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Would you consider it plagiarism if you receive a hint from somewhere or someone regarding a reference to look up certain information but fail to give credit to this source or person in your work? For example, you might consult Wikipedia and explore the sources provided there. Should you then cite Wikipedia in your thesis, or the person who suggested a particular book, or perhaps the webpage of a forum where you found reference suggestions?

The dilemma I face is that it feels somewhat awkward to cite internet pages such as Wikipedia or forums, or to include individuals' names in citations.

I want to address this situation, especially in the context of writing a math thesis. I'm sure there are people here who have experienced this and can offer advice.

Please note that what I'm discussing is different from using a proof authored by someone else and claiming it as your own.

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    The first paper of my thesis contains over half a page of acknowledgments to people who gave me hints on various issues, most of them from the stackexchange websites. Commented Apr 3 at 11:28
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    I would suggest that given the 'volatile' nature of WP, you should only be citing linked sources.
    – MikeB
    Commented Apr 4 at 11:05
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    @MikeB if you need to cite Wikipedia (and I'm not convinced it's necessary here) you can get a permalink to the version you referred to, from the History tab. That makes it non-volatile.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 4 at 15:14
  • There is no obligation to cite source which doesn't have copywrite issue. For example, Wikipedia is free source. But as long as you want to mention that "we know it from...", then you should give citation explicitly. But if you enriched your concepts from some sources then you are not required to acknowledge it unless the source is a person
    – learner
    Commented Apr 5 at 12:49
  • @learner the citation isn't regarding copyright, it's to back up your claims. If your proof relies on someone else's proof, then you cite the original proof so that someone could (in theory) go all the way back to a set of axioms. Wikipedia holds no "kudos" in this regard, since it is not subject to peer review. In addition, although Wikipedia is a "free" source, its article collection still has copyright (specifically its content is subject to the CC-BY-SA license).
    – Dan
    Commented Apr 6 at 16:23

7 Answers 7

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No, this is not plagiarism. This was amply explained by the other answers, so let me instead address the question of which pieces of advice to acknowledge in your thesis.

The dilemma I face is that it feels somewhat awkward to cite internet pages such as Wikipedia or forums, or to include individuals' names in citations.

When you thank people you don't cite them. You just add a footnote or a remark in the acknowledgments section saying something like (depending on your style) "The author / I / we are grateful to ... for drawing our attention to the paper [17]".

This makes sense to do if you are thanking a specific person who gave you good advice specifically tailored to your situation. It does not generally speaking make much sense to thank people for things you read on Wikipedia or in a book or on a forum (unless a specific user gave you specific useful advice), though certainly it makes sense to say "I am grateful to the users of MathWeb for sharing their expertise on topic XYZ" if you feel like it. It is also unnecessary to thank people in your thesis for pointing you towards a reference which is widely (though perhaps not universally) known your research community.

You have no obligation to track precisely the chain of references which led you to the result you were looking for, but I would think it is good manners to acknowledge people who gave you useful, specific advice, especially since it doesn't cost you anything. (Probably you don't need to do this in your thesis with things that were pointed out to you by your advisor, provided that you appropriately thank them in the acknowledgments section.)

For people who gave you small but useful pieces of advice ("you should check out paper [34], it sounds like it could be relevant to your work"), you could just collectively thank them in the acknowledgments section instead of specifically pinpointing which person pointed you to which paper. For people who suggested a book, I would in most cases not thank them explicitly for this, unless it is a truly obscure book.

Whether the person giving you advice is Prof. Mountainson, leading expert on mountains, or forum user suckmycloaca326 should not matter in principle, although I think everybody would understand your reluctance to explicitly acknowledge the latter. In particular, if someone on MathOverflow or Math StackExchange helped you get unstuck in your research, then surely they deserve to be acknowledged, no matter how silly their username is (you could even ask them for their real name if you want to avoid mentioning their username).

