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As a student, the consequence for plagiarism or citing a source incorrectly was usually a reduction in the final grade for the paper.

But, what are the consequences in the "real world"?
If I write a book or paper and (intentionally or unintentionally) cite some of the sources incorrectly, are there any consequences?

Take, for example, these two scenarios:

  1. I write a book/paper and provide citations for sources. A reviewer or reader tries to locate one of the sources as I have cited it, but cannot locate the source. What are the consequences to me (if any)?

  2. I write a book/paper and am accused of plagiarism because there are only so many ways to write "on such-and-such a date, so-and-so was born in such-and-such a place." What are the consequences to me (if any)?

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  • I imagine the consequence will probably be reputation damage. I don't know if peer reviewers look at citations much, but they might point out problems in review. If none of your citations make any sense for the content of the paper, you might be automatically flagged as a fake paper and never even be considered for publishing.
    – towr
    Mar 29 at 17:42
  • Depends on whether your misquoting is material (and viewed as intentional) or immaterial.
    – Alexander
    Mar 29 at 17:46
  • As your question stands, the answer can be anything from a small chance of a reviewer/editor comment (writing Erdös instead of Erdős) to ending your career (blatant plagiarism), but I don’t think this answer surprises you or is what you wish to know. Please edit your question to specify what kind of incorrectness you were thinking about and maybe why.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Mar 29 at 19:23
  • @Wrzlprmft Actually, that answer is what I wish to know. I have updated the question to provide some scenarios. Mar 30 at 19:46

2 Answers 2

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Obviously, this depends on the what you did wrong and whether people believe it was intentional or an honest mistake and in the latter case, how much sloppiness was involved. Citations do not exist for their own sake, so it’s best to look at what possible implications your citation error has:

  • It is more difficult or impossible to find an existing source for readers, editors, and reviewers. This reflects badly on your diligence and people will turn to you to fix these errors. Possible consequences:

    • Reviewers ask you to fix your citations which may lead to another round of peer review (if the citation is central and they cannot find it at all).
    • Editors reject your work because you couldn’t be bothered to adhere to minimum standards.
    • Reviewers and editors are more likely to reject your paper because they expect you to perform your research as sloppily as your citations or wonder what you are trying to hide (if only intention can explain the badness of your citations).
    • You get e-mails from readers asking you to clarify your citations.

    Mind that most citations styles include so much redundancy that honest mistakes only make it more difficult to identify a source, not impossible. If a source cannot be identified with reasonable effort, this at least suggests intention.

  • Plagiarism: You are presenting somebody else’s work as your own. This particularly includes abstract ideas, but it may also be writing, graphics, or similar. If people are convinced that this happened intentionally, this can end your career. There is a sparsely populated but large grey area where sloppiness is a plausible explanation. Beyond that are cases where people think you should put a citation but nobody really thinks that you intended to sell something as your own or cases like your second example where nobody except automatisms would even look for citations or consider it plagiarism. (Mind that if you actually copied your second example, you should still cite. You should also ask yourself why you needed to copy that.)

  • Self-plagiarism: You are presenting your own work as something new when it isn’t.

  • False sources: You back up claims by citations that don’t back them up, either because they don’t exist at all or simply do not contain what you claim they do. If it is clear that this is intentional, this can end your career as you are deceiving others (like plagiarism). If you made an honest mistake e.g., by misunderstanding what a source claims, your mileage may vary widely and it depends, once more, on things like how sloppy you were.

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When you write papers, getting citations and attribution right is part of your job.
The consequences for not doing your job are what they usually are. Depending on the severity and intent, you can get "spoken to" or demoted, up to fired, and banned from "the industry".

Honest mistakes and slips are forgivable, as long as it is not a habit (in which case you're not suitable for the job). Peer reviewers will point out mistakes they see, and you can fix these before they are published. Some mistakes can be fixed after publication with corrections. But if it affects the conclusion of your article and requires a retraction, then it is hugely costly to the journal, and to your reputation. The journal will remember that the next time you submit a paper.

If your paper has problems that are clearly intentional, such as blatant plagiarism, or made-up/falsified data. Then you will probably lose your job. And never be able to get another job in science.
Of course it's not always clear cut where the line is between a mistake and intentional fraud, but a reputation for carelessness isn't good for your career either.


To address the examples:

If a reader cannot find a source you cited, they may contact you. If you then cannot provide the source, people will have good reason to think you made it up. You might be publicly taken to task on twitter, or just become a subject of gossip in academic circles.
Suffice it to say, people will start doubting your other work. They may actively scour your other papers for mistakes, and bring all those up in the open.

I think it's highly unlikely you would be accused of plagiarism for a single sentence that could easily exist by chance. However, surely you didn't make up some person's date and place of birth yourself; there must be a source for it, regardless of whether it's an unattributed quote or not.

If you have a whole paragraph that matches some other paper, or several paragraphs, then it becomes increasingly unlikely you thought of it yourself, and more likely you're copying it. Now, this might still happen by accident, you could even unintentionally reproduce things from memory after having read a paper weeks ago. You may get away with that explanation once or twice, but when it happens habitually people will stop believing it.

Also note that many journals now do automatic plagiarism checks, so there's a good chance your paper (if it has plagiarized content) will simply be rejected, or at least won't get published until you fix it.

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