I am an undergraduate student who is submitting my thesis for committee review. However, one of the committee member is unsatisfied and thinks that I attempted plagiarism from my advisor's paper. However, in my situation:

  1. I am writing a result in extension to my advisor's paper;
  2. I have proved new results in the almost exact same setup as the reference;
  3. Since it is my first paper, a great deal of my explanation and logic is inherited from my advisor and his paper. Therefore, a lot of explanation and formula takes the same form (with possible slightly different definition of variables).
  4. I pointed out directly that how this paper is related to previous work and added reference for directly quoted prop/defn.

This committee member will not support my submission of thesis unless I rewrite everything in my own words. However, I doubt if I can rewrite everything instead of simply rephrasing due to the nature of this work. I wonder what are your guys opinion and how I should deal with it?

  • 16
    What does your advisor say about this? (You can edit your question to add that information if you like. It will be easier to find that way than if it were provided in a comment.)
    – Bob Brown
    Apr 5, 2021 at 12:55

2 Answers 2


I wonder whether the committee member is not so much concerned about plagiarism per se as whether you actually understand your advisor's work. An undergraduate thesis is supposed to involve, at least in part, the student gaining a certain level of mastery of prior literature (as well as building on it.) This sort of understanding is usually conveyed in a "theory" or "background" section near the beginning of the thesis.

If this section reads like it was copied-and-pasted from your advisor's previous work, then the committee member may be concerned that you don't really understand what you've written and are simply parroting it without any real comprehension. They may then have doubts that you haven't really engaged with the material in a manner that is really worthy of whatever level of distinction is associated with a "thesis" at your institution. Being a mathematician is not just about finding some interesting results; it's also about understanding about how they fit into the broader picture of mathematics, and about being able to convey your understanding successfully to others. Your institution may value these latter parts just as much as the ability to find new results (and I applaud them if they do.)

If this is the case, you may just need to bite the bullet and rewrite the section. It's probably OK if the equations remain in the same form; but the "connective tissue" between the needs to show, in your own words, that you actually understand how you get from equation (1) to equation (2) to equation (3). (One of the things I always try to convey to my physics undergraduates is that the "connective tissue" between equations is just as important for conveying meaning and understanding as the equations themselves—if not more important.)

  • 2
    (+1) for first paragraph, which was also my thought. I often wrote/write (handwritten in the 1970s & 1980s, LaTeX since early 1990s) manuscripts to myself explaining things to help me understand stuff, and they were always MUCH more detailed and commented-on versions of anything I ever found in print, because publications tend to be concise and intended for readers who didn't need all the clutter I wanted to include (some of my stack exchange answers continue this tradition -- example). The committee member may want something like that. Apr 5, 2021 at 17:27

It is possible that the reviewer has a misconception. It is also possible that you do. Rewriting things "in your own words" is not a guard against plagiarism, which isn't about copying "words" but about misattribution of the source of ideas.

The proof against plagiarism is to make it clear where the ideas came from by using citation and some form of "setting aside" such as quoting (quote marks, indentation, ..."

I suspect that you need to do a rewrite and make sure that any reader can make a clear distinction between your ideas and those you have inherited, pointing to the source in the latter case.

But, rephrasing isn't enough. Rephrasing the work of others can be accepted, provided, again, that you make the source clear. If a reader might infer that the ideas are yours, when they are not, then it is plagiarism, no matter the words.

Note, the actual expression of the ideas, the words, is more a question of copyright than of plagiarism. They are actually independent ideas, but both involve proper attribution.

If your advisor still holds copyright to their work then they can grant you permission (a license) to quote extensively. Otherwise (if a publisher now has copyright) you have to follow normal copyright (and fair use) rules in quoting. But the attribution needs to be there.

  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation. The idea of the new result is undoubtedly coming from me. However, to carry out my "step", it requires a very long construction of results which is inherited from previous paper. With no concerns of copywrite, is there any problems in this situation? Apr 5, 2021 at 12:54
  • As long as it is clear. One possible solution is to have a chapter on "Background" in which you clearly state that it is a summary of the work of the advisor. You can quote here or paraphrase, but if the reader has knowledge of the source then you are safe from plagiarism charges. Too many people, however, confuse "copying" with plagiarism, so I can't speak for the other committee member. They may need an education also, which can come from your advisor, if needed.
    – Buffy
    Apr 5, 2021 at 13:00

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