Consider a research work that is present in another person's thesis, submitted two years before at the university, but not published online anywhere. Can someone extend that work and submit it to a journal?

  • 1
    I have attempted to clarify your post slightly; if I have misunderstood your intent in any place, please feel free to revert. – jakebeal Feb 19 '15 at 16:12
  • 5
    If you use LaTeX and BibTeX, there is a @unpublished entry for this cases. But yeah, it is plagiarism if you don't cite properly work that it is not your own. – Ander Biguri Feb 19 '15 at 16:50
  • 33
    Plagiarism is not about whether anyone could find out. It is about adopting concepts and ideas from others and making them look like yours, e.g. by not being open that they were not created and discovered entirely by you. – Arc Feb 19 '15 at 20:51
  • 11
    Whether they are published or not is irrelevant. While theses are not published works, you must still cite them/indicate that you are building on their content. – awsoci Feb 19 '15 at 23:09
  • 3
    Why wouldn't it be? – Dave Kanter Feb 20 '15 at 22:55

You can work on anything you want. If you publish you must:

  • cite the thesis;

  • give an accurate account of what work was already contained in the thesis, and what you added;

  • if you use passages of text or images taken directly from the thesis, identify them as such (as a quotation or similar). Extensive use of such quotations or images may also require permission from the original author and/or their university, depending on who holds the copyright.

  • I think a good rule of thumb is asking such a question "Who should be cited for this in another publication." And make it plain and easy to understand in your work. Make it easy to credit people for their part. – luk32 Feb 19 '15 at 17:49

The situation that you describe perfectly matches the situation fifty years ago, when nothing was published online. Now, just as then, it is entirely possible for somebody who wants to find the thesis to go to the university and look it up, or otherwise request access to the original. It is just that now, our expectations have been raised by the ready electronic availability of material.

Thus, the situation with regards to plagiarism is the same as it has always been:

  • You can build on any intellectual work that has been created.
  • You must properly cite any work that you have built on.
  • You cannot claim the work of another person as your own.

That the thesis was not published online is not relevant. You can conduct follow-up research, just like you can write a follow-up to anything somebody else has published. However, you most certainly cannot pretend that something originating from this thesis is actually your work. Just that the results have not been published in a peer reviewed venue does not make the results somehow "free lunch" for somebody else to claim.


It does not matter whether the work can be found online or not. From the plagiarism tag wiki:

Plagiarism is the unethical practice of taking credit for someone else’s work. It is a major concern both in research, where the most common issue is improper use of citations (or lack thereof), and in coursework assignments.

Self-plagiarism refers to reusing one's own previously published work (or previously used coursework), without properly citing it as such.

So if you use previous work, whether available online or not, whether it's your own or someone else's work, cite it appropriately.

  • 7
    To clarify, taking up some work, citing it appropriately, improving it, and publishing your improvement is totally acceptable. – afaust Feb 19 '15 at 15:41

It is expected that any resource you use in your paper, whether published or unpublished, should be cited. For unpublished data, most journals would also expect you to take permission from the author.

Here's the policy that Nature follows with regard to citing unpublished data:

Manuscripts are sent out for review on the condition that any unpublished data cited within are properly credited and the appropriate permission has been sought. Where licenced data are cited, authors must include at submission a written assurance that they are complying with originators' data-licencing agreements. Referees are encouraged to be alert to the use of appropriated unpublished data from databases or from any other source, and to inform the editor of any concern they may have.


The definition of plagiarism "again":

"the practice of taking someone else's work or ideas and passing them off as one's own."

Until and unless you are not claiming the work as your own, you are not plagiarising. Give the credit to the original author and take his/her consent before working on it.

One of the most important things to keep in mind while writing a new thesis is to cite correctly. Don't forget secondary citation while working.

Name the original work in-text and cite the secondary source you have seen. Include only the secondary source in the reference list.


A work is published if it is given to anyone other than the author. So the mere fact it has not been published online is not to say it has not been published. So the thesis should be considered as a published work - in that sense your question is poorly framed.

You are, of course, able to cite another's work but you should not seek to pass it off as your own. You can extend it and seek publication for the extended work, but whether it will be worthy of publication will likely depend on the nature of the extension.

But an unpublished paper is a better outcome than being accused for all time of being a plagarist.

  • 2
    I've never seen anyone use the definition "A work is published if it is given to anyone other than the author." - can you cite support? – smci Feb 22 '15 at 8:34
  • That's the case in law in this jurisdiction see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R_v_Penguin_Books_Ltd - for instance and note that Penguin "published" the book by handing 15 copies to one policeman. – adrianmcmenamin Feb 22 '15 at 14:05
  • 1
    I'm aware of the definition used for libel and obscenity cases. We're talking about academic publication. Is there any citation supporting claims of plagiary of something handed out but not published in any written/online publication or correspondence? – smci Feb 23 '15 at 1:22
  • You think academics can get away with a different definition? Good luck with that. – adrianmcmenamin Feb 23 '15 at 23:27
  • Citations of specific cases of plagiarism where the item was not published in writing or online are fairly rare, and typically only when the perpetrator was in the public eye, e.g. German ministers Annette Schavan and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg – smci Feb 24 '15 at 3:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.