Adventures in Ethics and Science

Hierarchies of misconduct.

In response to some interesting discussions with my students, I’m gearing up for a longish post on plagiarism’s place in the pantheon of scientific misconduct. To the extent that scientists can provide a clear definition of misconduct, it’s usually FFP: fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. So, plagiarism is in there, but there’s frequently a sense that it’s not the same kind of ethical violation.

Before launching into my take on the issue, I thought it might be good to canvas the readership:

  1. Is plagiarism just as heinous a crime against science as fabrication and falsification, or is it a lower-level offense?
  2. Does your answer to #1 depend on whether we’re talking about finished scientific work (e.g., a manuscript submitted to a journal) or something like a grant proposal?
  3. Do scientists mean the same thing by “plagiarism” as English teachers and that crowd?

A related issue: I’ve heard vague claims that there are some cultures in which “plagiarism” as defined by U.S. standards is not viewed as an ethical breach at all, and that this may explain some instances of plagiarism among scientists and science students working in the U.S. after receiving their foundational educational experiences in such cultures. To my readers oversees: Is there any truth to these claims? (I’m suspicious, at least in part because of an incident I know of at my school where a student from country X, caught plagiarising, asserted, “But, in country X, where I’m from, this is how everyone does it. Sorry, I didn’t know the norms were different here.” Unfortunately for this student, the Dean was also from country X and was able to say, with authority, “‘Fraid not.”)

I anxiously await your input.


  1. #1 coturnix
    April 20, 2006

    No. Ex-Yugoslavia here. There is sloppiness, there is cheating, there is everything under the Sun, but plagiarism is capital offence.

  2. #2 Lab Cat
    April 20, 2006

    Surely plagiarism is also a form of both fabrication and falsification? Some one is claiming data to be their own when it isn’t.

    They’re all wrong.

  3. #3 Karl
    April 20, 2006

    Please explain/define plagiarism. I am a non-PhD, non-scientist who follows these blogs with interest in Ev v ID, Church-State relevance. I save a lot of the essays. I write letters-to-editor, and compilations for distribution to others. Sometimes I summarize many articles using authors’ words, sometimes I quote directly. At what level does plagiarism enter?
    OR, are you only talking about copying research summaries – or what?

  4. #4 gibbon1
    April 20, 2006

    I think that the currency in trade of writers, engineers, and sciency types are different. For a writer the stock in trade is an interesting bit of prose. For an Engineer utility, and for scientists, bits of knowledge.

    For a writer plagiarism is theft. Fabrication and falsification are part of the stock in trade.

    For a scientist fabrication and falsification are anti-knowledge and thus highly despised, small scale plagiarism less so.

    Plagiarism for an engineer, what has utility that isn’t used? And fabrication and falsification are their own road to nowhere.

  5. #5 perpetualstudent
    April 20, 2006

    All three are career-enders. Or at least they should be. Plagiarism is probably the easiest to catch. It doesn’t matter if its for a published paper or a grant proposal.

    The main difference between science and engineering and English is that we care more about the ideas, whereas word choice seems to be more important in English. But plagiarism seems to be fairly similar in all areas.

  6. #6 Janet D. Stemwedel
    April 20, 2006

    I usually describe plagiarism as representing the words or ideas of someone else as your own.

    So, this could include presenting someone else’s data, or someone else’s research protocol, or someone else’s survey of the literature, as one’s own (i.e., without proper attribution to indicate who really got the data, or developed the protocol, or wrote that survey of the literature).

    Ideas that are “in the air” (i.e., common knowledge) might be a gray area (because what is common knowledge to you might be a function of how well plugged-in to a particular intellectual community and its literature you are).

    Also, form-letters for letter writing campaigns or talking points for letters to the editor may be a different kind of beast altogether (since presumably the point in to get good information into wide distribution in order to achieve some outcome in policy, etc., rather than to stake one’s claim on putting that information out there).

  7. #7 Bill Hooker
    April 20, 2006

    Plagiarism is representing something that someone else made as something you made — an idea, a data set, a paragraph of text, whatever. It’s theft from the maker and it’s fraud perpetrated on the plagiarist’s audience.

    Here’s a caveat though: I think that “plagiarism” carries for many people the connotation that the thing being passed off as the plagiarist’s own is formally available for citation. For instance, using published data or published prose without attribution is plagiarism, whereas using unpublished data without attribution or permission (the “scooping” issue that gets me so hot under the collar) is better called theft.

    Me, I don’t much care what we call it, but I want the perps to be walking around ringing bells and crying “unclean!”.

