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I am writing a report for my master's research. One entire section of my report has been expertly written in someone else's PhD thesis, which happens to mostly take the form of a monograph on the subject.

I am not writing a research article, and they don't expect original research from me (or at least not much), but to be self-sufficient, my report needs to include some kind of quick overview of the subject. The problem is that now that I have read this thesis, I seem to not be able to more than heavily take inspiration from it.

Said thesis is available under the BSD3 license and I of course cite everything but I don't know how to approach what is basically copying a large amount of work.

My options seem to be:

  • Rewrite everything "my way" while citing the thesis. Considering it still would not be original work and would amount to just cleverly changing the original work wording and structure it feels intellectually dishonest.

  • Just clearly say "The following work is from X" and translate X exactly. This seems academically dishonest.

  • Forget about this section. Leave it alone for two months and hope that I forgot the thesis so that I can write with a clear mind and conscience.

  • Does your institute have a plagarism policy? Often universities have detailed documents listing what is considered plagarism. – Nathanael Farley Jun 16 '15 at 13:45
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    I tried to look for such a document ( I found a lot of Thesis from English speaking countries with a Declaration of Authorship so I was puzzled ) but couldn't find any. I will probably just ask my advisor directly – aussetg Jun 16 '15 at 13:50
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    You will find good answers below - but this is indeed a question to bring to your advisor. Tell him or her you asked here. – Ethan Bolker Jun 16 '15 at 17:26
  • As a side comment: you mentioned "said thesis is available under the BSD3 license". There is a big difference between copyright violation and plagiarism. Your third bullet point is a non-solution; your conscience may be clear but others may disagree. – Willie Wong Jun 17 '15 at 8:47
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I assume that someone's PhD thesis is a larger piece of work than a section of your report. Therefore, I don't see how you can avoid summarizing the thesis to fit your work. And while you are at it, you get the chance to deepen your understanding of the subject, because you will basically be writing a review of this someone's thesis in light of you report. That is a prospect you shouldn't miss, as in academia as well as in industry, you will be expected at some point of your career to "digest" some work and produce some implication of it.

Citing the thesis is a must, if it is used as a reference, there is no debating it. I would recommend writing your section "your way", but not just changing some details to mask your copy-paste trail. Put the material in the context of your report. You don't need a clear mind and conscience to use something you learned from a source. If it "looks like" the said thesis, that is not a problem, as long as it fits and you have gained significant understanding from it.

PS: If you did a simply copy-paste, you would likely find that the text still needs some polishing to fit your report. That can amount to a significant amount of work.

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    Very important the not just changing some details to mask your copy-paste trail part is. – Mindwin Jun 16 '15 at 18:05
  • I really like this idea of "writing a review": i.e. talk about what they did, which is your own independent scholarship on the subject, shows that you understand the subject, and specifically ties that work to the work you're doing in this section. – Gaurav Jun 17 '15 at 19:48
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For what it's worth, I've found that it's fairly common in math papers (especially longer expository works) to say something like the following:

We will now discuss [insert topic] and prove [insert theorems] in order to [insert reason you care about this thing]. The treatment here largely follows that of [cite reference]; see there for more details.

and then to present the material from the reference. The wording and exposition should be your own (obviously, you can't just copy/paste the work), and you should try to repeatedly summarize and re-organize the work to fit your own context, but it's fine to re-use notation and proofs and such. Unless you're doing original research in math, you're always presenting somebody else's proof, and often there's only trivial ways to vary how you say it. For a personal example, in the course of writing a term paper for a math class, I found three different expository sets of notes all explaining a topic in parallel ways, all of which followed the outline and major proofs of a single source, which was itself and expository work putting some very old results in modern terminology.

Especially if it's just one piece in a larger work, I wouldn't be too concerned. It's much more dishonest to "forget" the reference and pretend you never read it than to admit that you're heavily borrowing from it.

  • This is exactly the problem I'm in and the way I'm mostly doing it right now, the section I'm writting is purely expository. Of course I cite before every theorem and direct the reader toward the paper containing the proof but the difficulty I encountered is that by doing that I am more or less forced to follow the structure of the original thesis. If the original author proved Th 1,2,3 Lemma 1 , Th4. Even if I decide Th 2 and 3 aren't relevant I still need to follow closely the same format because Th4 depends on Lemma 1 and Th1 and I feel like this constrain me to "plagiarize" – aussetg Jun 17 '15 at 13:53
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You are almost certainly using the information in a different context than it was originally presented in. If nothing else, the material needs to be modified to fit its new context, as well as being cited of course. Even the most hard-core mathematical description typically has a lot of text as well, explaining the mathematics, which will need to be adjusted and paraphrased (and if it doesn't have such text, you should add that). I typically find that by the time I have finished adapting a piece of material to its new environment, I have quite thoroughly rewritten things in my own style; combine such with appropriate attribution, and the question of plagiarism is moot.

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