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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2008
Avoiding Those Little Inadvertent Lies When
Writing Papers

Miguel Roig, PhD, St. John's University, Staten Island Campus (NY)

As a college professor with over 20 years of teaching experience, I have come to appreciate the value of good writing. Unfortunately for me, writing has always been a somewhat aversive task for it takes me a considerable amount of time and effort to produce a good written product. I know the same applies to a number of my colleagues and many students. Because of the many competing demands on our time, some of us often procrastinate when faced with the task of writing. When students wait until the very last minute to write a paper, the end result is likely to be a poor academic product that fails to represent the best of their abilities. This situation is exacerbated if these types of assignments are viewed as arbitrary, instructor-imposed hurdles to be overcome in the most expedient and economical way possible. Such an attitude is incompatible with what is expected of an aspiring professional and must be replaced by a different attitude, one in which such assignments represent an opportunity to acquire an in-depth understanding of some aspect of the course or to broaden knowledge in a specific area. Writing a research paper also allows students to learn how to synthesize findings from one or more areas of research into a coherent whole. It can also help in the development of new insights about interesting psychological phenomena. Perhaps most important of all, writing papers allows students the opportunity to further enhance their reading, writing, and critical thinking skills—skills highly sought after by employers and graduate admissions committees.

One of the most serious consequences of poor writing is that sometimes it may lead to inadvertently deceptive practices. For example, students may engage in inappropriate paraphrasing or may fail to credit sources. Both of these lapses are potentially serious offenses as they could result in a charge of plagiarism. Or, in an effort to make their case, students may exaggerate the importance of the phenomenon under review or the extent to which the existing literature supports their point of view. As psychologists-in-training within the scientist/ practitioner model, and particularly as members of the honor society in psychology, we have an ethical obligation to be faithful to the pursuit of truth. Consequently, students must make every effort to avoid these inappropriate writing practices and always strive for excellence.

One approach that I have found useful in this regard is to introduce the concept of ethical writing (e.g., Kolin, 2001, pp. 24-31). This notion refers to an implicit contract between the reader and the writer whereby the reader assumes, unless otherwise clearly noted in the paper, that (a) the material presented is original, that is, the individual listed as the author is the one who wrote the paper; (b) facts and figures presented are accurate; and (c) the written product is new and has not been submitted elsewhere. With these assumptions in mind, let’s review some common student writing practices that violate these basic principles.

Paraphrasing, Summarizing, and Plagiarism
I cannot imagine a student who in this day and age is not familiar with the concept of plagiarism. Yet, I have read too many student papers in which the authors have either come very close to or have (unknowingly, I hope) committed outright plagiarism because they did not know how to properly paraphrase or summarize from sources. In some cases, students mistakenly feel that as long as a citation is provided, it is acceptable to take portions of text verbatim from another source, or that as long as they change a few words, minor modifications constitute an acceptable paraphrase. Some students even believe that if the material is taken from the Internet, it can be recycled word-for-word without the need for a citation. These practices are unacceptable, as they constitute plagiarism. Material taken from another source, whether it is a book, a journal, a magazine, an Internet site, or a lecture, can either be enclosed in quotation marks, summarized, or paraphrased. A citation must be included in each of these instances. For example, let’s suppose you are writing a paper on astrology and you find the following material from Coon (1995) useful and want to include it in your paper:

If you have ever had your astrological chart done, you may have been impressed with its seeming accuracy. Careful reading shows many such charts to be made up of mostly flattering traits. Naturally, when your personality is described in desirable terms, it is hard to deny that the description has the ‘ring of truth’ (p. 29).

You could copy the entire segment, enclose it in quotation marks, and provide a reference citation as follows:

If you have ever had your astrological chart done, you may have been impressed with its seeming accuracy. Careful reading shows many such charts to be made up of mostly flattering traits. Naturally, when your personality is described in desirable terms, it is hard to deny that the description has the ‘ring of truth’ (Coon, 1995, p. 29).

Or you could summarize it as follows:

Because astrological charts are mostly positive, people are more inclined to accept them and thus believe in their accuracy (Coon, 1995).

Or you could paraphrase it as follows:

According to Coon (1995), astrological charts are primarily composed of complimentary attributes. He noted that when we are described with positive, laudable traits, we are more inclined to accept these flattering portraits of ourselves. Thus, it is no surprise to Coon that individuals who have had their charts done tend to be swayed by their apparent precision.