    As to comparison with falsification/fabrication, I don’t think it’s a lesser, just a different offense. F/F is fraud against the audience without theft from a specific person, but I would argue that scientific misconduct, insofar as it undermines both trust within and trust of the scientific community, is a theft from everyone everywhere.

  8. #8 P.D.
    April 20, 2006

    I suspect that the answer depends on what is being plagiarized:

    (1) Plagiarizing another scientist’s prose is the same as plagiarizing another philosopher’s prose.

    (2) Using another scientist’s idea for a study is roughly the same as using another philosopher’s novel argument. It is especially harmful if the original author has not completed the research and published it yet. Note, however, that this harm is primarily inflicted on the original author and not on the community at large.

    (3) Using another scientist’s protocol without attribution is trickier. As you note, repeating common knowledge does not count as plagiarism. A protocol is not knowledge, but it may similarly be a bit of common tradecraft.

    (4) Presenting someone’s data as your own is tantamount to fabrication. It is means saying that the original result has been replicated.

    (5) Plagiarizing something not covered by (1)-(4) has an indeterminate degree of wrongness.

  9. #9 James Killus
    April 20, 2006

    “Steal from one, it’s plagerism. Steal from five, it’s research.”

    It’s awfully easy to omit a citation or a credit, and in my experience a simple (or complex) apology suffices to fix the situation. Often the apology does not even need to be public.

    Another sort of case involves where someone’s work is “credited” and then misrepresented, at least in the eyes of the original author. Does a straw man argument equal fraud? I doubt it, much as I dislike straw man arguments.

    Plagerism is of an entirely different stripe than fabricated data or other fraud. Plagerism is an ethical violation against people, whereas fraud is a violation of the fundamental ethos of science.

    You might consider medicine as a test case. Medical science is science and the rules of science apply. But in medical practice “refusing to treat” is a greater ethical violation than (say) giving false test results to a patient. I can imagine cases where this would be ethical. But publishing those false test results in a paper would never be ethical. Similarly, a physician is bound to treat even someone they detest (even dictators and criminals), or at least that’s the way I understand it.

  10. #10 Colst
    April 20, 2006

    There’s a clear distinction between plagiarism and the other two: fabrication and falsification create false knowledge while plagiarism only hides the source of that knowledge. As a consequence, F&F have the potential for a larger direct impact on the field as a whole. Atoms will behave the same whether X had the idea or Y did. Atoms may not behave as expected, however, if X just made up his results.

    Its smaller direct impact on the community as a whole doesn’t necessarily mean that plagarism is actually less serious as an ethical matter, though. At any rate, it is serious.

  11. #11 Blair
    April 20, 2006

    I’m going to have to agree with many of your previous commentators that FFP means substantially different things depending on the discipline being considered. I must also disagree with “perpetualstudent” above that all are career-enders because in practice that is simply not the case. Plagiarism is treated substantially differently in the academic community as I will discuss below. I will preface my comments by pointing out that my experience is limited to the natural sciences and I am confident that it will not translate well to the social sciences nor to the liberal arts (see gibbon1 above for proof of that).

    Having watched way too many American police/lawyer process shows I think I have an analogy that might be of use for your students:

    In science think of plagiarism as a type of misdemeanor. It is illegal and should always be discouraged and punished but mitigating factors can be considered when it is time to mete out punishment. Sometimes it deserves a slap on the wrist, other times it deserves serious punishment up to and including expulsion from the academic community. Science, however, should always treat falsification and fabrication as felonies, they are inexcusable in any form. The reason for this is that by definition you have to have a cognitive recognition of your actions to falsify and/or fabricate, in legal terms the “malice aforethought. To further expand:

    The difficulty is that plagiarism, as detailed by PD above, comes in many forms. I can cite numerous cases in my memory of scientists being accused of misappropriating ideas and not even being cognizant of having done so at the time. Upon the revelation of the error corrections were sent out and apologies proffered. The reason is that in our careers we are exposed to so many ideas, processes and protocols that over time they all meld together and there always exists the chance that my next big idea is just a rehash of someone else’s work. That is the problem with our work we build on the theories and experiences of others while all the time sharing ideas. As an example consider a synthesis (or protocol for the non-chemists out there) when you decide to add a step to the process (say a dab of a reagent to the mix in a synthesis) it is often difficult to determine whether the decision is the result of insight based on years of research or because of a tidbit thrown out at a conference back in 1992. If the result was a breakthrough then an error of attribution in this case would never be considered a career-ender.

