I’ve been formally accused of plagiarism twice. I committed plagiarism last month. I am committing plagiarism in this essay. I plan to plagiarize again next week. Last November, I committed plagiarism on a witness stand. It’s amazing I’m not in jail.

I’ve accused friends, colleagues, journal editors, department chairs, deans, and even editors of major textbooks of plagiarism. It’s amazing I have any friends.

Wikipedia defines plagiarism as “the representation of another person’s language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions as one’s own original work” (asamonitor.pub/4bzO3tX). Harvard University defines plagiarism as “any idea or any language from someone else without adequately crediting that source” (asamonitor.pub/3wdnDOp). As noted by the University of Melbourne, “Failing to properly acknowledge where the work or idea came from is dishonest and unacceptable” (asamonitor.pub/3UG2Xc1). ChatGPT-4 agrees: “In academic settings, plagiarism is a serious offense” (asamonitor.pub/4bQiYT5).

We learn from a young age that lying is wrong (with exceptions for Valentine’s Day). We also learn that not all lying is equal. If your mom asks, “Did you hit Billy?” it’s best to tell the truth. However, if Billy hit you, it’s OK to tell your mom, “I’m fine,” even if your arm still hurts. Nuances are important.

“Duplicate submission is intentional deceit: publishing the same results in different publications as though new experiments or new cases had been performed. Duplicate publication must not be confused with plagiarism.”

I had been Editor-in-Chief of Anesthesia & Analgesia for three years when I handled my first case of plagiarism. As described in a subsequent editorial, an author submitted five manuscripts on a single day (Anesth Analg 2012;114:1160-2). Suspicious, I used Google to see if the findings had been published before. Very quickly, Google identified multiple paragraphs copied from the published articles of other authors. I rejected all five submissions with a stern warning about plagiarism.

A few months later, an alert reader identified large blocks of plagiarized text in a published article from a well-known international author. I asked the author for an explanation. The article was written in perfect English, but the reply was unintelligible. The author did not speak English and relied on coauthors who were fluent English speakers. I had no choice but to retract the paper. To my horror, the institution fired the senior author, whose only mistake was trusting the coauthors.

After that experience I screened every submission to Anesthesia & Analgesia using iThenticate (Anesth Analg 2011;112:491-3). The purpose was to protect authors from the harm I had witnessed. I introduced a taxonomy for plagiarism, shown in the Table, to capture the nuances. That taxonomy has been adopted by other journals and publications, including the ASA Monitor.

Table: Nuances of plagiarism for academic editors to consider (Anesth Analg 2016;122:1776-80).

Table: Nuances of plagiarism for academic editors to consider (Anesth Analg 2016;122:1776-80).

By December 2015, I had screened well over 10,000 manuscripts for plagiarism. My screening identified 172 instances of intellectual theft, 124 instances of intellectual sloth, 101 instances of plagiarism for scientific English, and 34 cases of technical plagiarism (Anesth Analg 2016;122:1776-80). Each incident generated a letter from me, often to friends, colleagues, editors (including many of the senior editors at Anesthesia & Analgesia), department chairs, and deans.

The letters were kind, but stern. Most recipients understood that my screening was not to harm their reputations, but to protect their reputations.

Screening also worked. To the best of my knowledge, no papers with extensive plagiarism have been published in Anesthesia & Analgesia since I started screening every submission.

I brought the same practice to the ASA Monitor. In 2020, I began screening every submission (a task now capably handled by our Publications Specialist, Jordan Austin). I identified numerous manuscripts with pasted verbatim text from newspaper columns, blogs, newsletters, and published manuscripts. We worked with authors to revise the submitted manuscript. Typically, this involved adding the proper citation and either enclosing verbatim text in quotation marks or rewriting the text in the authors’ own words.

My own cases of plagiarism are instructive. The first instance involved a kind but stern warning I received as the senior author of a manuscript submitted to Anesthesia & Analgesia. The warning explained that the submitted paper had egregious plagiarism, true intellectual theft. A paragraph in the methods section had been pasted verbatim from a statistics manuscript without attribution.

I wasn’t surprised to receive this letter – because I wrote it. One of my coauthors copied a description of the statistics we used. The coauthor intended to place quotes around the text and add a citation. However, this step was missed while we were completing the paper. If I hadn’t caught the plagiarism through screening, I would have eventually retracted my own paper for plagiarism! That’s not a good look for an editor-in-chief.

