On Research Writing:
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

By Jennifer L. Greer and Julia S. Austin
The Graduate School
The University of Alabama at Birmingham

Eminent scholars, such as the late Joseph M. Williams at the University of Chicago and author of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, have written about how writers experience temporary declines in performance when they move up an educational level, change academic fields, or take on longer, more complex writing tasks.  These conditions are all present in graduate school, where students must write to gain admission, pass courses, publish articles, win grant funding, and earn diplomas. Williams called this rhetorical implementation dip “stylistic aphasia” (1995, p. 11), and he said that it happens when we write about a topic that we do not fully understand. Think about it. Graduate writers must start by reviewing the scientific literature, which requires understanding other people’s empirical research, statistical methods, and complex, abstract or technical concepts and processes. Additionally, they must be able to anticipate the needs of multiple audiences – professors, fellow students, lab directors, other scholars, grant committees, readers, journal editors, and peer review teams. Finally, they must write to publication standards.  Meeting these needs calls for more time spent on incubation of ideas, reflection on drafting, and scrutiny of content and revising, but new writers may not have built these processes into their work and study habits.  

Click here for a list of tips on how to Write Smarter and information on two graduate writing courses at UAB that can help you master research writing and style, GRD 727 and GRD 712.

Yes and no. Software detection programs identify a series of words – i.e., six or more – that represent exact matches with previously produced texts in their large databases. So, these programs are designed to catch copying or use of unmarked text (no quotations or indentions) from another source. When matches are identified, the decision about whether they represent plagiarism rests with the instructor. This call is complicated by the fact that plagiarism is a normative ethical standard, not a legal one. That’s why it is important to understand your institution’s honor code. At UAB, based on our code, “plagiarism means claiming as your own the ideas, words, data, computer programs, creative compositions, artwork, etc., done by someone else. Examples included improper citation of referenced works, the use of commercially available scholarly papers, failure to cite sources, or copying another person’s ideas.” While this definition may seem simple, researchers have identified related phenomena, such as mosaic plagiarism (deliberate, unethical weaving of sources that is misrepresented as the writer’s own work), patchwriting (honest attempts at paraphrasing gone awry by less skilled writers), accidental plagiarism or cryptomnesia (tricks that the brain plays on memory, causing exact phrases to be borrowed inadvertently), and self-plagiarism (unethical or unintentional recycling of previously published work). Hence, it’s also critical for graduate writers to re-examine their summarizing, sourcing, and citing processes to ensure that they create true, ethical, and accurate syntheses of the materials they read. Even honest and talented writers can get tripped up by sloppy practices if they engage in poor planning and binge writing. To help writers avoid problems, here at the UAB Graduate School, we promote the adoption of an Ethical Summary Protocol (ESP).

Click here for instructions on how to incorporate a 5-step Ethical Summary Protocol (ESP)
into your writing process.

This is is a delicate, but serious situation for several reasons. Incidents of scientific misconduct reflect negatively on anyone who authors (or co-authors) the paper in question, even if he or she is not the plagiarist. At a miniumn, a published paper can be retracted, meaning that you may have spent years researching and writing and have no publication to show for it. For the plagiarist, stronger consequences can ensue, such as netting a failing grade in a course, getting ejected from graduate school, losing a job, or being denied grant funding, or a publishing contract. To prevent this from happening, we encourage graduate writers working in groups to begin projects by openly reflecting on the roles they play in the process and the need for ethical outcomes for everyone. This may be easy for experienced authors to do, but difficult for new authors to imagine. One good way to start this discussion is a role play that brings to life the different professional interests involved in the publication of a single article. This activity works, in part, because research shows that common morality is socially constructed, i.e. developed in cooperation with the people around us. For a role play that includes the reader (consumer of research), the author and co-authors, his or her advisor/boss, the journal editor, and the intellectual network of sources, see Constructing Scholarship

Yes, and this is often a source of surprise and frustration for research writers. Once you publish an article, you sign over a portion of the copyright to that journal, so you cannot re-use the exact text in another writing project for another journal. You may even have restrictions on how you re-use that article (i.e., whether you can post it on your web site). This is why it is important to carefully read and understand the author’s guidelines so you can honor your obligations. Note: This ethical norm changes with context. On one hand, re-using course papers in college is against academic conduct codes and highly unethical; however, some instructors, especially those in graduate school, may sanction the building of longer papers from one course to another. If you are contemplating using work from one course in another, always check with both instructors in advance, rather than risk a failing grade or ejection from the school for redundant publication. One common question along these lines from research writers is about the Methods sections of empirical papers.  Once researchers establish a methodology that works for them, they may re-use it repeatedly. However, a journal may consider the Methods sections as falling under the same copyright protection as other sections of the paper. If that is the case, writers should update and revise their Methods sections to avoid self-plagiarizing, or write a brief summary of the methodology that references the prior work as a source for the complete Methods description. If this is an issue for you, check with the journal or a senior advisor/published author in your field to see what the standard is. Not everyone worries about self-plagiarism in Methods sections, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which oversees ethics in many federally funded grants. Its website states that the ORI “generally does not pursue the limited use of identical or nearly-identical phrases which describe a commonly-used methodology or previous research because ORI does not consider such use as substantially misleading to the reader or of great significance.”

Click here for more on this issue from the ORI in a set of guidelines called, Avoiding Plagiarism, Self-plagiarism, and Other Questionable Writing Practices: A Guide to Ethical Writing, by the respected researcher Miguel Roig at http://ori.hhs.gov/policies/plagiarism.shtml and http://ori.hhs.gov/education/products/plagiarism/plagiarism.pdf

In research writing, "voice" can mean different things. If you mean "point of view," you usually have to hold back on it until you get to the end, or, the Discussion section of the paper, where you can interject your own interpretation. By contrast, in the earlier Introduction section, you focus mostly on Other People's Work (OPW) as you describe the state of the science as it has developed so far. However, if you define "voice" as communicating your intelligence by the strategic way you frame a problem, the sources you go to (the best and the newest), the questions you ask (socially relevant and timely), and the clear, insightful synthesis you offer, then you can do that from the beginning of your paper. The only parts of the "rules" that might frustrate your original thinking are remembering the fine points of formatting and citation (style for a book source vs. web site vs. article).  Budget your brainpower and time, learn and polish formatting at the end of a writing day, after your best ideas are already down on paper. Or, consider automating part of this process with reference management software solutions like Endnote.

Click here for access to a free version of Endnote for UAB students through the UAB libraries.

Reading and citing an expert source that confirms a lived experience can raise it to a level of priority that helps you advocate for change and better science (especially for under-served or overlooked populations). More importantly, when you cite a published work that has been peer reviewed, you engage in an important element of the scientific endeavor. Scholars trade in informed opinion, not just opinion, which is why our conversation is dramatically different from the one you hear on TV talk shows (and, hopefully, more credible and generalizable.) Note: It’s important not to fall into the unfortunate habit of seeing citations and references as a negative, or something that detracts from your paper. It will slow you down, cause you to stop and mentally debate every citation, and potentially make a mistake. Instead, view citations as a part of the knowledge sharing and building process that is fundamental to research.

For more insight into why we source and cite, click here for a link to our Citing & Referencing FAQs.