modifications, to the extent that the original may not be recognizably present in the final version of the newer document. In that case there has been no plagiarism or misattribution on publication of the final document.

    The caveat is that in the sciences, the specific words and phrases used in the original creation/document are not necessarily important as long as the intellectual creation is communicated effectively, e.g. should I write that U=nv^2 and state that U is energy, n is mass and v the speed of light, I still cannot claim authorship of that formula.

    So, my opinion on the reader’s question is that it depends on whether there are any novel ideas or concepts in the original document, and if they are reproduced in any way in the final document.

  19. The problem I have with this begins with the “copied into Word”, which implies it will be paraphrased at best. That is copy-paste plagiarism and would apply even to out-of-copyright works (Shakespeare). What would be acceptable would be to write your own piece, and then in the acknowledgements state “this ideas and overall structure of this work is based on the unpublished manuscript of…”. No permission would be needed unless the unpublished work was obtained in violation of a non-disclosure agreement… but then you’re getting into Snowden territory, which has a whole other legal aspect.

    1. Could you then please tell me who came up with the idea to structure documents as abstract-intro-methods-results-discussion-conclusion-references? Or to let an introduction consist of an overview of concepts, previous literature, and present hypothesis? And so forth? Because I write my own pieces, but base my overall structure on that, so it appears I have some acknowledgments to make. And so does the community…

      The poll is black and white, whereas reality is a shade of gray, it seems to me. If the text is copied and only some words are reshuffled, that is obviously not acceptable; if the text is used as a template but is completely rewritten, that seems acceptable to me. The original question seems to describe a situation where there is an intent to potentially keep some of the original material in its original form, without attribution. I don’t think that would be acceptable.

      Interesting question that pops to my mind now: should the final verdict be based only on the end product, or also on how that product was arrived at?

  20. I recently ran into a similar dilemma as the reviewer of an old document being updated for a revised fourth version. The original document had been around for quite some time. In my review I discovered that whole portions matched verbatim wording that was also on a government website; so I did a little background to try to figure out who was copying from whom. I was able to find the original author of the government materials who told me that the government website text definitely preceded the first version of the publication we were working on, but that it would indeed be considered “not copyrighted” and thus available for others to use and print as they wish.

    So, even though this was technically okay, I think the distinction that Scot Wilcoxon makes above that just because something meets a legal standard does not mean it meets an academic standard, which is the perspective from which I was thinking about this. Also problematic here was that the text wasn’t referenced, and as a 4th generation reviewer, when I found myself suggesting changes (e.g. clarifications, additions, or simple grammar edits) to the copied text, I would have liked to know upfront that I was doing a modification of a document that existed elsewhere and that the original would not likely be changed.

    1. I think SP raises a critical question regarding a final verdict.

      When I write about these issues I often emphasize the need for transparency with our readers, making reference to an implicit reader-writer contract that we enter into each time we generate a written product, be it a book, article, or internal report. Accordingly, readers assume that the material they are reading is accurate, original (written by the authors listed in the product) and new (not appearing elsewhere). Any deviation from these assumptions needs to be clarified to the reader. Thus, readers should always be made aware whether any specific data, figures, text, etc. are being recycled from previous works. In the current case, it is the originality and provenance of the material that is in question. My sense is that if the original authors’ contributions are sufficiently substantive, then perhaps they should get authorship (realizing that sometimes there is a subjective element as to the ‘substantiveness’ of a contribution). If authorship is not warranted, then readers are entitled to know how that product was arrived. Therefore, the acknowledgement note should explain exactly what occurred, just as described when the problem was presented to us, including the missing details.

      Finally, there is the question of permission. I will assume that the current authors have permission to use the material in the way that they are proposing. If they have not obtained permission, they must do so whether the original material is copyrighted or not as a matter of common courtesy and decency.

  21. The question relates to “Academic practice”, not the law. So the answer has to be “No”, particularly since the way the problem is phrased, there is no hint of the development of ideas or new knowledge, simply paraphrasing.

  22. I recently wrote a paper and I wanted to get information from a certain scientist. It turns out that he had written a paper about it but never published it. He was kind enough to dig a copy out of his basement and send it to me. I referenced the unpublished paper, used the technique to derive my own results and there were no issues. It doesn’t matter whether the study is published or not. It should be referenced and given credit to in both cases.

  23. If the original work was issued under a CC-BY licence ( then you are fully entitled to do exactly what your colleagues are recommending – i.e. use the original work as a baseline, and then create a new work from it, without asking permission, but ensuring attribution to the creators of the original work. The fact of the original work being published or not is irrelevant – it is copyright as soon as it is created – except when it is created as a public domain work and copyright is waived. what is important is the “licence” – i.e. what the copyright owners allow you to do with the work.

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