    On the other end of the scale, stealing someone else’s words, data, or ideas can not be tolerated in our cozy little world. Because sharing is so critical to advances and given the long delays in publication, the ability to trust your colleagues not to rob you blind is the only thing that makes collaborative science possible. Sure we take security measures but we also rely on the honesty and integrity of our colleagues. A deliberate breaking of that trust is simply inexcusable. As noted by Bill Hooker above, however, at that point you may ask whether it should be considered plagiarism or theft.

    Ultimately, I suppose the punishment comes down to the degree of infraction and the level of cognition of the action…after all that is why we might punish a child with a zero for the same activity that we would fire a professor.

  12. #12 Jonathan Ehrich
    April 20, 2006

    Undergrad scientist-in-training here.

    Question 3 sort of changes my answer to question 1. In my mind, it seems that there can be two distinct types of plagiarism in relation to scientific writing. One is the copying of words that others have written and portraying it as your own. The other is taking other people’s data and portraying it as your own.

    So, my answer to #1 would be that stealing a sentence or two from a paper and putting it in your own without attribution is certainly plagiarism and certainly unacceptable. But I would say that plagiarism of data is a gross offense on the level of fabrication or falsification, but plagiarism of words is not. Partially because plagiarism of words is not as antithetical to the aims of science as the other options are; partially because there’s a bit of a grey area as to what constitutes plagiarism, and how one can clearly distinguish between intentional plagiarism and accidental copying of phrases from another source. I would say that this applies more to research papers, however; in review articles and other formats where the presenting of thoughts is an integral part of the piece I would say that it’s closer to being on the same level as the other three.

    #2. I’ve never written a grant proposal, but if they’re anything like I’d imagine they are, I would say the distinction applies even moreso here. Theft of data is a great offense on par with fabricating it; theft of words seems almost insignificant unless you’re talking about large-scale lifting.

    #3. See above.

  13. #13 Mike Dunford
    April 20, 2006

    Good question. Like a lot of the other commenters here, I think it really depends on the specific case. Fabrication and Falsification are easier because it’s kind of hard for either to be accidental.

    Plagarism is tougher because it’s fairly easy to do it by accident. Lots of papers get read, you are trying to relate them to your own research, and a phrase sticks in your mind. Or an idea. The original source is forgotten, and a problem is born.

    Accidental plagarism is not good, but not on the same level as the other two. Deliberate plagarism, I think, is worse, because intellectual theft is added to the intellectual dishonesty.

  14. #14 Julia
    April 21, 2006

    “I save a lot of the essays. I write letters-to-editor, and compilations for distribution to others. Sometimes I summarize many articles using authors’ words, sometimes I quote directly. At what level does plagiarism enter?”

    Karl, as no one else has directly addressed your question, I’ll offer a couple of simple guidelines for the kind of writing you seem to be doing:

    1. As much as possible, express the ideas entirely in your own words. When you express someone else’s ideas/information entirely in your own words, give that person clear credit for the ideas/information.

    2. If you do copy some of the other person’s words, use just a few such words embedded in a sentence of your own instead of copying whole sentences. When you use someone else’s words in this way, put quotation marks around them and also give that person clear credit for the words.

    3.If you feel you really must copy some whole sentences, put them in a different paragraph, indented or blocked off to distinguish them clearly from your own sentences, and give the original author clear credit.

    There’s a great deal more to know, but this will get you started. Your goal is to have readers who can always easily tell the source of the ideas/information and the source of all words.

  15. #15 James Killus
    April 21, 2006

    I have another sort of behavior I’d like to offer for consideration: variants of attempts to subvert or manipulate the review process.

    I have seen cases where someone surmises (correctly or incorrectly) the identity of a supposedly anonymous referee, and then does something that could be construed as punitive or exerting undue influence. Then there are the cases where a referee deliberately sits on a paper while his own paper goes through the publishing process, thereby insuring priority of publication. Finally, there are the cases where referees use the advance knowledge to their own benefit in some way, to move to a new line of research, for example, thereby getting a head start on the competition.

  16. #16 Michael Pyshnov
    April 23, 2006

    Plagiarism can be worse than fabrication. And, research plagiarism is also practically always a fabrication. The research, ideas, etc. plagiarized from someone else is the research molested by plagiarist. Basically, plagiarist does it for the lack of originality in his own research and he often can barely comprehend the work of the true author.

    The worst plagiarism occurs when an unpublished research of a graduate student is stolen by someone who obtained the knowledge of it in a capacity of a supervisor. In 2002, American cout ruled that such supervisor owes a fiduciary duty to the student-researcher. Therefore, the plagiarist should go to jail by the same route that all these corporate CEO’s go when they use inside information for improper purposes, i.e. commit fraud.

