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Plagiarism and how to avoid it

21 November 2020

Making sure that you don’t plagiarise

Why is a plagiarism a problem?

Essentially, plagiarism is when you copy somebody else's work. We're most commonly familiar with plagiarism of writing, and these days this is especially easy with the copy and paste function (Ctrl c & Ctrl v). Most people are not even aware that they have plagiarised because sometime in the past they copied and pasted the work of somebody else into a document and this later became incorporated into their text without them being aware of it. 

Plagiarism is a problem because essentially you are taking somebody else's work without attributing it to them. Like other forms of taking without permission, you can think of this more simply as theft.

How do we know whether we have plagiarised or whether we've simply written something that's very similar to somebody else?

Today there are several pieces of software that are used to compare submitted text with text that's written and available on the internet in order to discover plagiarism. One such example is TurnItIn. TurnItIn is used by Stellenbosch University. One of the outputs of TurnItIn is to highlight text that matches other text already on the internet. As almost all journals publish on the internet TurnItIn can accurately determine if text has been copied from another article or website.

I usually set TurnItIn to determine plagiarism with five or more consecutive words.

Remarkably it is very difficult to come up with exactly the same words that someone else used to describe a phenomenon. most people when they think about it feel that it wouldn't be that surprising if they came up with exactly the same words as somebody else.

When caught plagiarising most undergraduates claim that they simply read an article and then later happen to write the same words that were in the article. They categorically deny that they ever copied or pasted text from the article into their work. Proving to them that this was not the case is facile. But it's also a really useful exercise that teaches you a lot about plagiarism:

Try it. By trying it you'll learn what plagiarism is all about. 

1. Read an article, or even just one paragraph

2. Then try to write text using exactly the same words in the same order with the same syntax as that in the article: verbatim. Importantly, you must not look back at the article itself.  

3. Unless you have an eidetic memory you will fail at this task. 

This is not to say that no 5 or more words can ever be the same as someone else's. There are many situations in which this happens. Think of addresses, quotes, certain laboratory equipment or protocols, and certainly references at the end of your paper. There will also be the occassional coincidence (see example below). So there are many times when TurnItIn will come back with matching text. This is not what we're looking for in plagiarism.

Here's an example of non-plagiarism from my own writing. The opening paragraph of a note that is currently in press. I didn't plaigiarise WWF, but I can see why it happened TurnItIn found a likeness. First is the use of a lot of standard names (African continent, Cape Florisitc Region, floral kingdoms), and second their consistent relationship (always in the same place and smallest) with each other. But it serves to demonstrate the power of the software. 

If plagiarism is detected in your work what can you do about it?

It's remarkably easy to remove plagiarism from your work. 

Here's what you do:

  1. Read the sentence that has been plagiarised several times to yourself. 
  2. Now without looking at that sentence, write another sentence that has the same meaning. Because it's very hard to replicate somebody else's words without copying them, what you should find is that you've written a fresh plagiarised sentence. 
  3. This can now be added to your text, changed as appropriately to fit your existing text. And that should be the end of your plagiarism worries.

Here's what not to do:

  1. Take the sentence swap out some of the words for synonyms and pass it off as your own. 
  2. The sentence will still have the same structure that you copied and essentially this is still somebody else's work. Moreover TurnItIn will still recognise this as plagiarism.

How can I make sure that I never plagiarise?

Quite simply if you never cut and paste, you won’t plagiarise. It’s that easy. I understand why people copy and paste as a way to get started, or because someone else has written something so well, it’s hard to believe that you could ever write it any better. But actually, you can write it just as well, and writing it in your own words is worth so much more. There are also very dire consequences for plagiarising other peoples' work, that it just isn't worth it.

Don’t forget that the penalty for plagiarism in your thesis might well be that you fail. You cannot submit a thesis with plagiarised text.

Here's some text which is clearly plagiarised. It's from a permit application where some of these authors were involved in the work. The methods text was copied and pasted into the permit application to describe methods. Ther permit application will not be published, and the source is acknowledged. 

It still seems amazing to me when I submit a student manuscript to TurnItIn and see that it is completely free of any plagiarism. And I should say that this is usually the case. There are so many words in English and so many different ways of putting them that you really can have your own writing style. Your writing style will be as unique to you as a fingerprint, and it will be entirely free of plagiarism. It's something you can celebrate.

Is there a grey zone in plagiarism?

I would maintain that there is not really any grey area in plagiarism. So what are people talking about when they refer to a grey zone? The nominal grey zone within plagiarism comes when you copy your own text: "self-plagiarism". Essentially this is really just the same as plagiarism but obviously if you are the original author then if you use your own text it's not the same as using somebody else's, because the work is still yours.

