During most of an aspiring academic's schooling one (at least in my experience) is repeatedly told that quoting/reproducing other works is fine, if given credit. As long as you cite your sources, all is good. And of course this is true, in the sense that you will not get penalized for plagiarism.

But today I was left wondering... is it true? I had a think and in my field (computer science) I can not recall any quotations or reproductions of graphs/tables in essentially any of the works I have read, other than perhaps some quotes at chapter starts for entertainment value.

Whenever one references another work in my field one always seems to reword or summarize the reference, even if a direct quote is perfectly functional. Which leaves me wondering, is there an unwritten rule against quoting literally in some fields?

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    In STEM fields generally, we tend to focus on meaning in the given context, not the actual wording. In fields like history or literature, I see how direct quotes are inevitable, however, in other fields, there is little need. About your remark that quote would be OK, too: I do not think that in any field writing based on a patchwork of quotations is particularly encouraged. In another word, if you can tell it yourself, that is the default not copying from others. No one cares what Einstein said about something if it was trivial.
    – Greg
    Nov 30, 2020 at 8:53
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    Adding to what @Greg said, one might even argue that abstraction is an inherent feature of CS as a field. Spelling out exact wording with quotation marks distracts from the (abstract) essence of whatever is referred to. Nov 30, 2020 at 9:40
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    I'm not sure that quotes often are "perfectly functional" as you say. More often than not it is simply more efficient to summarize or paraphrase, as this gives you more leeway to express that which you actually want to say in your paper without distraction.
    – henning
    Nov 30, 2020 at 9:57
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    We tell our students that direct quoting, where its the idea that is important, not the exact words, suggests the writer does not have a sufficient understanding of the topic to write the idea in their own words. Nov 30, 2020 at 23:36

2 Answers 2


Remember, we don't only make citations to provide proper credit, we do it to build an argument. Every true statement in a paper is necessarily either (1) an established fact that can be cited, (2) a direct observation made by the authors, or (3) a logical consequence of other true statements in the paper. Providing references allows the reader to follow the “chain of evidence” back through the literature.

Most of the time in the sciences we don't quote the exact words of the original author, we restate the (presumed) true statement that was made, using our own words to keep the flow of the text. It is the true statement, not the words to express it, that are important. We generally only use direct quotation when the actual words are important, or particularly felicitous. Maintaining standards in programming languages is “how to win big”, as Dick Gabriel would say.

In the humanities, we tend to use direct quotations more often because the true statement we are making is the fact that the statement was made by the other author, rather than the particular claim that the author is making. For example, even if someone so eminent as Bertrand Russell says that “mathematics is capable of an artistic excellence”, one need not agree in order to quote it.

  • This does not answer the question. It's a yes or no question. Jul 31, 2021 at 21:28

Yes, but it is better described as an "unwritten custom" instead of an "unwritten rule."

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