How common is common knowledge?

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of Current Exchange Magazine.

“Proteins are the workhorses of the cell”. According to Google, some 42,800 articles and web pages have used this sentence verbatim to preface their work. What’s more, they did so without citing whomever first thought it clever to compare proteins to workhorses. Does this constitute plagiarism?

And what about those who claim that proteins are instead the machinery of the cell? Examples such as these illustrate that, except in rare cases of blatant copying, plagiarism has many shades of grey. On the issue of plagiarism, Fang and Casadevall argue that good scientists are those who “strike out on their own paths, using their own words”.

Indeed, shamelessly copy-pasting without proper citation is one of the most common definitions of plagiarism. However, with such a definition, would it then be acceptable to re-publish Fang and Casadevall’s article in a different journal, replacing each word with a synonym? The National Academy of Science (NAS)—and the author of this article—would not think so.

In their handbook that treats responsible conduct in research, the NAS goes further. It insists that plagiarism goes beyond using the same turns of phrase; it is about stealing ideas and is an infraction committed “intentionally, or knowingly, or recklessly”. In that same handbook, the NAS suggests a case study where a certain Professor Lee is writing a research grant. In the background section, he includes short sentences copied from a review paper he did not write.

These sentences are not novel ideas, but summarize what is known in the field. He ends the section with a one-sentence summary of that review paper and cites it. Whether this is plagiarism is debatable. The case study suggests that the ‘borrowed’ sentences are common knowledge, much like the introductory sentence of this essay. If so, I would argue this isn’t plagiarism on purely practical grounds: Whom would he cite if a dozen other papers also used a similar sentence?

That said, one would do better to choose different words in any case, if only to avoid clichés. Otherwise, if Professor Lee uses sentences that constitute novel ideas synthesized by someone else, he may want to heed the NAS’ warning that, in a stroke of misfortune, the author of the review paper may be sitting on the committee that evaluates his grant.

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