Back to basics – writing skills

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The case of Carrie Pfeiffer-Fiala raises some interesting questions, and may even supply, if not answers, at least some insight into “accidental” plagiarism.

As reported in Scene & Heard, in an article by Doug Brown which was headlined Ex-Kent State Ph.D-Candidate’s Lawsuit: No Such Thing as ‘Plagiarism’ in First Drafts, Pfeiffer-Fiala had submitted a first draft of the first chapter of her PhD dissertation to her professor.  Her professor found unattributed passages and claimed she had plagiarised parts of her dissertation. Pfeiffer-Fiala argued that this was but a draft.  Brown quotes her as arguing “that she knew that citations were incomplete in the draft … and that any citation omissions were inadvertent would be addressed in the editing process and subsequent iterations towards a final submission… .” The case is going to law.

As Jonathan Bailey points out in histake on the case in his blog for iThenticate, Ctrl-V, plagiarism in the news, we do not know how all the circumstances, and we do not know how much of the draft chapter was unattributed use of other people’s material. He suggests that, on the one hand, this was a draft which would likely be heavily revised during the writing process and was known to be incomplete.  Against that, he also suggests that unattributed use of other people’s material may still be viewed as a “serious ethical issue,” even in a first draft.

I won’t comment on the ethical issue. As Bailey says, we do not know enough about the situation.

I would propose, however, that the intention to address citation omissions later is surely poor writing practice. It is poor practice in that it demands double the work. It provides opportunities for mistakes, for places in which citation is needed to be missed.   It invites accidental omissions – and thus “accidental” plagiarism.

Is this how some students write?  First write the piece, the paper, the essay, the dissertation, and then go through, looking for points at which citation is needed because those passages have been borrowed from elsewhere?

Even poorer practice, write the piece, the paper, the essay, the dissertation, and then rely on a “plagiarism detection service” to discover text matches which will then be given attributions – or reworded so utterly that a match to the original cannot be generated and citation is thus “unnecessary”?

While one might not – should not – expect perfectly formatted citations and references in the drafting stages and before completion, would it not be better for writers to mark, highlight, change colour of the font or in some other way distinguish use of other poeple’s words and work, so they know as they go just what pieces and passages need attention and re-working?

(Early draft of one of my own papers; highlighting indicates passages I know need reworking!)

It can often be difficult to start writing, and sometimes, once the ideas do start coming, the writer might not want to break the flow in order to go to notes or bookmarks to find exact quotes or references. Nevertheless, it does not take but a moment to make a note for oneself, issue to be addressed…

Notes such as [citation needed] or [find exact quote] should be sufficient to make a supervisor realise that the writer is not claiming authorship or originality – and of course such notes pinpoint places to which the writer must return, points where more work is needed. Notes such as or [more needed] or [is this relevant?] help the memory, help the writer, and will help any incidental reader during the drafting process.

It’s all part of the writing process, learning and knowing how to integrate one’s reading and one’s notes into the composition.

The more we can do to improve the writing process, at least in these respects, the less opportunity there might be for accidental plagiarism to creep in.


Bailey, Jonathan. Ex-Kent State Ph.D-Candidate’s Lawsuit: No Such Thing as ‘Plagiarism’ in First Drafts. Ctrl-V: Plagiarism in the News, issue 17. 5 December 2013. <>

Brown, Doug. Ex-Kent State Ph.D-Candidate’s Lawsuit: No Such Thing as ‘Plagiarism’ in First Drafts. Scene + Heard, 15 November 2013. <>

One thought on “Back to basics – writing skills

  1. Pingback: Back to basics (2) | Honesty, honestly…

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