Notice how most of the words and the sentence structure in these new versions have been substantially modified. Now consider an inappropriately paraphrased version:

According to Coon (1995), if you ever have had your astrological chart done, you were probably impressed by how accurate it seemed. A careful reading indicates many such charts to be made up of mainly flattering traits. Of course, it is hard to deny that the description has the ‘ring of truth’ when your personality is described in desirable terms.

Why is the above version inappropriately paraphrased? Because even though the author provided a citation, the author misappropriated significant portions of verbatim text (i.e., italicized text) from the original. Such paraphrasing is not acceptable and is viewed as plagiarism.

In sum, when we paraphrase, we have to reproduce the meaning of the other author’s ideas using our own words and sentence structure. However, you should not rely primarily on paraphrasing others’ material. In fact, your professors are more likely to expect that you summarize the important points from the sources you consult for your paper and the process of summarizing is a little different. When we summarize, we condense, in our own words, a substantial amount of material into a short paragraph or perhaps even into a sentence. To properly paraphrase and/or summarize text, the writer must have a thorough conceptual understanding of the material and the proper command of the terminology employed in that knowledge domain. Because it is likely that when you write a paper some or most of the material will be new to you, a good dictionary of terms used in psychology can be very helpful. Also, if you have Internet access, sites of secondary sources such as Wikipedia can be excellent resources to help you understand unfamiliar information that you uncover from your research of the primary literature (i.e., journal articles).

Self-Plagiarism (Double Dipping)
A related unethical writing practice is the concept of self-plagiarism, which occurs when students submit academic work that had been previously submitted to another course. Many students do not consider this practice as a form of cheating. But what about reusing half of a previously submitted paper or a quarter of a paper? On very rare occasions, I have actually allowed students to submit portions of a paper previously submitted for another course that I had taught, as long as the material in the resubmitted version was substantially revised and enhanced. For example, a student in one of my classes who had submitted a research proposal (literature review and methods section) as part of the requirements for one course was allowed to carry out the actual study described in the proposal. For the more advanced course, I let her submit a longer version of the paper, which included an expanded literature review and the old methods section, plus new results and discussion sections. A professor may determine that such resubmission of previously graded work may be appropriate in cases such as the one described above. However, in those cases, instructors in both courses must be fully informed of the intended reuse of the academic product and both should approve the reuse. Again, be mindful of the reader-writer contract. If any portion of an old paper is to be reused in a new paper, the author has an ethical obligation to inform the reader (i.e., the instructor) of the extent of such reuse.

Issues With Citations
Citing articles that were not read. Over the years I have seen too many cases of (inadvertently?) deceptive citation practices. A common transgression occurs when a student finds an article that summarizes the pertinent literature and in her paper cites various studies reviewed in the article. However, the student never actually read any of those studies! This is a deceptive practice that must be avoided. When an article is listed in the reference section of a paper, the reader (e.g., the instructor) assumes the student has read that article. It is true that there may be times when a study cited in a review article has been published in a journal that may be difficult to locate. After all, no one should expect that their college or university library carry a subscription to every one of the nearly 30,000 scholarly scientific journals now available. In such cases, it is acceptable to cite that study as long as we inform the reader of the fact that the information cited is derived from a secondary source. In fact, the APA’s Publication Manual (2001) provides a specific format and an example for such situations. In the APA example, if the article read by the student was authored by Colheart, Curtis, Atkins, and Haller in 1993, and the difficult-to-locate article was authored by Seidenber and McClelland, the citation would appear as follows in the student paper:

"A study by Seidenber and McClelland (as cited in Coltheart, Curtis, Atkins, & Haller, 1993) demonstrates that …”.

Only the Coltheart et al. reference would appear in the reference section of the paper. Typically, the expectation is that students will consult primary sources; therefore, I recommend that this type of strategy only be used under exceptional circumstances.

Listing the full citation instead of the abstract. A situation related to the above scenario occurs when students locate abstracts from journal articles that are relevant to their paper. They cite material from the abstract in the body of their paper, but cite the actual paper without indicating that the material had been derived from the abstract. Consistent with the principles of ethical writing, the APA manual requires that authors identify the citation as an abstract, rather than the actual article, as follows

Fournier, M., de Ridder, D., & Bensing, J. (1999). Optimism and adaptation to multiple sclerosis: What does optimism mean? Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 22, 303-326. Abstract retrieved March 10, 2003, from PsychINFO database.

