Intended for healthcare professionals

Editor's Choice

On the shoulders of giants

BMJ 2006; 333 doi: (Published 14 September 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;333:0-f
  1. Fiona Godlee, editor (fgodlee{at}

    When Iain Chalmers identified a clear case of plagiarism in a research article he was planning to include in a systematic review he expected some action from those involved. He was to be disappointed. The journal that published the article and the author's university both urged cautious handling to avoid damaging a distinguished researcher's reputation. Fifteen years later Chalmers writes in this week's BMJ that he regrets acquiescing in this low key approach (p 594). The author, Asim Kurjak, was subsequently found to have committed a further act of plagiarism. In the continued absence of action from Kurjak's university, Chalmers has decided to tell the story.

    It may seem strange for the BMJ to publish a case in which we aren't directly involved. We do so to highlight the threat that plagiarism poses to the integrity of the biomedical literature. Plagiarism is one of the three high crimes of research misconduct as defined by the US Office of Research Integrity (the other two being fabrication and falsification), and the BMJ has acted swiftly in the past to name plagiarists and retract work that makes unacknowledged use of other people's words or ideas.

    Naming and shaming is, says Chalmers, an appropriate response. He calls upon journals, institutions, and professional associations “to expose very publicly those found guilty of this form of scientific misconduct.” In his accompanying commentary Miguel Roig agrees, but he also rightly advocates more investment in the teaching of ethical writing (p 596). Good writing is crucial for the effective transmission of ideas and information. If writing were less arduous, says Roig, the allure of misappropriating portions of other people's texts would be reduced.

    Some people find writing easy, but Drummond Rennie, deputy editor at JAMA, has comfort for those of us who don't. He once told me that easy writing can make hard reading. Either way we need proper training in writing as part of medical and research education. This should include training in critical and creative thinking. Tim Albert, who has run hundreds of highly regarded writing courses around the world but who sadly retires this year, emphasises that clear thinking is the key to clear writing. He advises working on the branches (the paragraph structure) of a piece of writing and letting the leaves (the words and sentences) take care of themselves.

    Given the number of words and ideas flying about, how can we avoid plagiarism? My advice is: (1) If another person says what you want to say better than you can, don't try to paraphrase, quote them and cite fulsomely. (2) Even if you are fantastically skilled at paraphrasing, always refer to the original source. (3) Learn to take pleasure in attributing ideas and words to other people. After all, truly original ideas are vanishingly rare. To paraphrase Bernard of Chartres, we are all of us like dwarves on the shoulders of giants. This is often misattributed to Isaac Newton. I got that from Wikipedia.

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