One of my friends is in a very curious position. He has been researching on a number theoretic problem for months but couldn’t solve it until recently after he has seen a pre-print in arXiv which attempts to prove the problem. But though he has taken ideas from the pre-print, his own article differs considerably from that of the pre-print. According to him, following are the chief points of difference,

  1. My friend actually proved a stronger version of the problem.
  2. He gave an outline to the proof of a conjecture that the author of the pre-print stated in the concluding section of his/her paper.

My friend has decided to mention precisely how much he had been benefited from the paper in the Acknowledgements section. Will there be any problem if he sends his article to a journal for publication?

  • 42
    Isn't this how it's supposed to work? People get ideas from reading papers, extend the previous work, give due credit?
    – zeldredge
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 3:42
  • 7
    I would mention that in my field (theoretical particle physics), this is a very common position to be in. Definitely not one I would describe as "curious".
    – David Z
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 7:24
  • 19
    As an anonymous user on an internet forum, it is okay to use I instead of my friend all the time. We've all had these friends!
    – 299792458
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 8:13
  • 11
    @TheDarkSide I guess the anonymity is what enabled the OP to say the person in question is a friend, as opposed to the more usual friend of a friend.
    – E.P.
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 12:01

4 Answers 4


He should just cite what he used or learned from the ArXiv paper and send it in. There's no real need to add an acknowledgement.

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    @user170039: Yes, the same citations are appropriate and required, regardless of whether the paper is published or not (but there is no need for extra acknowledgement beyond what would be used for the published paper). Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 4:11
  • 4
    I agree. Given the fast moving nature of the field, in a case like this I'd advise specifically noting and including the retrieval date in the citations. Many journals ask for this, in any case.
    – Mark Joshi
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 6:17
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    He should also consider sending a copy of the paper to the author of that preprint.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 8:47
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    He should cite the ArXiv paper, and not just mention it in acknowledgements. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 16:05
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    @ScottSeidman, isn't that what my answer says?
    – Bill Barth
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 17:38

@BillBarth has the correct approach, but his phrasing "just cite", and "no real need for an acknowledgement" I find rather misleading, because it seems that the attribution is being somehow reduced.

The reality is that this preprint should be referenced and cited in the main body of the paper, where its contribution is used, and not merely mentioned in the acknowledgements where few readers will actually note it.

  • 4
    Bill's answer is surely short, but I can't see how it can be considered misleading. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 19:11
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    This is not an answer but a comment on Bill's answer. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 21:33
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    @espertus: This certainly does provide an answer to the question.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 21:52
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    @BenVoigt You're technically right, but the number of negative comments should guide you to think of how to improve your answer. As a reviewer (which is where I saw your answer), I recommend moving the first paragraph into a comment and adding a bit to the beginning of the remaining second paragraph. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 23:37
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    @Lohoris: That would not be an appropriate edit (or edit suggestion).
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 15:42

As mentioned in other answers, it's completely fine to use / extend ideas from a preprint that's been posted on arXiv or otherwise made public. This is essentially the exact reason why the author made the preprint public in the first place. You will cite the preprint as you would a paper published in a journal, conference proceedings, etc, except that of course you will list an arXiv ID instead of a journal title, volume number, etc. Your journal's style guide should explain how to cite preprints (if using BiBTeX, consider @preprint).

You may convey additional thanks in your Acknowledgements section if you are moved to do so, but this should not take the place of proper citation.

Of course, as is the case whenever you are extending someone else's work, your paper should accurately describe the work done by the preprint's author, and carefully distinguish it from what you have added. You should be careful that you do not inadvertently misrepresent the preprint author's work as your own.

There are a few extra considerations when extending work from a preprint:

  • Keep in mind that the preprint has not undergone peer review. Of course, peer review is no guarantee of correctness, and if you are writing a paper that depends heavily on a previous paper, you will want to check it carefully enough to be sure that your work rests on solid foundations, regardless of where/if the previous paper was published. But for an unreviewed preprint, you should check it even more carefully.

  • Before starting work on your own paper, you might want to consider contacting the preprint author with your idea and suggesting a collaboration. In addition to sharing expertise, this also helps mitigate the risk that the preprint author has already had an idea similar to yours, and is currently writing it up in a paper that will be published before yours would be. (This is also possible when extending work from a traditionally published paper, but is perhaps somewhat more likely in the preprint case because of the shorter timeline; if the work is very recent, it's more likely that the author is still actively working on related topics.)

  • There's a good chance that the preprint is currently being reviewed for traditional publication. Before submitting your paper, you should check to see whether the preprint has been accepted / published in a journal / proceedings / etc, and update your citation if necessary. (If it has been accepted but not yet published, you can list it as "To appear" with the journal's title.) Check one more time when you correct the galley proofs of your paper.

  • Check periodically to see if the preprint has been revised or updated, as the changes may involve something that materially affects your paper. Note that arXiv only includes the first 5 updates in their daily emails, so just checking the emails may not suffice. It is even possible for an arXiv preprint to be withdrawn by the author (this might happen if they find a fundamental error); it remains available for download, but in this case it's probably not a good idea to try to use it. (Of course, published papers can also have corrigenda or retractions, but they are more common for preprints.)


No,there is nothing unethical to take ideas from a pre-print to write your own research paper,especially if the author of the pre-print is already acknowledged in your paper,

  • academia.stackexchange.com/questions/46879/…
    – user35694
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 10:28
  • What does this add to the existing answers? Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 14:40
  • 1
    Are you advocating for only citing one work from any given author, no matter how many of their papers actually developed work you used?
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 15:41

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