I have a bit of a dilemma. I am writing a master thesis about a topic that I originally thought was original. It turns out that someone else has done the exact same thing, which forced me to take another perspective on the same topic. Their code and research are old, over 10 years. What I ended up doing is migrating their code to the newest version of the framework used and then evaluating the method in a real-world environment.

Now I am in a situation where I have to start writing the method section of the thesis report where I describe the method and how the original problem was solved, but I have no real theoretical background/models except for the ones that the authors of the previous articles wrote. How should I reference these things? I still want to show the logical evidence and models that they use without plagiarizing their work. Can I use the same/similar pictures/models/evidences in this section of my report and just refer these things to the original authors and their report? Should I mention it in the beginning of the section that all of the models are from the original authors?


If I understand your question correctly, your problem is that you want to write a section of your thesis and indicate that the entire section paraphrases someone else's article. I would simply add a sentence near the beginning of that section that says something like "The following discussion is taken from Watson and Crick (2016)".

Generally speaking, plagiarism not an issue if you clearly cite the other person's work. Copyright is not an issue if you only use a small bit of their text and you clearly indicate that it's a direct quotation (i.e., using quotation marks or block indentation) and cite the source.

Finally, you might need to worry about whether or not you've done enough new work to merit approval of your thesis, or to merit publication. Your advisor can tell you if you've done enough new work for your thesis. The editor of the journal you want to publish in, or the organiser of the conference you want to present at, will ultimately decide if you've made a contribution worth publication in that particular venue.

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  • Yes that is the problem exactly. I basically have no theoretical models, since I didn't change it from the original method. Would it be okay to reference it like this? Wouldn't it be considered plagiarism? – Jssson May 31 '18 at 15:49
  • I've expanded my answer to address your questions. – mhwombat May 31 '18 at 16:11

If I understand correctly, your thesis will be an application to domain A of a method that other authors had proposed for domain B. This sounds like a perfectly OK topic for research. You should of course make amply clear that the method comes originally from these other authors. If you use unpublished material (perhaps they have provided you with code in personal communication) be sure to reference that too.

Another issue is whether the translation of a method to a different domain is substantial enough to meet the requisites of your Master's program. Sometimes this kind of exercise can be very substantial, sometimes less so. This is something that you need to discuss with your supervisor.

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    I think you misunderstood me a little bit. The original authors created a model, and from that model a tool in a popular framework. This was more than 10 years ago, and when the company I work for proposed that I would take this old tool and migrate it to the newest version of this framework and try it out in their projects, to evaluate how much gained performance this tool implies. Said and done, now I have to write about the tool in my report and the problem comes in the method segment. How do I reference all their models, methods? mhwombat in the other comment got it right. – Jssson May 31 '18 at 15:46
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    Well, I'm happy at least one of us got it right, then :) – Schiphol May 31 '18 at 15:49
  • You might want to take part of your comment to my answer and add it as context to your original question. Both our answers start with "if I understand..." which makes me think some more context would be helpful. – Schiphol May 31 '18 at 15:51
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    Yes, what @mhwombat says sounds right. As an alternative, I would have probably suggested something like "This whole section borrows heavily from (Those other guys, 2018)". If you make clear elsewhere (abstract, intro, etc.) that the novelty of your contribution doesn't lie in the model, you should be fine. But, again, norms vary subtly from field to field, and you should check all of this with your supervisor. – Schiphol May 31 '18 at 16:01
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    Thanks a ton for the tips, I feel more confident now. I will definitely discuss this further with my supervisor. If I could upvote I would. Have a good day! – Jssson May 31 '18 at 16:03

I am currently writing a paper in which I use an existing methodology for a new problem. My solution is effectively the following:


We apply the method of [cite original paper] to [problem I am addressing].

I then spend the rest of the Methods section explaining the methodology I cited.

In your case, you could then proceed with something like this:

We re-implement this methodology using [whatever new frameworks etc.]. We make design decisions {A, B, C, ...} in this new implementation because [some reasons].

Later, in Results or maybe Discussion, you could discuss any performance gains your new implementation has over the original.

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    Thanks for the input, I will definitely use this approach in the report. – Jssson Jun 1 '18 at 9:43
  • Glad it helped! – Max von Hippel Jun 1 '18 at 16:08

The answer by @mhwombat is excellent, but to elaborate on one of its key point: the wording of the attribution note at the start of the section should be clear and explicit about how closely you have made use of their material.

Something like “This section/discussion is taken from XYZ” gives the impression it’s close to a direct copy, in which case it’s probably best to make those portions actual direct quotes, and indicate this unmistakably by formatting them as quotes in the text. (That way, the attribution can’t be missed by someone skimming your thesis or reading a few pages out of context.)

If you’re following their general organisation and content but have rewritten it in your own words, then something like “This section is closely follows XYZ”, “…is heavily based on…”, or similar is appropriate (along with, for any direct quotes or figures you re-use, an explicit attribution in the text at the point of use).

If you’re giving your own exposition/organisation of the discussion rather than following theirs, but essentially following them in content because their paper is the main/only source you learned the method from, then something a little weaker like “…is greatly indebted to…”, “…has been heavily informed by…” or similar makes sense (again plus specific attribution in the text for any more directly re-used material).

And, of course, in any case: check with your advisor or other experienced colleagues that whatever you write fits with conventions/expectations in your field.

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