However this is frequently complicated by multiple authors on a paper. For example, if I wrote a paper with five other people, even though the words were mine, if I use them again they would actually be attributed to all six authors and not just to me. Thus, if I use them again with five different authors it would still be plagiarism. This is further complicated by having different publishers for your papers. Let's say I wrote a paper, I was the sole author and it was published by a journal that retained the copyright. If I use the same text again in another paper where again I was the soul author, but it was published in a different journal and they retained the copyright, that would be a breach of copyright to the first journal. It would be regarded as plagiarism. 

Obviously, this situation really shouldn't occur because if you are the author of your own work then you should retain the copyright it should never be given to a publisher or a journal. The fact that many journals want to obtain copyright on work that they don't pay for is a complete disgrace but it's something that we're not going to go into right now (you can see rantshereandhereabout science publishing scandals). 

The simple way around this problem is not to plagiarise any of your own text or any of anybody else's. This is, as I've explained above, relatively easy because as long as you don't copy and paste any text you'll find it very hard to actually use somebody else's words. However it can get a little bit tricky when you are writing the materials and methods section of a paper, and especially when that paper uses exactly the same materials and methods as a previous paper. The temptation is great to go and copy the text that you've written before. But be aware that, however gray, this is plagiarism and you should not do it.

The likelihood is that because you're using the same names and their relationship is staying fixed as shown in the example above in materials and methods you are more likely to come up with text that a piece of software likeTurnItIn will show is plagiarised even when it isn't.

Concerned about whether or not there is plagiarism in your work?

If you are at Stellenbosch University, here are the links to use TurnItIn:


Postgraduate students:

Want to read more about plagiarism to understand what it is?

Louw (2016)

Read the Stellenbosch University policy on plagiarism here, and see what else Stellenbosch University has to say about plagiarism here:

If you want to know more about how TurnItIn works, there are lots of videos out there on YouTube that can help you. However, watch out for the ones that try to teach you how to cheat with TurnItIn. Trying to cheat this system is far more difficult that writing your own work. Cheating simply doesn't pay, so don't go there.

  Lab  Writing

Tiny toads from Mauritius and Reunion

18 November 2020

Miniature toads on Mauritius and Réunion

From time to time you make a natural history observation that really blows your mind. This was the case when I visited Mauritius in 2017 (seehere). I was there to study their Guttural Toads which had been introduced to the island in 1922. I had already heard from Giovanni Vimercati who had visited Mauritius himself several years earlier that the toads were very small, but it wasn't until I saw them that I realized the full magnitude of what had happened. In less than 100 years since their introduction these toads had shrunk.

Guttural Toads,Sclerophrys gutturalis, are a familiar feature in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. They regularly inhabit urban areas taking advantage of lights to capture attracted insect prey. I have seen these toads in Kenya and Tanzania and they always appear quite large no matter the altitude or setting. So it was quite startling to see these mini toads on Mauritius.

Last year James Baxter-Gilbert visited Mauritius together with other members of the MeaseyLab to measure guttural toads and conduct some experiments with them (seeblog post). James managed to measure a large number of toads on both Mauritius and Réunion measuring not just their size but also their limb and jaw lengths. When he analyzed the data, James found that not only had the size changed but the limbs had changed their relative lengths as well. Overall, limbs were shorter on the island toads suggesting that their dispersal capacity is reduced. 

There are of course many outstanding questions about these observations. Is this miniaturization and change in limb length a permanent evolutionary change or a plastic reaction that would see them swap back to the regular size if reared on the mainland? We are hoping to address this question in future with a common garden experiment in Durban (watch this space!).

Other outstanding questions concern the reason why the environments on Mauritius and Réunion caused the toads to miniaturise. There are several competing theories but of course it could be a combination of any of these. Toads that need to move less on the small islands don't need large sizes and limb lengths. When released from the usual predation regime toads may revert to a smaller size that would be more vulnerable to mainland predators. Reproduction may occur more regularly on the islands meaning that the toads do not need to store energy for single reproductive bouts. Instead they could reproduce many times with small batches of eggs during the year. 

As you can tell there is still plenty of research to be done on guttural toads. The publication of this natural history observation is simply the first of what we believe will be many exciting investigations into this island invasion system.

