Usually when I write a history paper, I utilize many sources.

Currently I have an article, which will be published, for which citing many sources isn't really necessary. Quite simply, I'm taking a 250-page novel (basically a log book describing an historical expedition in first person), published 500 years ago, and reducing it down to about 3 pages. Other than organizing the information with my own thesis statement and conclusion, it basically presents the same information, just in my own words. I'm simply summarizing a 250-page novel into 3 pages.

Though original work is definitely out of copyright, I'm citing to a translation published about 40 years ago, and so that is copyright of the translator.

Is summarizing a long work into a much shorter form regarded as plagiarism?

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    Are you sure that you can adequately understand a 500 year old text without engaging in any research about its context? Oct 19, 2021 at 10:33
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    The term "novel" is generally considered to refer to fiction works. If the book is presented as non-fiction, referring to it as a "novel" it apt to cause confusion. Oct 19, 2021 at 21:20
  • Are you sure you are writing a scientific paper, given that you only need to quote one source for it? Oct 21, 2021 at 2:19
  • Isn't the broad definition that plagiarism doesn't acknowledge the source and is not for the purpose of legitimate study? Either way, condensing 250 pages into three seems at first sight to be dealing with the idea, not the translation… even though, presumably, the translation was vital. Oct 21, 2021 at 23:23

4 Answers 4


Plagiarism is mis-representation of the work of another as your own work. If you credit the original work and make the relationship between your work and that work clear, it is not plagiarism.

Whether the original is summarized in your own words or directly quoted is entirely irrelevant. Likewise, the question of copyright is also entirely irrelevant to plagiarism: if I pretend a fragment of Isaac Newton's writing is my own, it is still plagiarism no matter how many centuries Newton's writing has been out of copyright.

  • I'd note that the translation will be fully covered by copyright even though the copyright has long expired on the original work. Oct 21, 2021 at 2:18

jakebeal’s and Ilmari Karonen’s answers make several excellent points. Just to add one more point: In many contexts, there is some kind of expectation of originality — e.g. most research journals, and also most educational assignments. Violation of this is often confused with plagiarism, and there’s certainly a large overlap, but it’s helpful to explicitly distinguish the two. As the other answers say, you’re not in danger of committing plagiarism since you’re acknowledging the relationship with the source clearly. But you should also make sure you’re fulfilling whatever kind of originality is required by your plans/intentions for the paper — and I guess this is part of what you had in mind when asking the question. For most contexts I can imagine, I’d guess you should be fine — summarising a long work into a much shorter one, and making it more accessible to a modern audience, is creating something very distinct from the original work. But this is certainly a point to be conscious of — knowing where you plan to submit/present your paper, make sure you understand and fulfil their expectations of originality.


To answer your literal question first, no, relying on just a single source isn't plagiarism, as long as you correctly cite that source and attribute any quoted or paraphrased material to it, so that a reader can clearly tell which parts of your paper are your own ideas or interpretations and which are merely summaries of what the source claims.

Also, plagiarism actually has very little to do with copyright violation, except that the easiest and most blatant way to commit both at once is to copy-paste a large block of text (or an illustration) without attribution from a source written by someone else and try to pass it off as your own work. But once you get into less blatant examples, it's quite easy to commit plagiarism without violating copyright or vice versa. So your mention of the translation being under copyright is mostly a red herring.

Aside: Copying a block of text or an illustration from another source and attributing it is usually enough to make it neither plagiarism nor copyright violation, at least as long as the copied amount isn't truly and needlessly excessive. But the reasons for this differ. The reason why copying with attribution isn't plagiarism is simply that, by correctly attributing the copied material, you're no longer trying to take credit for it as your own work. The reason why it's usually also not a copyright violation is that copyright law in most parts of the world has a pretty wide exception — either codified into statute law or established as a form of "fair use" or "fair dealing" by courts — for quoting portions of copyrighted works for the purposes of criticism, education or academic research, which a properly attributed and reasonably scoped quote from a source in an academic article about or building upon the source will usually fall under.

All that said, I find it somewhat surprising that merely "taking a 250-page novel […] and reducing it down to about 3 pages", even if bracketed by your "own thesis statement and conclusion", would actually yield a good history paper without relying on any other sources.

Are you really planning on:

  • taking your sole source 100% uncritically at face value, and not comparing it with anyone else's account of similar or contemporary events;
  • basing your thesis statement and conclusion on nothing but the source text itself, without relying on any other information about the time, place and events covered in it;
  • trusting the translation you're using to be 100% faithful and accurate (it never is!) and not comparing it with either the original text or other translations; and
  • not contrasting your interpretation of the primary source with anyone else's analysis and interpretation of it?

