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I am a graduate student in English working on my final paper for a class. I was assigned a particular author to write on, but about halfway through the semester another student wanted to write on that author so I agreed to write on a different author. I had already read some articles on this second author so I thought I would be able to come up with a good paper topic. I thought I had come up with a good idea for a thesis, but as I did my research, I found that my thesis contained essentially the same idea as a supporting argument expressed in one of the articles I had read. I expressed my concern to my professor as I began working on my paper; he read the first few pages and said he did not see a problem. I have cited the author's statements and ideas that I feel coincide with mine, but I still have a troubled conscience -- I feel that my ideas are not sufficiently my own and that my thesis is far too similar to the arguments in this article. It is too late for me to start on another paper, but I'm not sure that I can in good conscience turn in this paper. If anyone has any advice, I would appreciate it.

  • Is it possible for you to present your paper as a review/critique of the author you feel you are plagiarizing? – Miguel Apr 23 '15 at 20:43
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    If this is a paper for a class, then the requirements for originality are not as strict as they might be for a graduate thesis or dissertation. Are you sure you're not mixing apples and oranges here? Especially if your professor doesn't see a problem. If it's not a problem, then write the paper, and turn it in in good conscience. You don't sound like you've "stolen" any ideas, or passed them off as completely your own. – J.R. Apr 23 '15 at 20:48
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From your description, it doesn't sound like a question of plagiarism (you say you're referencing the relevant paper, and I assume you're either paraphrasing it or using quotation marks as appropriate), but a possible lack of novelty. Lack of novelty is more of an issue when you're trying to publish in a journal or present at a conference. Usually class assignments don't have to be novel; they just have to reflect your own work. If your professor is satisfied, I don't think you have a problem. I would do my best to extend the ideas from the other paper, i.e. add something to their analysis.

  • For a class essay, as long as you have discovered the idea on your own, and you link to existing literature you know about, I do not see much of a problem. "Lack of novelty" would be a killer if you, say, work for 4 years on a proof for your PhD and then discover that someone else proved it earlier. But, you may still be saved if your proof is different/simpler/more general. I remember an anecdote that Wielandt's thesis was only 3 pages long, proving an already proven theorem, nevertheless, a "summa", the top mark for a thesis in Germany. Why? The previously known proof was 50 pages. – Captain Emacs May 4 '16 at 17:27
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I think your concern reflects well on you (as does agreeing to let someone else take your first choice), but the way I read your question is that (1) you formed an opinion what to write, then (2) discovered in other secondary literature that someone else agrees with you, and had already made supporting arguments similar to yours.

That's not plagiarism. It just means that your work is less novel than you'd probably hoped. As your professor considers it adequate for purposes of your class, you should be fine.

I'd shy away from reading more of that source though to make it less likely to be subconsciously influenced by their reasoning.

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    Meta joke: while typing my answer on my phone, someone posted a very similar answer, which I discovered after I committed my answer. :) – gnometorule Apr 23 '15 at 21:00
  • It seems the OP read the article previously, then wrote their piece, then discovered that what they were writing was very similar to what they had previously read: "I had already read some articles on this second author...as I did my research, I found that my thesis contained essentially the same idea ... in one of the articles I had read." So if your answer that this isn't plagiarism is founded on the sequence you illustrate then you might need to reconsider your answer. – Adam Davis Apr 24 '15 at 12:06
  • @Adam: You are correct, that is essentially the sequence. I (1) was assigned an author to write on; (2) read an article on another author as part of a class assignment; (3) agreed to write on this second author; (4) formed a thesis; (5) reread the article and discovered the similarities. There were several weeks between steps 2 and 4, so I had pretty much forgotten what this article said. As I stated in my original question, though, my professor apparently did not see enough similarities to consider it an issue, so I have been moving forward with my paper, but I need to have this resolved. – Jen Apr 25 '15 at 21:43
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I know this paper probably does not have the rigor of an academic journal publication but in many disciplines it is common to include a section reviewing relevant publications and how they relate to your work.

Perhaps you could include a small section in your paper reviewing other papers and highlighting the difference between those papers and yours (even if the differences may be small) or how your work builds and improves upon the other papers.

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