I'm currently writing my master thesis. I'm a bit conflicted with what I do... Reference stealing.

So let's say article A talk about something that was reported from X, something else from Y and Z. I talk about article A and I find that X, Y and Z are actually really good too so I end up referencing them too. Is this considered plagiarism?

Also, let's say I'm really inspired by the introduction of a paper on the subject of my thesis. Is it considered plagiarism to take the reference of an article and use them to introduce the subject in a similar fashion, e.g., this field allowed to do that? I don't copy what is said but I use (some) of the references.

Is there such thing as reference plagiarism? From a google search, it seems that references are indeed checked (% matching) but it's mostly at the discretion of publisher/not something thoroughly enforced. Tbh I feel that it'd be difficult to enforce that even if I think it's bad. Sometimes you find sources from an article that are impossible to ignore.

I'm wondering what people do with that. Part of the research is finding an article that concern you and then you continue your search from the references so you naturally "steal" references...

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    Copying the bibliography is not plagiarism -- it's strictly functional data, not your writing. Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 19:54
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    You don't have to tell the reader you only found X, Y and Z because A referenced them. It would be unfair to not mention A, even if they only made a good literature research and added nothing useful to the science.
    – Karl
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 20:40
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    @darijgrinberg Of course plain copying of the bibliography is plagiarism, as is copying functional data. Ending up with the same result as someone else isn't, be it a literature research or a measurement.
    – Karl
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 20:55
  • You are allowed to acquire information from other people, whether it be in their text or in their bibliographies. You should acknowledge such sources, for sure! (And, of course, the literally correct text of the citation itself is a fixed thing, that you should write correctly...) I myself think it is very good to acknowledge sources even if their only contribution to my own understanding was as pointers to other sources. I think this is being honest about one's course of investigation, rather than pretending. Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 21:36
  • @Karl: Does that mean you have to somehow keep a large graph somewhere so for any paper you cite, you always cite the full chain of papers that led you to discover the ultimately referenced paper? Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 23:45

2 Answers 2


Put simply, plagiarism is fraud: it happens if you present material as if you had discovered it, when, in fact, you had not.

If you cite A, then you are certainly not committing plagiarism, because you are saying, in effect, "I did not discover this: A did." But what if it is not true that A discovered it? A might just have been quoting X, Y, and Z.

If you cite a paper by A, then you are claiming to have read it. If A's paper said, in effect, "X, Y, and Z report that ...", then you have a choice. You could read the papers by X, Y, and Z, and cite them, or you could legitimately cite "A, citing X, Y and Z".

In my opinion, if you have not even seen the papers by X, Y, and Z, you cannot legitimately cite them, but you can cite A's citation of them. You have to decide whether to rely on A's summary of the work of X, Y, and Z. If it is either tangential to your work, or so well known in your field that, in a sense, everyone knows it, then you do not need to trace the theory back to its origins. For example, if you are writing about the theory of gravity, it is not essential to cite Newton, I (1666), or whatever, but if your work seeks to overturn X's theory of blah, then you have to cite X's original work - and, dare I say, actually read it.

By way of a footnote: 'self-plagiarism' is something else entirely. It is recycling but in a bad way.

A further footnote: you cannot necessarily trust other authors' summaries of earlier work. I once found it necessary to translate a paper from its original French to make sure that it did say what other authors who cited it claimed it said: it did not!

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    Sometimes a source can be cited simply to acknowledge its existence, priority, etc. Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 21:37
  • @paulgarrett Surely not cited without having seen it?
    – JeremyC
    Commented Aug 11, 2019 at 21:42

The general advice is to go to the primary source, where possible, and reference that. However, consider that each citable (published) source should add some sort of contribution to knowledge. So, it’s ok to "cite a citation", as it were, if you are also using that particular knowledge.

For example, take review papers or experimental review papers. These often have extensive bibliographies, but usually identify commonalities, trends, themes in many publications (lots of people doing similar research simultaneously). Review papers are great starting points for study but they are a product of their time and, in fast moving fields, sometimes out of date by the time they are published. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and cite every reference from that bibliography, but if some of them support your (novel) idea, and the review paper was instrumental in you having that idea, then of course you should cite all the primary sources, including the review paper (plus any subsequent papers that you’ve found). Review papers certainly do garner citations.

In theory, it’s possible to have two papers with identical bibliographies but entirely different contributions to knowledge. You should cite all relevant literature, including any papers that you used as a source for your reading list.

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