If not, to any of these points, then there probably are at least some other sources that you should cite. And if your answer to any of the points above is "yes", then I would strongly suggest you at least think twice about it. A good academic paper is generally not supposed to just uncritically digest and regurgitate its primary source material, but to analyze it in a broader context and to illuminate aspects of it that an uncritical modern reader of the original work might otherwise miss, misinterpret or be misled by.

Unless, of course, your "history paper" is really just a "Cliff's Notes" summary of the original text. Although even Cliff's Notes™ generally include some critical analysis and background context.


As Oxford defines it, plagiarism is "presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement".

Therefore it's not plagiarism to only use/summarise a single source, as long as you appropriately credit them and accurately and clearly show what you took from their work, compared to what you did yourself.

But there are other problems with only using a single source:

  • Mostly in the context of "dummy" research*, where the purpose is to teach you how to do proper research, as opposed actually having you contribute to academic literature (typically at undergrad level or below):

    One may be penalised for only citing from 1 source. This is because you're meant to learn how to do "real" research, and there you're often going to want to look at and compare multiple sources (for the reason mentioned below), and you're going to reference the research for the purpose of adding to it (and simply summarising a single source is probably not adding much to academic literature, even though papers simply summarising multiple sources is a thing). Taking information from multiple sources and turning it into a coherent narrative is an important skill in research (whether you're doing so for its own sake or to support your research).

    They may also feel that the work you did beyond what you got from the source is not substantial enough to justify a good grade.

    Or perhaps they'll penalise you because the marker doesn't know what they're doing or because you were explicitly instructed to use multiple sources.

  • One source may not be an accurate representation of the topic.

    The source may be inaccurate (whether due to malice, bias or drawing conclusions from insufficient data), they may not have a full picture of all the facts even though their account is accurate and, if applicable, the source may not be representative of the topic at hand. For example, if you're writing a paper about World War 2, an accurate account of one soldier who just sat at some base for years during the war without ever getting on a battlefield probably isn't representative of the war as a whole.

    Combining that one source with other sources would give you more certainty that you have an accurate representation of the topic at hand.

In real-world research, you're often going to need to cite many sources, in which case this problem wouldn't apply, but you could still look at this from the context of individual data points within your paper. If something in your paper is only backed up by a single source and there are any of the above problems in that source, that could hurt the conclusion you reached, assuming it doesn't just invalidate it entirely. Although peer review helps to avoid this problem and some sources may be trustable enough to stand up on their own.

Only citing or summarising one source may be perfectly fine if that's the only relevant research out there, or if the purpose of your paper is simply to summarise the source. Although if you're summarising the source, one might still wonder whether it would provide more value to reference other sources as well (if applicable), to confirm or refute what the primary source claims and to provide a more accurate picture of what's addressed in that source. But this could heavily depend on norms and best practices within individual research domains.

*: There might be a more appropriate term for this...

As a side note, I wouldn't generally think of a novel as an appropriate source for a paper, as this is usually written for entertainment purposes and they can take quite a few liberties with the truth, as novels aren't generally held to the standard of academic literature.

But there may be some exceptions (such as a factual log book) and I am saying this with a technical background (technical papers usually cite other technical and scientific sources, which a novel generally isn't). You might want to get a second opinion on that, if this is for a paper that's particularly important to you.

  • I think this is unnecessarily critical of the OP's context. If the intended topic is an analysis of a single work, it may really be the case that nearly everything comes back to the same work. The OP also didn't actually say they aren't citing anything else (e.g., to establish context).
    – jakebeal
    Oct 19, 2021 at 14:10
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    Why are you talking about "being penalised" when the OP is asking about work that will be published? They do not appear to be talking about an assignment. Oct 19, 2021 at 15:15
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    @JackAidley Because my goal is to help OP and others understand the potential problems and consequences of citing or summarising only a single source. And I did preface this with "Mostly in the context of 'dummy' research".
    – NotThatGuy
    Oct 19, 2021 at 15:17
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    @NotThatGuy While that can be a useful approach, I think in this case you've devoted the majority of the answer to something which isn't asked in the question. Sure, if you take only the title then it's relevant, but the question is more than the title. Oct 19, 2021 at 15:43
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    I think there are some opinion differences that won't be resolved in this comment thread. On one hand, this site is a place for askers to get answers, and so answers should be tailored to the question asked. On the other hand, this site is supposed to be building a resource of answers for future visitors to the site, who may have circumstances similar but not identical to the OP of any given question. Neither is wrong; there's no rule against giving answers that are more broadly applicable, as long as they answer the question asked. I'd ask, though, that everyone be polite to each other.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 19, 2021 at 23:36

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