How to Avoid Plagiarism

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March 27, 2020
I have a special Laura’s Lessons post this month—one that doesn’t tackle a grammar issue but rather a writing one: plagiarism. Perhaps coronavirus has you spending most of your working time at home and you’ve decided to tackle some writing. Or maybe writing is part of your everyday life. Regardless, in medical education we all aim to produce high-quality content (I hope), and part of that is providing our readers with information that’s not copied straight from another source.

So what constitutes plagiarism?

1. Not referencing your sources

At Rosh Review, we don’t use in-text citations (such as author/date or superscript numbers). Instead, we include a list of references at the end of each question. So if an answer explanation includes information from, say, a chapter of Tintinalli’s with some filler information from an article on UpToDate, those are the sources that will be referenced. Maybe the author also found an interesting tidbit (such as an alternate treatment option) from an article in the New England Journal of Medicine that wasn’t included in the other references. In this case, that article should also be in the reference list—even if it only contributed to part of one sentence. It’s better to be safe and cover every source we collect information from than to leave a source out. 

If this sounds overwhelming while you’re focused on writing, one way to ensure you give attribution where it’s due is to take notes while you research. Keep track of the sources you’ve browsed and be sure to add the ones you’ve used to your reference list (or cite in the text as you go along—using citation/referencing software is especially useful if you’re working on a larger project like a journal article or book chapter).

2. Copying a source and not rewording

It’s not always possible to put everything into your own words (such as lists of signs and symptoms or side effects), but copying a block of text from a source, pasting it into your text, and presenting it as your work is unacceptable. In medical education, our job is to help break down complex information and make it easy for the reader to understand. Rewording/paraphrasing from sources is a must (and not just changing around a word here and there), and that source must be properly cited or referenced depending on your style guide’s requirements.

If a reader wants further information or clarification about a topic, they can review the reference list. How disappointing would it be to pay for multiple resources while you’re gearing up for board review, only to read the exact same thing—word for word—that you’ve read elsewhere? I might wonder why I’m paying for different resources if they all use identical information.

3. Recycling wording that you’ve written

We think of this as self-plagiarizing. At Rosh Review, we don’t allow portions of answer explanations to be copied from one question to the next. For instance, if an author is writing three questions in a row about polycystic ovary syndrome, each question should have a unique explanation. The information may be similar—each explanation may include clinical manifestations such as hirsutism, alopecia, and acne, along with irregular menstrual cycles—but the overall content needs to be reworded.

This is a good rule to keep in mind as you write, whether it’s a journal article, book chapter, or Qbank answer explanation. Try to keep your writing original, even if you were the source who wrote the words in the first place.


Examples of how to avoid plagiarism

As an example of how to avoid point 2 above (copying a source and not rewording), here’s a chunk of text from an UpToDate article about malaria (my graduate degree topic—I love parasites).

Malaria occurs throughout most of the tropical regions of the world, with P. falciparum causing the largest burden of disease, followed by P. vivax. P. falciparum predominates in sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic); P. vivax is much more common in the Americas and the western Pacific.

If I felt this information was essential to include in my writing, here’s how I might rephrase it:

Malaria, a disease that is endemic to most tropical regions, is caused by Plasmodium parasites. Of the species that affect humans, P. falciparum (common in sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic) is the deadliest and most economically impactful, followed by P. vivax (common in the Americas and the western Pacific).

And I would be sure to cite this UpToDate article or add it to my references list (depending on what my style guide required).

As an example of how to avoid point 3 above (recycling your own writing), let’s say I’m writing a second piece about malaria and I think it’s necessary to include this same information. I would rephrase it again!

Malaria is caused by Plasmodium parasites and is prevalent in tropical regions. In humans, the most destructive species of malaria is P. falciparum, which is common in sub-Saharan Africa, New Guinea, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The second most destructive species is P. vivax, which is common in North, Central, and South America and the western Pacific.

The information is the same, but it’s reworded. If a learner reads these two paragraphs back to back, they would be less likely to glaze over sections that were worded exactly the same. Plus they will better retain information that’s presented in a variety of ways.


Plagiarism isn’t always easy to avoid—sometimes when you read something so clear and perfectly stated, it’s hard to figure out a different way to say it. But it’s important that we provide readers with original content rather than something cut and pasted together from a few book chapters. Plus, teaching a topic is an excellent way to learn about that topic yourself, so rephrasing and reexplaining all of this content helps reinforce it for you. Not only will you be a better teacher, you’ll be a more informed practitioner/educator—a win for everyone!


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