Forgive my complete newbieness, but I truly don't to know the answer to this question.

If you decide to write a scientific paper for possible publication in a conference/journal (in engineering, for instance), you'd obviously need to choose a subject that adds something new to the status quo, but then, in doing so, you very certainly will have to tap into the existing research too. And as I understand, most publishing organization have access to special search engines that helps them identify plagiarism.

So where does the line between plagiarism and authentic work lie exactly? Stated otherwise, how do you avoid "unintentional plagiarism" so that the paper you submit doesn't look like you essentially copied existing work? What is considered new and authentic work? Because I have seen many many articles published by IEEE, for example, (especially conference papers) where the original/new contribution was very slight (like a 'new' model/technique that modifies ever so slightly a previous one), isn't this considered plagiarism?

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    Just to clarify, if you independently research some work, and then, when you write about it, you discover that someone else has done the same thing, that is no plagiarism. You won't be able to publish it, but you have not "plagiarised" anyone. Plagiarism is when you intentionally try to pass someone elses work as yours. If its your work, just not a novel contribution to research, then its simply not new, but not plagiarism. Its authentic work, just not novel. Jul 27, 2020 at 8:22
  • I suggest you search online for how to cite sources. There is plenty of help out there. Here's one result: plagiarism.org/article/how-do-i-cite-sources Jul 27, 2020 at 10:54
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    @AnderBiguri "You won't be able to publish it" Even that depends. A paper arriving at the same result with different methods can be publishable (e.g. different mathematical proofs of known theorems are regularly published in mathematics). A paper that gets a different result with the same method may also be publishable... (as long as the reason for the discrepancy isn't that you made a mistake, or if the mistake is sufficiently novel) Perhaps a paper arriving at the same result with the same methods may even be publishable as a replication, but that may depend on the field. Jul 27, 2020 at 11:00
  • @Discretelizard agree, I was more focused on the plagiarism side and I didn't clarify that enough. Thanks for the comment :) Jul 27, 2020 at 11:56
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    You don't need to be a giant to stand on the shoulders of giants. Jul 27, 2020 at 20:59

4 Answers 4

  • Use citations for relatively recent work that is not your own (an exception to this is the idea of "common knowledge". For example, you don't need to reference Newton or Leibniz when you employ calculus).
  • You are not plagiarizing when you develop layers of references and then build on that body of knowledge to add a contribution to it (and hence, becoming part of the body).
  • When you state a fact, result, argument, assertion, etc, that is not your own but that of someone and do not use a citation, then you are plagiarizing because your readership will interpret that part of the paper as an original thought of your own.
  • Using citations properly is a skill you will develop over time, so do your best to cite everything that you think requires a citation early on and then you can always edit down things later. As time goes on, you'll understand what does and does not require citation.
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    The age of a work is irrelevant. If you use it, cite it. The exception is for "common knowledge", not for age. If I quote Euclid, I cite it. If I state the Pythagorean Theorem, I don't need a citation.
    – Buffy
    Jul 26, 2020 at 18:58
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    +1 for using calculus as an example of common knowledge. I guess you know that Newton and Leibnitz arrived at calculus independently but ended up accusing each other of plagiarism! Jul 27, 2020 at 10:07

There are two kinds of plagiarism, ordinary and "self". It is pretty much impossible to plagiarize unintentionally. It is an intentional act. Let me explain.

Ordinary plagiarism has two aspects. One is knowingly attributing the work of others to yourself. We avoid it by citing the work we use, giving credit to the originator of ideas that we depend on. But you have to know that the work belongs to another in order to be at fault here. Independently reinventing something yourself isn't plagiarism, though it may appear so. You may still be at fault if you don't know something that you should have known, but the fault isn't plagiarism. Something more like laziness. But intentionally appropriating the ideas of others is seen as an act of malice.

Again, reinvention isn't plagiarism. If I, as a kid, rediscover the Pythagorean Theorem without the help of books or teachers, or anything, just starting with the idea of a triangle, it is reinvention. It isn't plagiarism. It isn't likely publishable, of course, and if I try, people will laugh.

