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I am writing my thesis, and during my work, my advisor supplied me with some confidential documents that he still has from his previous work. Part of my work is based on these documents and I am unable to cite them because they are confidential. My advisor says that I can use them without citation because they are not available to public, but I am afraid using them without citation might be considered plagiarism and may come to hunt me me in the future.

What to do in this case ?

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    What is the rule that prevents you from citing confidential documents? Are they so confidential the one can't even acknowledge their existence? – Corvus May 2 '15 at 15:37
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    "My advisor says that I can use them without citation because they are not available to public," This is strange for reasons you said. The advisor should be able to answer questions you have and discuss this in a reasonable way. If he gets defensive or weird about it, just insisting he is right, I'd go to an ombudsman. Plus, what Corvus said. – neuronet May 3 '15 at 12:58
  • By "his previous work", do you mean results developed by the advisor himself, while he was hired to do research which was (or could have been) applied to something confidential? I don't claim to know what is the correct approach to this situation, but if, for example, the advisor was a physicist working in Los Alamos during the war, and he found a nice result about logarithms, which he never published, but it was collected as part of his (confidential) documents. How would using his result harmful or unethical? – Pandora May 24 '15 at 16:44
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What to do in this case is EXTREMELY dependent on the exact nature of the documents involved, and particularly on who declared them confidential and why. You need to talk about this in detail with your advisor and understand the situation extremely carefully, because otherwise citation may be the least of your concerns.

Let me outline a few of the scenarios that you might be facing here:

  • Your advisor may have supplied you with classified information, making you complicit in a serious crime and subject to high fines and a possible long prison term.
  • The information might controlled under other legal regulations, such as privacy legislation, insider trading, international arms control. These are far-reaching laws that can interact with lots of bits of science you might not think relate. Once again, potential criminal prosecution unless the information is carefully managed / abstracted / de-identified in a way acceptable to the agencies that enforce these regulations.
  • The information might be related to patents, trade secrets, or other IP not yet fully disclosed, in which case you might end up on the receiving end of a civil lawsuit unless appropriate permissions are obtained.
  • The information might be related to something that another group is planning to publish on first, and it has been disclosed to your advisor with the understanding that they get to publish first and not be scooped. In this case, you need to coordinate publications schedules.

Many other situations might apply as well. In some of these situations, some form of citation or acknowledgement is appropriate. In others, the information must be carefully "fuzzed" and citation is inappropriate or even illegal. The details cannot be guessed without a thorough understanding of the exact nature of the information and how you are using it.

Bottom line: go have a long heart-to-heart with your advisor and work out exactly what is the nature of the confidential information and what is the appropriate way in which traces of it should be handled in your thesis.

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You cannot use ideas, data, or wording without indicating their source. If they are based on a document you are not allowed to cite, then you have a major problem. (Note that you can cite documents that are not available to the public. That's certainly problematic, because other people can't verify or use the source, but it's different from not citing anything.)

Theoretically, you could attribute ideas or quotes to an anonymous source if the source approves but asks not to be named. That would be exceedingly unconventional, and I don't think I've ever seen it done in an academic paper, but it would at least be intellectually honest and avoid giving the impression that the ideas were yours. The same is true in principle for data, although it's not clear why readers would trust data from an anonymous source.

What worries me about your question is that you say your advisor still has confidential documents from his previous work. Maybe I'm reading too much into your description, but it sounds like the reason your advisor will not let you cite them is that he is not allowed to share them with you (and he may not even be allowed to possess or use them himself). If that's the case, then the whole project sounds unethical. It might be justified in some rare circumstances, for example involving whistleblowers or similar leaks, but outside of these cases, you cannot use confidential documents without explicit permission.

In any case, there is certainly no principle that says you can use documents without citation if they are not available to the public. Either you have misunderstood your advisor or he is wrong on this point.

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    "Anonymous. Personal communication." certainly sounds bogus as a reference. It will definitely pull attention and draw readers to investigate what this source is. If there is any way outsiders can find out / make an educated guess as to what the information and source is, I would say that the safe assumption is that they will make it, thus blowing at least part of the confidentiality. – E.P. May 2 '15 at 17:43
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    Yes, that's one reason you shouldn't cite an anonymous source without the source's consent. Anonymous sources are definitely weird and problematic, and they would make sense only when absolutely necessary (when you have to acknowledge that an idea is not yours, but the source does not want to be identified). – Anonymous Mathematician May 2 '15 at 18:07

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