Other Questionable Writing Practices
Selective reporting.
Scientific truth and responsible scholarship entail the highest degree of objectivity in reporting the results of our research. As aspiring professionals, we have an ethical obligation to present relevant points of view in a fair and balanced manner. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons we sometimes lose our objectivity, and the result can be a paper that is slanted favorably towards the particular position we hold with a negative bias against those positions we argue against. Such biases can be very pernicious and manifest themselves in a variety of ways. For example, in reviewing the literature, authors may downplay or be unfairly dismissive of evidence that is contrary to their hypotheses or theories while at the same time exaggerate the importance of supporting evidence. In other instances, authors may fail to report results of analyses that are not consistent with their hypothesis. In sum, ethical writing demands complete fairness and objectivity.

Acknowledging others’ assistance. It is common for professors to have one of their colleagues review their papers before submitting them for publication. Having someone review our work will often result in the detection of problems that managed to escape our scrutiny. Likewise, students may have a sibling or peer review their work. In both instances, the authors have an ethical obligation to acknowledge the nature and extent of any assistance received. This is typically done with a short footnote (i.e., author note in APA style) at the end of the paper. Identifying the nature of assistance received from others allows your instructor to determine the extent to which the academic product is the result of your own individual efforts and abilities. This is an important step in obtaining a fair assessment of your academic products.

Using an excess amount of quoted material. Perhaps as a result of inadequate writing skills or possibly academic laziness, students sometimes include an excessive amount of quoted text from one or more sources. With some exceptions (e.g., the use of a technical term or phrase, or in book reviews), the inclusion of quoted portions of text from other sources is not a common occurrence in published journal articles and the same expectation applies to student papers. However, some student authors tend to abuse this legitimate mechanism of conveying information by including several portions of quoted text. In the eyes of most instructors, such excessive use of quotations reflects poorly on the student. Quotes from other sources should only be used in exceptional circumstances, such as when even the best paraphrase fails to convey the elegance of the original.

The Causes of Unethical Writing
On many occasions, I find that cases of plagiarism and other unethical writing practices occur because students procrastinate to the point of being unwilling or unable to invest the necessary time and intellectual resources to create a good academic product. Academic procrastination has been recognized as a significant factor in poor student performance and many universities’ counseling centers offer students tips for minimizing its effects (see, for example, SUNY at Buffalo’s web site: stressprocrast.shtml or Cal Poly’s site: procrastination.html). For a more detailed review of the latest counseling methods designed to tackle the problem of academic procrastination, see the work of Schowuenburg, Lay, Pychyl, and Ferrari (2004).

In other instances unethical writing practices are the result of inexperience and/or ignorance of proper scholarly conventions. To address this gap in students’ knowledge, an increasing number of university libraries have developed tutorials on plagiarism and proper citation practices. For example, see Rutgers’ very entertaining video tutorial at EducationalModule/Plagiarism/. For a more comprehensive treatment of these issues written specifically for advanced science students and beginning professionals, see my on-line instructional resource on ethical writing at

The Importance of Ethical Writing
In closing, I wish to emphasize, again, how important it is for students to develop good writing skills. Clear and effective writing is critical to academic success, and it is one of the most valued skills in the modern workplace. However, whether it is being used for academic or professional purposes, writing must not only be mechanically sound, clear, and persuasive, it must also be accurate and, above all, honest. I note that these principles of ethical writing are also relevant to other facets of personal and professional life. Because our discipline requires a life-long dedication to ethical, professional conduct, our writing must also exemplify that same level of moral commitment.

American Psychological Association. (2001). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Coltheart, M., Curtis, B., Atkins, P., & Haller, M. (1993). Models of reading aloud: Dual-route and parallel-distributed-processing approaches. Psychological Review, 100, 589-608.

Coon, D. (1995). Introduction to psychology: Exploration and application (7th ed.). New York: West.

Kolin, P. C. (2001). Successful writing at work (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Schowuenburg, H. C., Lay, C., Pychyl, T. A., & Ferrari, J. R. (2004). Counseling the procrastinator in academic settings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Miguel Roig received his PhD in cognitive studies from Rutgers University Newark (NJ) in 1989. That same year, he joined the faculty of St. John's University, Staten Island Campus (NY) where he is currently an associate professor in psychology. Since the early 1990s, Miguel has been carrying out research in the area of academic dishonesty with an emphasis on the problem of plagiarism. His research now encompasses other authorship issues falling within the scope of the Responsible Conduct of Research. This article is based on a presentation Miguel made at the 78th Annual Meeting of EPA in Philadelphia, PA, March 2007. He thanks Susan Iles, Lisa Mantooth, Virginia Andreoli Mathie, and Maryellen Reardon for comments and suggestions made to an earlier draft of this article.

Copyright 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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