Read all about it here:

Baxter-Gilbert, J.H., Riley, J.L., Wagener, C., Mohanty, N.P., Measey, J.  (in press)  Shrinking before our isles: The rapid expression of insular dwarfism in two invasive populations of guttural toad   (Sclerophrys gutturalis).Biology Letters

Writing a logical argument

11 November 2020

Construct a logical argument in your writing

Writing is not straightforward. Your objective is to communicate with a reader, someone who you’ve likely never met and will never meet. You need to communicate highly complex information. But more than that you need them to see things as you do. You need to provide them with your reasoning and your argument, and have it make sense to them; preferably to the point where they agree with you. 

To communicate, you need to start from common ground. The beginning of your introduction starts with the most general concepts in the context in which you are writing. The context depends on your audience, and this in turn relates to the particular journal that you are writing for. Even if you are writing a thesis, you should pick out a target journal for each of the chapters. Once you’ve established the common ground, you need to carry the reader towards the hypothesis or question that you propose. The easiest way to do this is to make use of a logical argument: 

A series of statements that introduce a starting premise, provide evidence for and against that premise [perhapsadding in an examplethat makes your point], point out what missing information would allow reaching a better understanding of said premise, and logically conclude that what you are doing is going to fill this gap. 

This logical argument style is most prominent in the early introduction of your manuscript, although the entire introduction could be seen as one long logical argument, with a few smaller more precise arguments being thrown in along the way. You might also use a logical argument in your discussion to explain how you deduce certain inferences from your results, or provide a logical extension for a future study. 

The following science argumentation model is modified from Cope et al (2013:which you can find here):

A framework for a scientific argument

A position statement / question / hypothesis / theory / problematic

This could be thebig ideain your manuscript, or one of several competing concepts that you are introducing. The context in which you are writing might mean that this idea theory needs no introduction (e.g. the theory of evolution in the journal Evolution), but you need to be confident that your audience will understand what you are proposing. 

Remember to cite the person who came up with the idea.

Claim 1

One potential explanation or interpretation of the original idea.

  • Evidence: Literature that agrees with this interpretation (could include an example)
  • Reasoning: Your justification that links the evidence to the claim or interpretation

Claim 2

Another potential explanation, of the previous interpretation of the original idea.

  • Evidence: Literature that agrees with this interpretation (could include an example)
  • Reasoning: Your justification that links the evidence to the claim or interpretation

Counter - claims

Other possible interpretations or counter claims. 


Evaluation: your judgement on weighing up the evidence for the idea.

There are other shorter forms that might suit you better. Consider another classic form of the scientific argument: “compare and contrast” which allows you as a writer to quickly familiarise your reader with some key examples (see herefor practical wording examples). Another sentence structure to consider is explaining cause and effect (see herefor practical wording examples).

We have seenelsewhere  how science is built on the works of those that have worked before us. When we construct a logical argument in science, we do so using this scholarly accumulation of knowledge as presented in the literature:  citations. That is to say that your claims must be backed up by the literature. To do this, you will need to read that literature and make sure that it can back up your claims. Beware of making a baseless claim.

It may be that when researching your question, you come across the same argument using the same literature rehashed time and again in different papers (it happens). Does this give you a green light to do it again? I’d like to think that you already know that there are likely lots of other untapped and better examples out there, and it’d be well worth your while constructing your argument yourself. 

Beware  of copying an argument wholesale. You might well end up getting muddled, or worse perpetuating an error. Better go back and make sure that you understand the original premise and the works that promote or oppose this. Having told you to beware, I’m now going to encourage you to read, because reading is one of the best ways in which you can learn about writing a logical argument (see here). 

Reading critically will make you aware of when you come across an argument. Ask yourself 

  • Did you understand it?
  • Was it written in a conventional style (as in the table above)
    • If not, how was the style broken with and did this improve or detract from the understanding? 

In this writing blog, I concentrate on providing formulaic approaches to writing, because these are by far the easiest ways for inexperienced writers. However, I encourage you to learn and experiment with writing styles as you become more experienced. Critical reading is one of the best ways to learn about alternative writing styles (see here): reading is probably the best way of improving your writing. Alternatively, and especially if the above hasn’t clicked with you, you can read more about writing a scientific argument (see for example here). And there’s plenty more out there. 

Cope, B., Kalantzis, M., Abd-El-Khalick, F. and Bagley, E., 2013. Science in writing: Learning scientific argument in principle and practice.E-learning and Digital Media,10(4), pp.420-441.

  Lab  Writing

Writing the abstract

10 November 2020

Writing the abstract

A good abstract is very important as, like a good title, it advertises the content of the paper and draws readers in. In a world where the quantity of scientific literature is increasing (see here), it is more likely that someone will read your abstract but not your paper. Actually, it’s far more likely that someone will read your title and use that to decide whether or not to look at the abstract. Moreover, when you submit your work to the journal, your editor may decide whether or not to immediately reject your manuscript based on the content of the abstract (see here). Therefore, it had better be good!

