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Accidental plagiarism: Prevention and research excellence

It’s important to consider accidental plagiarism as a risk factor in the research landscape and put in safeguards to prevent it from happening. We'll discuss the causes causes of accidental plagiarism, its consequences, and ways to ensure research excellence by mitigating it.

Laura Young
Laura Young
Content Marketing Specialist
Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Senior Marketing Writer / Adjunct Professor of Writing

Accidental plagiarism happens when a person forgets to cite sources or otherwise unintentionally misquotes or paraphrases without attribution of ideas. Even though there is no intent to engage in misconduct, the consequences of accidental plagiarism tend to be the same as intentional plagiarism. But the unintentional nature of accidental plagiarism makes this form of plagiarism more avoidable.

Accidental plagiarism, while defined as genuinely unintentional, is hard to diagnose as such, since the impact is the same as intentional plagiarism. Furthermore, in high stakes situations such as research publications, plagiarism—whether accidental or not—can stain academic reputations and jeopardize future research funding.

So it’s important to consider accidental plagiarism as a risk factor in the research landscape; and given that it is unintentional by nature, put in safeguards to prevent it from happening. In this post, we will discuss accidental plagiarism, its causes, consequences, and ways to ensure research excellence by mitigating accidental plagiarism.

What are some examples of accidental plagiarism?

Accidental plagiarism occurs when a writer forgets or neglects to cite their sources, misquotes their sources, or unintentionally paraphrases a source by using similar words, groups of words, and/or sentence structure without attribution (Bowdoin, Office of the Dean of Students, 2023).

What does accidental plagiarism look like?

  • Underdeveloped paraphrasing or summarizing that replicates the original source’s ideas and lacks attribution.
  • Incorrect (or absent) quotation mark placement that doesn’t accurately communicate direct quotes from an original source.
  • Inconsistent citations, whether because of confusion with citation formats or lack of understanding of formats. Or simply because the writer forgot to cite a source.

Another example is within this very blog post: the opening sentence to this section is attributed to Bowdoin’s Office of the Dean of Students webpage, but it is a direct quote and lacks quotation marks. (If we’d accidentally forgotten, it counts as accidental plagiarism; if we left them out intentionally, it counts as intentional plagiarism. Either way, it is a form of plagiarism).

Correctly put, Bowdoin College’s Office of the Dean of Students states that “Accidental plagiarism occurs when a person forgets or neglects to cite their sources, misquotes their sources, or unintentionally paraphrases a source by using similar words, groups of words, and/or sentence structure without attribution” (Bowdoin, Office of the Dean of Students, 2023).

While accidental plagiarism means that the writer unintentionally forgot to attribute ideas or words to the original source, it is still an act of plagiarism as it does not give proper credit. In high stakes situations like research publishing, a plagiarized article can end up retracted, whether it was done purposely or not.

In writing, unintentional plagiarism occurs when the author doesn’t fully understand academic integrity and the importance of attribution or simply forgets to cite their sources.

The bottom line is: accidental plagiarism LOOKS the same as intentional plagiarism.

Is accidental plagiarism punishable?

In a survey into attitudes towards plagiarism conducted by Vassileva and Chankova (2019), 44% of researchers from major scientific institutions and Bulgarian universities believe that unintentional plagiarism is not a “crime.” However, in the realm of research misconduct, unintentional plagiarism’s effects on research integrity are the same as intentional plagiarism due to its adverse impact on Impact Factor for authors, and its ability to damage the reputation of publishers and institutions.

Publishers have high expectations when it comes to the writing proficiency of their researchers, as laid out in their policies and guidelines, and tend to make no exceptions for accidental plagiarism if they identify it in a submitted manuscript. Because it’s hard to prove whether plagiarism was done deliberately or not, to remain completely fair, most cases of plagiarism are treated the same, regardless of intentionality, according to institutional policy.

What is an acceptable amount of accidental plagiarism?

There is no acceptable amount of accidental plagiarism. All plagiarism is unacceptable. In the higher education setting, plagiarism undermines the standards of the institution, and in the research setting, plagiarism can permanently tarnish the reputation of a publisher.

You may be wondering why, in that case, many institutions that use Turnitin to check for plagiarism are generally satisfied with a ~15% similarity score, for example. This is because Turnitin does not detect plagiarism but simply checks against the Turnitin database to reveal similarity matches.

Similarity and plagiarism are not synonymous, but over the years, have become confusingly intertwined.

A ~15% similarity score threshold is not an institution’s way of saying that they will accept some plagiarism in a submission. If there are instances where a piece of writing is similar to—or matches against—a source in the Turnitin database, it is flagged for review. However, within these matches may be quotations and citations that tend to be acceptable if the correct conventions are applied. But, depending on a Similarity Report’s exclusion settings, they also may contribute to a paper’s similarity score which is why many institutions allow an acceptable amount of similarity.

Unacceptable matches, however, are only distinguishable through human interpretation, and it’s encouraged that—rather than using it to form a full picture—institutions use the Similarity Report as a singular puzzle piece that contributes to a wider investigation.