The other aspect of ordinary plagiarism is that we cite the work we use so that readers can trace ideas back to their source, finding complete context for the ideas, their origin and use along the way. The papers that originated the idea have a context, including the papers they cite, and it is sometimes necessary to go back and examine that. If you don't cite, you break the chain.

Self plagiarism is when you use your own previously published work without citing it. Only the second aspect, above, applies here, but it is no less important. Don't just copy-paste (or even paraphrase) from your own old (published) work without citation. But some people do this out of laziness, rather than malice.

But, aside from the technical details, a scholar will spend a fair amount of time researching what is known already about things they wish to explore. This gives the advantage of being able to catapult off of the earlier work (citing it) and deepening your knowledge. It also, hopefully, shows you what is yet to be done in a field, so that you can direct your efforts in meaningful ways.

But ignoring the literature is normally a fault if you wish to publish. People expect you to know the field to the point at which your own explorations begin. If you don't, then your papers will likely get rejected and charges of plagiarism might be made, even if incorrectly. But that is carelessness masquerading as plagiarism, not plagiarism.

As I said in a comment to another post, you don't need to cite things that are "common knowledge". This is a bit hard to define, but generally things taught in, for example, secondary school are common knowledge, though not universal knowledge. But, if in doubt, citing is safer than making assumptions.

Do your homework reading the literature, and, then, cite it if you use it.

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    I disagree. I would consider negligently attributing the work of others to yourself to also be plagiarism. If you reinvent something and don't know it's a reinvention, that by itself isn't plagiarism. However, if you reinvent something and a reasonable literature search by someone in your position would have found that it was a reinvention, but you try to publish without having done that literature search, it is plagiarism. To some extent this is a judgement call and people will usually err on the side of unintentional mistake unless someone does it frequently. Jul 26, 2020 at 21:10
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    @AlexanderWoo, actually no. Seriously no. Negligence is a different failing having nothing to do with plagiarism. Why confuse/conflate them. Or do you require every researcher to have perfect knowledge of every paper at all time, up to the moment? Negligence is exceedingly hard to prove.
    – Buffy
    Jul 26, 2020 at 22:41
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    @Buffy - Negligence is proved in legal situations all the time. In fact, it's usually much easier to prove than intent, because it just requires comparison with what a reasonable person taking reasonable care would have done and doesn't require reading any minds. (For legal purposes, one of the reasons we have juries is so that they can apply themselves as the standard for 'reasonable person'.) Jul 26, 2020 at 23:04
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    @AlexanderWoo, I think you are writing of a completely different kind of negligence. I didn't read a paper, so didn't cite it. I didn't know about it. Negligent? Only if it is obvious that I should have known about it. Is it easy to find or obscure. But I can also choose to ignore the literature and try to resolve a problem on my own. If I succeed it isn't plagiarism and it isn't negligent. But it isn't publishable, most likely (with some exceptions in math.)
    – Buffy
    Jul 26, 2020 at 23:31
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    @OscarBravo. NOT plagiarism. Congratulations to young you. For resisting authority, that is. ;-) And are you now an Electrical Engineer?
    – Buffy
    Jul 27, 2020 at 10:16

There are two parts to answering your question.

One deals with explicit plagiarism which is copying text from another paper and showing it as your own. You clearly do not wish to do that. Now if you take inspiration from another work or build on another work, you should rewrite in your own word while citing another work.

The second part of the answer which is more relevant to your question is implicitly plagiarizing by reinventing something which already existed but you are not aware of. Firstly, if you are trying to get published in top conferences or journals you could be sure of reviewers pointing out lack of novelty in your work if someone has already done it. So you will do good to avoid plagiarism by always targeting reputed conferences and journals.

And of course, to ensure novelty you should read more papers from top journals and conferences.

Your observation that IEEE has a lot of work which is not of high quality is correct. Always look for A* conferences and journals to publish with. You will hardly find such issues with them. Look for CORE ranking portal to find such rankings in engineering and computer science area.


You reference all the work that you use (however you use it) that is by other people which is why some papers have lots of references.

Some papers are part of a series produced as the work, and results, progress. This is normal and expected, but you are expected to reference your earlier publications (based on the comment).

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    Actually, you have to cite your own prior work also to avoid "self plagiarism".
    – Buffy
    Jul 26, 2020 at 18:57

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