What is the abstract?

The abstract is a concise paragraph that sums up the major points of your manuscript so that the potential reader will be able to assess whether or not they want to read the entire paper. It is an abstract of the entire document. It should not be abstract!

So what would a good abstract contain?

A good abstract is a summary of the highlights of the paper. You can’t hope to include all of the results, but you should include relevant statistics that support your major finding. You must include the broader subject area that your study fits into, and show how your results are relevant to this.

None of this is easy, and you should not expect to write your abstract in a single sitting. It will likely require multiple iterations, and some intense word-smithing to make it as good as it can be. Abstracts almost always have a word limit, and that makes it challenging and means that you have to be concise (see here).

Increasingly, you’ll hear that a good abstract is citable. This means that it contains enough information that someone knows that it can be used to cite for a specific fact. Of course, these people should download and read the entire study. 

Where do you start?

Just like planning your writing in general, I’d suggest starting your abstract with an outline. Use bullet points to make a list of things that you feel that you should include. Rearrange your list until you have all the introduction points at the start, results in the middle and discussion at the end. 

There’s no need for detailed methodology, but it is useful to know the approach. For example, ‘we used a common garden experimental approach’ or ‘we sampled 85 animals from three invasive populations’. 

Although many abstracts are provided as a single paragraph, some are structured into the sections of the paper (like this), or as numbered points (like this). Using this formula is a good way to get disciplined about boiling your paper down into a small amount of concise words. It’s worth keeping a copy of any abstract that you compose like this in case you decide to submit to a journal that requires it. 

Starting with this framework will ensure that the abstract is well balanced. 

At this point, I’d circulate it to your advisor to ask whether there are other key points that should be included. As a rule, it’s easier to start with everything present, and only then cut the words down to something within the abstract word limit. If you wordsmith your abstract and then try and add a key point later, it’ll never come out so well.

When do you write your abstract?

Although the abstract comes on page 1 of your manuscript, only try to write it once you’ve got to the end of the process of writing your manuscript. 

Do abstracts for conferences differ?

Yes. It’s likely that an abstract for a talk will not be the same, unless you have already published paper: but even then it’s probably worth re-writing it. I’d suggest that your conference abstract be more descriptive and thought provoking. Pose questions that you will answer in your talk. 

Where do people go wrong in writing the abstract?

The most common mistake is getting the balance wrong. I often see an abstract that gets to the results, runs out of space and simply stops. It is important to have a statement about what the results mean. 

Another common mistake is to have a very simply worded abstract that conveys very little information. There is definitely going to be a lot to put in, so expect to write something too long with too much, and then discuss what can be left out.

Text from the main document is copied into the abstract. I’ve written about this elsewhere (see here), but you should never copy parts of your writing. You could start like this, but wordsmithing must change the words and their order substantially. Otherwise, when the first sentence of the abstract is the same as the first sentence of the manuscript, it will really turn off your readers.

Too many statistics or no numbers are also common mistakes. Often numbers can leave you with more space for other information. 

There is only time for one or two comments on the discussion, so pick out something important. Look through your written discussion and rank the points that you make in terms of interest to others. Can you combine two or more points into a single sentence?

The introduction of the abstract must frame the bigger question, and the discussion must show how your data responds to this. 

Don’t be tempted to overreach with your claims in the abstract (or the main text)

Finish with something conclusive and strong, preferably how this study changes the understanding, and not a caveat or suggested further study.

The abstract does not contain citations (or very rarely and only if unavoidable), so don’t put any in!

  Lab  Writing

The Academic Phrasebank

09 November 2020

Academic phrasebank

When reading papers, I often come across the same phrases time and again. They seem so well honed to the situation that I’m envious about how the writer dreamt them up. Stealing them isn’t quite plagiarism, but then they don’t regularly fit the exact situation that I’m looking for. 

Imagine cutting and pasting them into a file, or even better a database that’s ready for any eventuality. Banking them over time so that they are always available.

Then imagine that you did this and made it available to everyone…

Well, John Morley has already done it, and he’s made it available to everyone. The academic phrasebank is a fantastic resource:

How to find something you need

  • Look across the top for different sections of text that you are currently writing.
  • Then look down the left hand side to see the type of language function that you need. Click on something that looks applicable and watch the database open up.

Getting started & English as a foreign language

It strikes me that this is going to be a fantastic resource for those of you who are not writing in English as your home language. And for those of you who just need a few words to get started. 

It’ll also be useful when you are wanting to wordsmith your introduction or abstract. 


  Lab  Writing
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