Academic Writing FAQ part 2

It never hurts to ask. This is part two of a multi-part FAQ from the UAB Graduate School’s academic writing classes. These are questions from Ethics and Scholarly Writing.

Contributed by: Dr. Jeffrey Engler, Associate Dean, UAB Graduate School and Jennifer Greer, Instructor, UAB Graduate School


Question: Is the problem of plagiarism growing?

Answer: We have no recent longitudinal studies to document an increase. However, from a 2004 study of more than 40,000 students in the U.S. and Canada, we know that as many as 4/5 undergraduate college students confess to cutting and pasting from the Internet (McCabe, 2005). With the ready availability of research papers, theses, and dissertations on the web, experts fear that writers – students and professionals alike — may be more tempted to borrow others’ text. As a result, we have seen the growing popularity of plagiarism software detection programs, like Turnitin.com, which some professors at UAB now use. For more information about the problem of plagiarism, see Donald McCabe’s 2005 article, Academic dishonesty & educational opportunity, in Liberal Education, 91(3), 26-31, retrieved August 3, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Question: Can you accidentally plagiarize?

Answer: While experts disagree, many educators now believe that writers can accidently plagiarize if their writing processes break down. This occurs when writers fail to plan and engage in “binge writing,” resulting in faulty memory (known as cryptomnesia), and sloppy summarizing and citing practices. It can also happen when writers lack the writing skills, content knowledge, or language proficiency to write about research. Finally, writers can accidentally plagiarize if they do not understand scholarly ethics and conventions, which vary greatly from the everyday sharing and remixing of ideas in popular contexts like Facebook. When research writers enter a scholarly conversation, they are responsible for guarding against such breakdowns. For more on this topic, consult experts like Dr. Rebecca Moore Howard at Syracuse University at http://wrt-howard.syr.edu/.

Question: Do instructors agree on a definition of plagiarism?

Answer: Unfortunately, no, neither do institutions or journal editors. Plagiarism is an ethical, not a legal, standard, so it is not codified in any universally accepted language. Most academic institutions define it as UAB does in its honor code: “Plagiarism means claiming as your own the ideas, words, data, computer programs, creative compositions, artwork, etc., done by someone else. Examples included improper citation of referenced works, the use of commercially available scholarly papers, failure to cite sources, or copying another person’s ideas.” Citation conventions are explicit and set by the author’s disciplinary or journal guidelines (such as APA, IEEE, MLA, CBE, etc.) But where is the line regarding ethical paraphrase and summary? Who sets it? The writer does, with the help of his or her institution, field, and/or publishing forum. At the UAB Graduate School, we promote a high standard, based on an Ethical Summary Protocol (ESP), which is designed to prepare students for writing and publishing in professional journals and winning grant applications, as well as teaching and leadership positions where scholarly ethics are modeled.

Question: To what extent do things have to be cited? It seems like many ideas are universally known.

Answer: All original ideas, data, opinions, lab results, methods, images, etc. must be cited. What does not need to be cited is common knowledge, such as dates, titles of works, scientific and technical terms, and matters of historical record (i.e., the U.S. gained its independence in 1776). For more details, read an informational brochure, prepared by the UAB Graduate School, at http://www.uab.edu/graduate/publications/plagiarism.pdf
One common question is about Methods sections of empirical papers. Generally, research writers update and revise their Methods sections to avoid self-plagiarizing a prior work, or they write a brief Methods section that references the prior work as a source for the complete Methods description. Check with your advisor to see what the standard is in your field.

Question: What about my own voice? How do I get my original thinking into my research writing when there are so many rules?

Answer: In research writing, “voice” can mean different things. If you mean “point of view,” you usually have to hold back on it until you get to the Discussion section of the paper where you can interject your own interpretation. By contrast, in the Introduction section, you focus mostly on other people’s work as you describe the state of the science as it has developed so far. However, if you define “voice” as communicating your intelligence by the strategic way you frame a problem, the sources you go to (the best and the newest), the questions you ask (socially relevant and timely), and the clear, insightful synthesis you offer, then you can do that from be beginning of your paper. The only parts of the “rules” that might hinder your thinking are the irritatingly fine points of formatting and citation (book vs. web site vs. article), which you can plan to do at the end of a writing day, after your best ideas are already down on paper, or automate with software solutions like Endnote.