What are the institutional consequences of accidental plagiarism?

Since accidental plagiarism appears the same as intentional plagiarism, and because it is difficult to prove whether or not plagiarism occurred intentionally or by mistake, any form of plagiarism has similar consequences.

These consequences include discipline and sanctions. In the case of accidentally plagiarized research articles, scandal can envelop not only the individual researchers, but their institution as well as the journal that publishes the work.

What factors contribute to accidental plagiarism?

There are myriad reasons why someone may plagiarize. Eret and Ok (2014) note that people tend to intentionally plagiarize due to time constraints, workload, and difficulty. Accidental plagiarism, on the other hand, is generally linked to a finite set of issues including low-level academic writing skills, carelessness, or a lack of understanding of an institution’s academic writing policy. It is safe to say that in acknowledging these issues, the turnaround from accidental plagiarism to originality can be fast.

Deficiencies in academic writing abilities

In academia, strong academic writing skills not only enable individuals to express their thoughts coherently but also facilitate an exchange of knowledge and exploration of complex ideas. Academic writing serves as a bridge that connects students, scholars, and researchers, allowing them to engage in meaningful discourse and build upon existing knowledge.

When we write with proficiency in the academic setting, we can articulate our own unique ideas while also effectively communicating the ideas of others. However, an insufficient familiarity with citation styles and conventions can contribute to inadvertent plagiarism. Without a strong grasp of these conventions, writers may unintentionally omit citations or improperly format them, leading to less-than-desirable outcomes for students and researchers with good intentions.

Selemani, Chawinga, and Dube (2018) observed that of the 53 postgraduate students that responded to their investigation about committing plagiarism, 84.9% reported to have unintentionally plagiarized due to a lack of good academic writing skills.

Language proficiency can also play a key role in academic writing skill abilities. When an author has not fully grasped the language in which they are expected to write, this can cause difficulty with, firstly, understanding academic integrity policies, and ultimately, adopting citation conventions.

Failure to understand the concept of self-plagiarism

In research writing, regardless of intent, self-plagiarism can significantly tarnish a researcher and/or publisher’s reputation and impact factor within the research community. In cases where substantial overlap is identified between publications by the same author(s), journal editors might even contemplate publishing a retraction article. Copyright infringement also becomes a concern if permission to reuse one’s own content has not been obtained from publishers.

When the researcher is the author of a piece of writing, they may make the flawed argument that they can reuse their own words in another text, and thus, there are no ethical implications with this form of text recycling since you cannot steal from yourself. This belief can lead to accidental plagiarism. Self-plagiarism is not centered around theft per se, but instead, can be seen as an attempt to mislead a reader into believing that the text in front of them is new and original. Many see this to be a deliberate form of misconduct.

Failure to acknowledge cultural differences around plagiarism

Cultures around the world hold diverse views on academic integrity, and this diversity can often create confusion. This is especially true for international students and researchers who have been educated with one understanding of academic integrity in their home country, only to discover that their country of study or publication shares a different stance. In fact, in some countries around the world, academic integrity is simply not taught, which has led to varying views on whether accidental plagiarism should be handled with the same level of severity as deliberate plagiarism.

In a study focusing on the challenges of postgraduate international students, Fatemi and Saito (2019) conclude that, “because of the different practices of education regarding academic integrity throughout the world, simply having high proficiency in English writing skills is insufficient for international postgraduate students to avoid unintentional plagiarism in a new academic setting.” They add that international students require support, rather than criticism, in order to understand why they need to adjust their practice; this can be achieved through new pedagogical strategies.

Pressure to publish

A number of psychologists consider the “publish or perish” mantra to be a form of psychological stress, leading to diminished ethical decision making (Mumford et al., 2001). A pressure to publish can manifest itself within the writing process, where moving at speed, and without forethought, puts a writer at risk of making irreparable mistakes.

For instance, by copying and pasting another author’s phrase, regardless of size, with the plan to later amend and paraphrase, then subsequently forgetting to cite that third-party source, this constitutes plagiarism. Jonathan Bailey believes that this “deeply problematic approach” to the writing process is an example of accidental plagiarism as noted in his address of Jumi Bello’s self-confessed accidental plagiarism.

Neglecting thorough planning and not adhering to an efficient writing process prior to submitting any work, especially in the realm of research writing, can result in a manuscript being rejected by a potential publisher, or even in retraction after publication.

Difficulties with source memory

Have you ever had a brilliant idea, only for someone to debunk it by suggesting that the idea already exists? Cryptomnesia “refers to generating a word, an idea, a song, or a solution to a problem, with the belief that it is either totally original, or at least original within the present context. In actuality, the item is not original, but one which has been produced by someone else (or even oneself) at some earlier time” (Brown and Murphy, 1989).

Cryptomnesia can manifest itself as both plagiarism and self-plagiarism, and much like other forms of accidental plagiarism, can be difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt. How can we validate that someone has unconsciously plagiarized an existing idea? How can we validate that they didn’t?