    What if a PhD student makes discoveries in his research for the degree, but his supervisor says the student has done nothing and his PhD program must be terminated? And what if, when the student is gone, the supervisor publishes his discoveries under her own name?

    This fraud, in fact, was played on me. See my web site “University of Toronto Fraud” at

    Michael Pyshnov.

  17. #17 srivlin
    April 24, 2006

    As a professor in an academic institution and one who was also involved, as a whistleblower, in a case similar to the one described by Michael Pyshnov, I must agree with MP. Plagiarism is as serious a fraud as F&F, especially when the intent of the plagiarist is to deceive the reader and to hide the identitiy of the real source of the text being used. A plagiarist suffers from moral deficiencies that are also required for the commitment of F&F. Thus, a plagiarist will fabricate and falcify as easily as he/she plagiarize.

    I have published my experience in a book (Scientific Misconduct and Its Cover-Up). The plagiarist, a chairman of a department, also falcify his credentials and fabricate data on a grant proposal.

  18. #18 srivlin
    April 24, 2006

    After posting my previous post, I visited Michael Pyshnov’s website where he describes in great detail his ordeal. Missing are the details that could explain why Mr. Pyshnov was not allowed to complete his Ph.D. thesis and how he sees his mentor’s role in his thesis. One gets the impression from his story that his mentor played no role at all in any of his research, as if he did all on his own. However, what could be even more bothersome about Mr. Pyshnov list of complaints is his accusation that he did not get anywhere with them because of a Jewish conspiracy of silence against him. Mr. Pyshnov provides a wealth of documents to support his complaint about scientific misconduct, but not one iota of evidence to support his Jewish conspiracy theory. I wonder if this accusation is what has turned poeple, who could help Mr. Pyshnov, away from him.

  19. #19 Lab Lemming
    April 24, 2006

    Since we’re on the web here, it might be worth looking at 21st century plagiarism in order to illustrate why both new-style and traditional plagiarism are bad for science.

    In the good old days, plagiarism meant taking someone else’s work, stealing it, stripping it of personally identifiable information (e.g. the author’s name) and representing it as one’s own. These days, new-style plagiarism generally consists of taking someone else’s work, stealing it, stripping it of personally identifiable information, and posting it anonymously.

    Both forms are bad for science. The reason for this is that the make it impossible to track down the person who actually did the experiments, so that when others try to replicate the results, they are not able to correspond with the original author when they find flaws, discrepancies, omissions, or features in their repetition of the original study.

    It is easy for scientists to lull themselves into believing that the only purpose of having names on papers is to show off, pad one’s CV, and feed into citation indices on lonely Friday nights when the gin bottle needs draining. But there is a non-personal reason for authorship as well.

    Authorship serves as a hyperlink to the unpublished experiencal knowledge base of the people who did the nut-and-bolts of the research- most of which usually doesn’t make it into the final publication. And severing that link isbad for science.

  20. #20 Michael Pyshnov
    April 25, 2006

    In replay to Prof. Rivlin

    I know, Prof. Rivlin, it’s hard for you to read, but neither it was easy for me to write, – I am also Jewish. Please, note that for 14 years I remained silent about all the political motives behind the conspiracy, therefore, it is not correct to say that my words were “what has turned people, who could help Mr. Pyshnov, away from him”. Yet, we know very well that such things as politically motivated cover-up happen and probably most cover-ups have political cause. As to the proof of it – I wouldn’t be alive today if I had a proof, some tape of phone conversation, etc. That proof, however, is present – the total ban on publishing a singe word about this affair.

    On the substance:
    1. If you think that “the details that could explain why Mr. Pyshnov was not allowed to complete his Ph.D. thesis” are missing, sorry, but I posted all relevant documents. This is all the official explanation (full of crude inconsistencies) that I have. On the meeting of the Grad. Committee that resulted in Doc. 8, I suggested that I will write my thesis for their judgment, but I was told: “Michael, you have no thesis.” And, later also: official documents say that I had done practically nothing. That, clearly is fraud: my research became subject of 4 (four) plagiarised papers!
    2. You say: “One gets the impression from his story that his mentor played no role at all in any of his research, as if he did all on his own.” This is the absolutely correct impression. UofT admitted that my research was based on my previous article and there are more admissions in the documents. I did it all on my own. I was a mature student, had the same number of papers published and was the same age as my supervisor. I last year again proved that I am not an unsuccessful and lazy student, as criminals in academia are saying, but a good scientist (see

    Other matters. I would define plagiarism as “falsification of authorship”. See also interesting forum in Chronicle of Higher Education –

    Michael Pyshnov.