Question: What about my own experiences? Why do I have to cite other people in the Introduction when I know something is true?

Answer: This answer varies with the disciplines. In the soft sciences or humanities, these experiences may be rich sources of data, used and not referenced, or referenced as “personal conversations.” In the hard or lab sciences, they may be used in a supporting or contextual role to select and situate a problem without a formal citation. However, citing an expert source that confirms a lived experience can raise it to a level of priority that helps you advocate for change and better science (for under-served or overlooked populations). More importantly, when you cite a published work that has been peer reviewed, you engage in an important element of the scientific endeavor. Scholars trade in informed opinion, not just opinion, which is why our conversation is dramatically different from the one you hear on TV talk shows (and, hopefully, more credible and generalizeable.) Note: It’s important not to fall into the bad habit of seeing references and citations as a negative, or something that detracts from your paper. Not only is this wrong, it will slow you down, cause you to stop and mentally debate every citation, and potentially make a mistake. Instead, view citations as a part of the knowledge sharing and building process that is fundamental to research. We cite in order to give the author credit for his or her work, to respect the copyright of a previously published article, to support our claims and show we are well read and well informed. Finally, we cite to provide a map for readers who want to read more deeply and broadly about the issue we are raising – and to continue the global conversation with other scholars.

Question: What’s the rule on citing review articles? I am told that it’s better to cite primary sources, but I can’t always access them. Which source should I cite?

Answer: Always cite the source that you actually read. Professors often prefer primary sources and will stress those kinds of materials as references. But reading review articles is a fundamental and necessary part of learning the history of our fields and finding out about the most important events and thinkers. In most fields, it is completely acceptable to cite secondary sources (such as review articles) as long as you do not rely too heavily on them for your literature map. Many journal editors, in fact, approve of review article citations in order to streamline the reference lists for readers (and, perhaps not coincidentally, increase their citation indices.)

Question: When I was an undergraduate student, I always got As on my essays and papers. Now as a graduate student, I receive more negative feedback on my writing. I also have to engage in “peer review,” offer my work to others for critique, and critique their work. Why is the process so critical?

Answer: Undergraduate writing is dramatically different from graduate and professional research writing. First, most undergraduate students write essays and course papers for an audience of two people – themselves and their instructors. Most graduate students write with the goal of one day publishing their research, which means they work for multiple audiences – fellow students, professors, lab directors, other scholars, grant committees, readers, journal editors, peer review teams, etc. It is a much more reader-focused type of writing, which calls for more scrutiny of content, the level of the contribution, accuracy, clarity, and references. Unlike undergraduate writing, it is competitive, as journals and grant funding agencies only accept a small percentage of applicants. Many new writers are unaccustomed to this aspect. In addition, graduate students write about complex and abstract concepts and processes, which they may not fully understand until they finish their research. Probably half of all writing they do is based on data generated by other people, so it’s not first-hand knowledge, making the job of narration harder and more time consuming. Hence, their “cognitive load” is higher, leaving them less brain power to focus on their writing. Eminent scholars like the late Joseph M. Williams at the University of Chicago have written about the temporary declines in a writer’s performance when they move up a level or change fields. Graduate writers also write longer texts – 50 to 80 pages for a master’s thesis and more than double or triple that length for a dissertation. This calls for intellectual stamina, discipline, and good habits, which many new writers have yet to develop. Finally, peer review or scrutiny creates a “seal of approval” for good science. It’s a fundamental element of the entire research culture. You should grow more comfortable with this scrutiny – and the requests to continually revise your work – as you move through your program. Most writers do once they see how much the peer review process improves their work and experience the success of being published. If, after a while, you do not grow comfortable with the reviewing culture, then science and research writing may not be for you.

About Mark

I am a graduate student in Vision Science at UAB. My dissertation concerns a potential new eye movement biomarker for schizophrenia.
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