Cryptomnesia is generally considered to be a rare psychological phenomenon, largely due to the fact that, unless a writer has a photographic memory, they are quite unlikely to be able to recall large amounts of detail to the point of plagiarism. While it is most certainly possible, given the inherent lapses in one's memory, the recreation of an existing idea as something brand new would prove to be a formidable challenge.

Ways to prevent accidental plagiarism and ensure research excellence

Every member of an institution bears the responsibility of upholding and enforcing academic integrity. A shared recognition of the importance of academic integrity fosters trust and respect among faculty, researchers, students, and all individuals in between. However, deficiencies in academic procedures and policies on the part of the institution, and naïveté on the side of the author can quickly expose institutions to vulnerabilities—this includes both deliberate or unintentional misconduct. The question is how institution members, regardless of their roles, can initiate change.

Author: Remain diligent when note-taking and recording your ideas

Technology offers both benefits and drawbacks to the writing and research process. The speed at which we can access a website, copy and paste from it, then quickly become distracted by a different source, lends itself well to accidental plagiarism.

Jonathan Bailey maintains that “the way you avoid plagiarism isn’t to ‘change the language’ but to ‘never have that language in your original work in the first place.’”

To steer clear of accidental plagiarism, make a conscious effort to maintain high-quality note-taking practices. If you choose to copy and paste text from an external source, ensure that you enclose these excerpts within quotation marks, and document the source's details before progressing to your next task. Citing as you go will save time and ensure you don’t forget to credit other authors. You could even turn to a citation management tool to make this process even more efficient.

Institution: Give members the opportunity to understand your academic integrity policy

Having a dedicated area for your academic integrity policy to live and breathe is an effective first step toward communicating your institution’s expectations to new cohorts. However, have you made it accessible? Will they understand it?

In a study into the dilemmas of plagiarism management in universities, Sutherland-Smith (2010) points out that self-access materials are an inadequate step toward dealing with plagiarism. Advice is not specific enough for each student, and even less so for distance students which, in turn, leads to a question of inequity. They argue that, “many universities have not yet moved to sustainable reform in plagiarism management”.

There are several ways you can encourage your institution to act with integrity and avoid accidental plagiarism:

  • Awareness campaigns: Use your institution’s website, emails, social media, and on-campus display boards as a means to educate inclusively and en masse about academic integrity and the consequences of misconduct.
  • Learning modules: Establish a compulsory learning module and monitor its completion. This way, you can be sure that every new student, researcher, or scholar has been exposed to your academic integrity policy and is aware of the standards expected of them at your institution.

Author: Take proactive steps to access your institution’s academic integrity policy

Personal accountability is a fundamental expectation in higher education, and admittedly, it can be challenging to transition to this mindset when arriving from an education setting or culture where misconduct may have been approached with much less severity.

In the university and research setting, students, researchers, and scholars are expected to take ownership of their learning. Part of the educational experience is intellectual growth and critical thinking, thus engaging in academic dishonesty stifles the opportunity to develop these skills and suppresses their personal growth.

To avoid any form of plagiarism, accidental or otherwise, stay connected with your institution’s academic integrity policy in order to understand what constitutes academic misconduct at this institution.

Institution: Use technology to check for similarity

Employ an effective similarity checking tool, like the Turnitin Similarity Report, to help identify skills gaps. It’s essential, however, to use similarity checking tools judiciously—as a teaching and learning tool—not solely relying on them for detecting misconduct.

Turnitin’s upgraded Similarity Report now groups matches with common characteristics into four categories, according to the extent that an author has cited or quoted throughout their paper. This can help to hone in on plagiarism intentionality, as well as issues (and strengths!) in an author’s academic writing.

McGowan (2008) goes as far as suggesting that undergraduate students should be treated as apprentice researchers, requiring guidance and support, with feedback on any accidental plagiarism being completely non-judicious and only constructive.

Author: Instruct peer reviewers ahead of submission

Peer review, at all levels of education, is critical for evaluating information. In the research context, peer reviewers, who tend to be experts in the field, check a manuscript for accuracy and credibility, improve its quality, and ensure that it is suitable for publishing. Lykkesfeldt (2016) highlights that “a rigorous editorial process including unbiased peer review and experienced senior editors remains the most important quality assurance in science.”

While, generally speaking, peer reviewers are not responsible for spotting plagiarism in a manuscript, they may pick up on any missing quotations and citations. They may even highlight instances of self-plagiarism if they recall seeing the same or similar content in a previously-reviewed paper. A second, or third, pair of eyes can be invaluable for avoiding accidental plagiarism at such a late stage in the publication process.

In conclusion: How to prevent accidental plagiarism and uphold research excellence

Authors and publishers who enact accidental plagiarism, while void of bad intentions, can suffer the same fate as that of intentional plagiarism. The causes for accidental plagiarism are many, including a lack of understanding around the nuances of academic integrity or simply forgetting to cite.

The consequences of accidental plagiarism can be dire, especially in high-stakes contexts like research, leading to retraction, decreased Impact Factor, and stained reputation. By educating authors, conducting peer reviews, and ultimately using technology to check for similarity, research institutions and publishers can avoid this case of academic misconduct and uphold research excellence.