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    This is correct, but I'll add that there are times when it might be worth citing two sources for the same information, e.g. if the the original source is behind a paywall or expressed in obscure jargon, maybe help your readers out by citing a Wikipedia article, or a textbook widely stocked in public libraries, that repeats the information as well; or if the point is controversial, bolster it by citing two independent sources. Commented Apr 2 at 11:02
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If A points you to B and B is the originator of an idea that you use, then you need to cite B to avoid plagiarism, but not A. The idea didn't originate with A so you aren't using their ideas. They may be the source of your finding or understanding the idea, but that doesn't require citation, though it might need an acknowledgement for reasons of etiquette. If it did require citation then you would likely need to cite every teacher you ever had as well as your parents and many of your friends, etc. etc..

Plagiarism is about acknowledging the proper source/originator of an idea not the subsequent spread of that idea.

Math is a bit funny, though. Suppose you sit down for coffee with someone and discuss a block you have in proving some key theorem. Suppose they supply the insight that gets you past the block. In math, this is often a reason to make them a co-author of the work, which would be awkward in a thesis. This might assume, however, that they actually had that insight themself and weren't just throwing out ideas that you might explore.

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  • I would say "it depends". In my field, there are many "classical" results which are not yet necessarily known to everyone outside of a more narrow subfield. In some cases, it makes perfect sense to refer to Principia directly, in others, it is often more useful to the reader to point to a more modern review to better understand the framing, possibly including both results. It is common for me to write something along the lines "this approach was pioneered by Jane Doe [...], and has more than 30 variations now (see [...] and references therein)".
    – Lodinn
    Commented Apr 22 at 0:20
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No, I would not think of that as plagiarism at all. If you really want to be sure, you could put something in a footnote or parenthetical statement like:

"Thanks to Dr. John Smith for suggesting this source."

This would be especially nice if it's a person, but you could do it even with Wikipedia. But if you leave it out, I wouldn't say it's plagiarism.

Warning: I am not a lawyer and I don't play one on TV. I am no expert on plagiarism rules. This is just my opinion.

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    My feeling is that mentioning who or where the suggested reference came from should only be used in cases where the reference is rather obscure, which anything in Wikipedia almost certainly would not be. However, a less obscure reference would be appropriate for something like "Thanks to Dr. Zachary Smith for suggesting that certain results in Robinson [23] might be relevant in generalizing ..." Commented Apr 1 at 10:26
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If you learn of something through Wikipedia, you should read the document in the wikipedia page from which the wiki author learnt of it themselves.

After making certain that the other document actually contains the information which the wiki page says it does, cite the document, not Wikipedia.

You can look at a wiki page's edit history to see who added the citation, and thank that person in your acknowledgements section, as a matter of politeness.

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I know that other people disagree with this idea, but I do think Wikipedia at least deserves thanks in Acknowledgements, if it helped you... e.g., finding "better" sources. I don't like the idea of pretending that Wikipedia is invisible, or inessential, or not worthy of mention in serious writing.

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You can also add a citation like

[42] Einstein, Albert. Personal communication. Pointed out relevance of source [17].

This works only for persons, not for Wikipedia. For an internet forum or StackOverflow you can attribute the pseudonym / user name. This might feel a little bit awkward.

I would use this way of attribution only for super important hints, that changed the way of your paper, but below adding the person as a author to your paper for the hint (which might be possible in extreme cases).

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You gotta use your common sense. There are a lot of facts on Wikipedia that are common knowledge among experts in a field and you do not need to provide references for all of them.

If however there is a fact that you were not aware of and you learned details about it from Wikipedia or other sources then it is probable that some other potential readers will be in a similar situation and providing precise reference would be a great service to them. This means including the web address of the Wikipedia page that helped you. It can only increase the quality of your dissertation.

A dissertation is a public document that hopefully will be read by more people other than yourself and your advisor. Increasing the clarity and readability of your dissertation will benefit your reputation.

Also if somebody helps you with a hint or suggestion when you are stuck your do not necessarily have to mention it. However you can only gain good will by acknowledging it and you have nothing to lose by displaying this basic courtesy.

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    No substantive fact should be unreferenced in Wikipedia and those references would be the thing that normally should be cited in a thesis - or perhaps one of the reference's own citations in turn, since Wikipedia is supposed to rely on secondary sources rather than primary sources.
    – Glen_b
    Commented Apr 2 at 11:04

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