The next accusation of plagiarism was a manuscript I wrote about absorption of propofol from the GI tract. I first published these results as an abstract submitted to the International Society for Anaesthetic Pharmacology in 2011. Not surprisingly, many of the methods and the results of my submitted manuscript matched the abstract. An incompetent editor screened my submission and was shocked (shocked!) that about 50% of my submission had been copied verbatim from another paper.

The editor sent me a nastygram accusing me of plagiarism. That’s just dumb. Consider the Wikipedia definition: “the representation of another person’s language…” My words are my words. My scholarship is my scholarship. My abstract and my manuscript should match. Why should any author waste time rewriting a meeting abstract into different words for the final submitted manuscript? Do the words in the abstract now have cooties?

Duplicate submission is intentional deceit: publishing the same results in different publications as though new experiments or new cases had been performed. Duplicate publication must not be confused with plagiarism.

The third accusation is the essay you’re reading. The title, “Plagiarism Is Ubiquitous,” matches the title of an editorial I wrote (Anesth Analg 2016;122:1776-80). It isn’t plagiarism, because I am using my own words.

The other cases of plagiarism I mentioned involve presentations. Speakers often paste online doodads into their slides. Is this plagiarism (Figure)? Yes. It is content created by someone else. The Figure is plagiarized. I didn’t create it. It’s included in Microsoft Office.

Figure: Do you know plagiarism when you see it?

Figure: Do you know plagiarism when you see it?

In November 2023, I explained heart and lung circulation to a jury using a diagram I downloaded. I didn’t provide the jury a URL for the figure. Nobody noticed.

In January, I created a presentation for the ASA® ADVANCE 2024 meeting with some downloaded clip art. Many of the figures are referenced. However, I also have some fun pictures I found online. These aren’t referenced. That’s acceptable, because there are different standards for different media. Talks are fleeting. We cut speakers a break. Publications are enduring. We expect authors to rigorously cite their sources.

Plagiarism and copyright are distinct but easily confused. Consider serialized textbooks. In 2014, two colleagues poured their hearts out about devoting many months to writing textbook chapters. Several years later, they saw their chapters in the next edition of the textbook with another author credited for the chapter. There had been a few trivial changes to “update” the work, but more than 80% of the chapter was their scholarship. The new author had egregiously plagiarized their scholarship (Anesth Analg 2014;118:1-2).

Publishers typically own the copyright of books. Copyright means that the publisher has rights to the copy. Book editors normally invite authors to update chapters, with a note for the publisher explaining that it’s OK because the publisher owns the copyright. It isn’t OK. The author of the “updated” chapter has taken credit for the words and ideas of the previous author without attribution. That’s egregious plagiarism. The publisher only cares about copyright, but the writer of the new chapter has taken credit for the work of the prior author. Shame!

Do chatbots commit plagiarism? I quote ChatGPT-4 in my comments above. Ironically, many web pages use exactly those words to condemn plagiarism (asamonitor.pub/3wo8mKy). Did they independently come up with exactly the same words? Are they plagiarizing each other? Is ChatGPT-4 capable of real scholarship? If not, then most of ChatGPT-4’s output, including the quote above, consists of the words or ideas of others without attribution. That’s plagiarism.

Dealing with plagiarism for nearly two decades has taught me several lessons:

  1. As an author, I always screen my written work for plagiarism. Always. I use iThenticate, but there are many free programs online. It is not unusual that I find verbatim text that I pasted into my manuscript. I don’t do that because I’m a miscreant. It happens because I write constantly, and cut-and-paste is how I keep up. Screening my own papers for plagiarism has prevented my stepping on numerous rakes.
  2. For many years, the Stanford Department of Anesthesiology had a subscription to iThenticate for our faculty. I would encourage all department chairs to institute a policy of 100% plagiarism screening for faculty and trainees. It may save the academic reputation of the faculty and department.
  3. As a journal editor, I insist on 100% manuscript screening. This isn’t to identify academic miscreants. The purpose is to protect authors from allegations of serious misconduct.
  4. I encourage all journal editors to invest the time and intellectual effort to understand the nuances of plagiarism. Accusing authors of plagiarism for writing up a paper that previously appeared as a meeting abstract is just plain dumb.
  5. I encourage everyone, including the news media, to appreciate that plagiarism is ubiquitous. It’s possible that I have personally screened more manuscripts for plagiarism than anyone else in the world. This experience has taught me that plagiarism is almost never the result of an author stealing the scholarship of another author. It’s most commonly an accident. Authors, editors, and reporters should be kind, forgiving, and thoughtful.
  6. Allegations of plagiarism can easily boomerang (asamonitor.pub/3SZJwtE). After all, plagiarism is ubiquitous.

Oops… I plagiarized again.