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Policing plagiarism

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 08 November 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:963
  1. Michael Cross, freelance journalist
  1. London
  1. michaelcross{at}

    The internet has made both copying other people's work and detecting plagiarism much easier. Michael Cross looks at some of the tools used to tackle plagiarism

    In the internet age, copying someone else's work can be as simple as clicking and dragging a computer mouse over a few plausible paragraphs. By the same token, the world wide web makes fraud easy to detect. Over the past decade, a range of software products has become available for detecting plagiarism, especially by students. However, experts are questioning whether Britain's strategy for detecting academic fraud is the right one for catching the most damaging types of misconduct.

    There is no evidence that plagiarism is becoming more prevalent in research. But there is no doubt that plagiarism happens, perhaps because of mindsets acquired in education.1 The Committee on Publication Ethics, an international forum for editors of peer reviewed journals, has discussed “30 or 40” alleged cases of research plagiarism over the past 10 years, says its chairman, Harvey Marcovitch.

    The most common type of plagiarism is where a relatively junior researcher copies passages from published work into a paper. Such authors may claim they did not know they were doing anything wrong, especially if English is not their first language and they were educated in a more hierarchical culture. “Often the explanation is ‘My English is very poor, so I thought it was better to use the words of someone senior to me',” says Marcovitch.

    There are, however, more serious cases. Marcovitch recalls a case when, on one occasion, as editor of Archives of Disease in Childhood, he was contacted by a reader pointing out that a paper had already appeared in an East African journal. “The only difference was that the order of the authors had been changed. The ‘author' had …

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