Plagiarism Decoded

Journal editors weigh in on scholarly ethics in the digital age.


When it comes to scholarly publishing, imitation is not the most sincere form of flattery. In fact, it’s not flattery at all. Taking or copying someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as your own, better known as plagiarism, can have severe consequences for the perpetrators — regardless of whether or not they understand the rules.

And yet, the evolution of the Internet and the increasing use of technology in medicine have muddied the waters when it comes to plagiarism. As a result, radiologists today need to know more about this form of “scientific misconduct.” To inform ACR members, the Bulletin has gathered a list of frequently asked questions to help you navigate the gray areas of plagiarism.

Can I reuse cases, images, or language from my own previously published work in other publications?

Not without the proper permissions and acknowledgements. Though it may sound odd — Can you really steal from yourself? — authors can get in big trouble for self-plagiarizing. Why? The answer has to do with relinquishing copyrights to a medical journal when you publish in it. According to Mauricio Castillo, MD, FACR, professor of radiology, former editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Neuroradiology, and chief of neuroradiology at UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, N.C., this means the authors could be liable in courts.

As a result, you could face many consequences, such as a reprimand from your department chair or dean, suspension or exile from article submission, or retraction (which can be devastating to your credibility as an author in online scholarly research clearinghouses such as PubMed or MedLine).

How can I avoid self-plagiarism?

Make sure you ask permission to reuse your past materials and acknowledge all original sources. Your submission letter should clearly lay out anything you think the editor should know. For example, you should disclose if you are using the same patient group that appeared in another published journal article, says Castillo. This rule stands even if the outcomes or conclusions of your study differ.

Are there any easy ways to check my own or my colleague’s work for plagiarism? What should I do if I spot an issue?

There are many free online tools that scan for plagiarism, says Thomas H. Berquist, MD, FACR, a radiologist in Jacksonville, Fl., and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Roentgenology. If you spot an issue in an article that’s already been published, Berquist suggests contacting the editor-in-chief or any editor of the journal. Each staff typically has their own policy to deal with plagiarism.

Can images be plagiarized or self-plagiarized?

Yes, according to Castillo: “Image plagiarism should be dealt with and considered equal to text plagiarism. However, image self-plagiarism is less clear to many.” For instance, an image with an arrow moved only a few millimeters from one publication to another would still be considered plagiarized by most editors. Luckily, most image self-plagiarism can be easily avoided by obtaining permissions. Many journals have a web-based mechanism to accomplish this process seamlessly and acknowledge original sources.

How has the Internet transformed plagiarism?

“With many outlets for information, especially electronic and social media channels, it can be difficult to identify original sources of information for attribution,” says Ruth C. Carlos, MD, FACR, a radiologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., who also serves as JACR®’s deputy editor. She adds that this can sometimes require a challenging judgment call: “Determining whether the degree of content overlap merits self-plagiarism requires a nuanced judgment. What if the article resulted in a summary blog post? Does this constitute plagiarism or is it just another way to increase attention to and public engagement with the journal article?”
Unfortunately, there aren’t always easy answers to these questions. However, there are resources to help.

How can we work to limit instances of plagiarism in the future?

Castillo says it’s a matter of better education: “I think our scientific societies and journals need to continue to educate contributors to avoid this potentially embarrassing situation for all.” For instance, in some developing countries, the authors may not be as aware of issues like self-plagiarism.
Carlos agrees that we need to raise awareness: “Consistent and repeated education, as well as institutional culture supporting ethical research practices, are the best response to scientific misconduct. It’s better to prevent rather than police.”

The Best Plagiarism Resources

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors puts out guidelines with an entire section on “Scientific Misconduct,” including plagiarism
• The Committee on Publication Ethics catalogues cases of plagiarism and how they were dealt with, which can provide examples for comparison. 
• Elsevier, ACR’s publisher, has some helpful FAQs about plagiarism in scholarly publishing.
• The article “Plagiarism: Why Is It Such a Big Issue for Medical Writers?” may help clarify the basic importance of this topic.

By Alyssa Martino, freelance writer for the ACR Bulletin

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