Suppose a secondary source proves that poverty was rampant in the Middle Ages by using a variety of primary sources (or statistics from other secondary sources). If years after reading this secondary source I decide I want to make the same claim (that poverty was common), would it be plagiarism to make this exact same statement using the exact same sources (supposing I actually noted and remembered them)?

In other words, can you plagiarize an objective fact or claim when it's backed up by concrete facts, regardless of whether or not someone else has made the same claim?

If that example above is too vague, let me paraphrase with a problem that I have encountered recently. I once read a source that said that Sultan Suleiman (who led an attack on Vienna hundreds of years ago) had his good and his bad qualities because he was ruthless in war yet was very chivalrous domestically. If I can't find this source again, can I just find other sources that talk about his ruthlessness and his chivalry, and then make the same conclusion?

My personal opinion is that yes, this is totally fine, because these conclusions are not the author's own voice, but rather what evidence shows to be a fact. If a source tried to make the claim that Suleiman had bipolar disorder, then this would have to be cited since this is not a fact but rather a subjective interpretation. However, an identical piecing together of "microfacts" to create "macrofacts" does not seem like something that could be categorized as plagiarism.

Notwithstanding, I'd like some second thoughts on this. Am I correct?

  • 2
    See Getting secondary citations right. – ff524 Dec 11 '18 at 22:18
  • 4
    If you can remember the secondary source, you should cite it (secondarily) as the origin of your idea; the interesting question (IMO) is what to do if you can't remember/relocate the original source within a reasonable amount of time/effort. – Ben Bolker Dec 11 '18 at 22:55
  • 1
    @BenBolker Thanks for your input. I agree with you that knowing what to do in the case of not being able to locate the source of the original idea is tricky. If the idea were totally original, then of course it's either cite it or don't mention it, but I tend to think finding the same conclusion (or evidence that points to the conclusion) in another source is acceptable. – TheExchange2000 Dec 11 '18 at 23:56
  • This is a question I've wondered about myself. I'm thinking of cases where I first encountered some idea in a certain source, but, upon learning the facts it was based on, came to the conclusion that the idea was self-evident and that I would have almost certainly come to the same (independent) conclusion had I encountered the evidence/facts first rather than the conclusion/idea. The question, then, is whether the simple fact that I read the idea in a source obligates me to cite it, or whether the real rule is whether the idea is truly unique or at least a notable accomplishment. – Robert Columbia Dec 12 '18 at 3:17

To answer this question, one need look no further than the dictionary, which defines “plagiarism” as

the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own

What you are describing absolutely fits this definition. You read ideas that were published by another researcher some years ago, tying together some historical facts and drawing conclusions from them about Sultan Suleiman. Now you want to republish those exact same ideas in your own name (with immaterial differences in which sources you rely on to justify the exact same claims), without citing the source or even the fact that you read these ideas in an unnamed source you are now unable to locate.

Sure sounds like “passing off someone else’s ideas as your own” to me. So yes, of course it would be plagiarism. All those rationalizations about “not the author’s own voice”, “objective conclusions” and so forth, are just that - rationalizations. If you want to publish a paper, find something original to say, and don’t mislead your readers about the provenance of your ideas.

  • So if I write a biography and I want to mention Suleiman's brutal war tactics and his chivalry beside each other, it's off limits to narrate this as being duplicity in his character since someone has once said this before? I don't see this as being an idea, because no one brainstormed that Suleiman was that way; he simply was. – TheExchange2000 Dec 12 '18 at 15:00
  • 1
    You’re overthinking this whole business. Plagiarism is passing off someone else’s ideas as your own, period. You can twist words all you want but I think people generally know what an “idea” is when they see one, so I don’t see a point in debating what constitutes an idea. Also, it is inaccurate to say that it is “off-limits” to mention something that someone else said. You can mention it as much as you want, but unless it’s something really trivial or obvious or it was your own original idea, you need to attribute where you got it from. – Dan Romik Dec 12 '18 at 19:53

Can you plagiarize a fact- or evidence-based, objective conclusion/claim?

Yes, of course! If not, then I could copy every scientific result or mathematical theorem I ever read and publish them as my own.

  • Perhaps I should have specified that this question is specific to the humanities. I'm talking about making obvious narrative conclusions/links based on simple historical facts. What I'm talking about is a bit simpler than doing intricate scientific or mathematical experiments. – TheExchange2000 Dec 12 '18 at 15:02

You cannot plagiarize facts, but you can plagiarize conclusions based on those facts. That sounds like what you are actually talking about here. The fact that Suleiman attacked a certain place on a certain date is a fact. But when someone gives a reason for it, that is a conclusion, not a fact. It may even be that his reputation for being chivalrous is an opinion (conclusion) or an inference based on certain facts, but it is not, in itself a fact.

You will probably need to think a bit more about this distinction before you proceed.

  • Interesting insight! However, I don't think that saying he's chivalrous would necessarily be an opinion, because that would also be based off of his own actions and not the secondary source's interpretations. As another example, one could say that though Hitler was a brutal dictator, he loved his dog and thus had a bit of a double nature. I don't think it would be fair to say that this is anyone's unique thought. – TheExchange2000 Dec 11 '18 at 23:32
  • While I may disagree, you are the one at risk here. – Buffy Dec 11 '18 at 23:38
  • I'm not at risk; I'm just trying to develop my understanding more. My university did an exceedingly poor job of teaching me how to write in my undergrad, and the skill is more important now that I'm in post-graduate work. In the humanities, it simply seems that it's impossible to say anything because everything (ideas, conclusions, etc.) has already been said. If a person is plagiarizing for making basic factual conclusions that have already been made, I don't understand how one is supposed to write anything without very careful note-taking strategies even during recreational reading. – TheExchange2000 Dec 11 '18 at 23:48
  • 3
    That last bit is pretty much what it means to be a researcher. But, in general if you find/read something and later use it without attribution, it will be construed as plagiarism. So I urge caution - and good note taking. – Buffy Dec 12 '18 at 0:00

You cannot plagiarise an objective fact of a conclusion based on evidence. However, it would be plagiarism to present the argument leading to that conclusion based on the evidence as your own. You can still present a novel argument or interpretation of the data, even if it leads to the same conclusions. It would be worth acknowledging prior arguments and pointing out the differences with your own reasoning. You should work to avoid it being misunderstood as presenting an existing theory as your own, especially if you’re presenting a novel theory based on the same data or sources (rather than supporting the theory with new data).

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.