What is the process of checking a research paper for plagiarism?

Plagiarism can be a tricky matter. Here a CTRL-C, there a CTRL-V: it’s a shortcut to copy and paste text; it can also be a quick method to insert another author’s words and ideas into a document. Doing this without acknowledging sources is an act of stealing. Most students commit plagiarism unwittingly through naivety, unawareness of citing etiquette, severe time constraints, or lack of confidence in their ability to communicate their ideas in English.

The consequences of plagiarism can be ugly. It can severely damage the reputation of authors and co-authors of papers and throw a long shadow on their personal credibility and academic careers. In a recent incident in Germany, two cabinet ministers were forced to step down on grounds of unethical behavior as a result of plagiarism in their academic work. So what is the process for reviewers to check research papers for plagiarism? Here's what to look out for:

Curious formatting
Often the easiest way to spot copied sections of writing is changes in font or paragraph formats. Look for signs like varying line spacing, margins and heading styles.

Obvious flaws in cohesion and grammar
A sudden change in the level of prose, writing style, or complexity of vocabulary is usually a good indicator of cosmetic tweaks or outright plagiarism. Look for obvious variations in the flow or quality of language.

Inconsistent citation formats
The use of different methods to cite information sources is a red flag. In most cases authors of the paper have not realized that the citation styles of various references do not match.

Intellectual dissonance
Sometimes, there is no evidence of literal plagiarism, but it is clear that the writer is conveying an idea or point of view originally expressed by someone else. This is especially evident when there is logical discordance, badly paraphrased sections or undeveloped ideas. 

Sudden visibility of very good matter
A large chunk of eloquent matter in an otherwise average manuscript might be a sign of borrowed material. Some authors lift material directly when it perfectly conveys what they wanted to say, without realizing that they have to attribute source.

Patchy information
When some data in the manuscript is diligently referenced whereas other tables and figures have no reference, this could indicate various data sources.

Confused language usage
It’s worth a closer investigation when the document is flowing along with American spelling and language conventions and suddenly there’s a very British turn of phrase.

Inconsistent sections
When a manuscript has a section that clearly does not belong, there’s room for verification. It is very unlikely that the same author has written a brilliant, stylish introduction full of panache, when the rest of the document collapses into a mess of logic and structure.

Incriminating evidence
Irrefutable evidence left on the document that points straight to the stolen work is a sign of a lazy or inattentive writer who has forgotten to clean up. It is a damning clue left at the scene of a crime.

Writers have to work hard to ensure that their readers always know which parts of the manuscript is their own independent work and where they have drawn on someone else's ideas and language. “Borrowing” sentences and ideas from other manuscripts without acknowledgement is not just unethical; it is dangerous.

Reviewers today have at their disposal a host of software that conducts plagiarism checks and presents detailed reports. However, results from these applications should always be interpreted by the subject knowledge of an editorial expert to determine whether there are any grounds for concern. Why bother going to all this trouble? Quoting from the landing page of Citation Machine’s website, “Because someday the information that someone else wants to use will be yours.”

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