I am about ready to sumbit a paper in mathematics, but I have one worry. While researching, I came across a sentence in the introduction of an old paper that I really want to use (with a very minor modification) in my abstract. It has been in all of my drafts for a long while now, and I can't see getting rid of it!!!

Is this a serious issue? Even though I'm stealing the sentence, I am not actually stealing any mathematics, so it kind of seems (??) okay to me. The old paper is cited elsewhere in my paper, by the way. I just don't know how I can give credit for a phrase when it appears in the abstract... it would seem overkill to put the whole citation in the abstract.

In times like these I wish I hadn't ditched all my English major friends.

EDIT: THANKS for all of the replies. You convinced me to change to wording, and I believe I ended up with something almost as good. I am a nervous wreck as it is, so I definitely don't need this plagiarism thing weighing on my conscience!!

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    Unless the sentence you mean is a common phrase like, "Let G be a group" or is so famous that does not require citation, it seems to me you do not know what plagiarism is. See here and here.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 0:50
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    I well remember the first (and only) time I asked Cassandra W. out. She replied, "Absolutely, positively, no!" That cannot be said in any better, clearer way, and it applies equally here. So, with due credit to Cissy, absolutely, positively, no! You cannot use the words of others without proper credit.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 1:28
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    "It was the best of papers... it was the worst of papers..."
    – WernerCD
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 12:58
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    "It was a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, a free abelian group rang out!"
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 0:37
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    You've illustrated a perfect example how "plagiar-phobia" is being taken to ridiculous extremes. Don't get me wrong. You have a right to be concerned, but not because of anything you intended to do, but because the "plagiarism police" are borderline insane nowadays and are looking to crucify anyone who commits the ever-so-slightest aberration. Yet many of these same people would want to give murderers and rapists "a second chance". Remember. According to the plagiarism police, no two people could or should EVER have the same fleeting thought. Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 0:46

6 Answers 6


I think some of the early advice on this question was really bad. It's easy to give casual attribution for a quote if you do it like this:

Abstract : This paper is devoted to the study of K-algebras. It has long been known that 'All regular K-algebras are equivalent, but every irregular K-algebra is irregular in its own way.' (Tolstoy). We classify a new family of irregular K-algebras. This result has implications in algebra theory.

Then you can cite the paper properly in the body of your paper. Writing the abstract like this makes it very clear who the quote came from and you can deal with the where later.

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    Aside rules about format, i think it is a very practical and useful answer. There is no shame in using a good quotation, and we often forget that.
    – Greg
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 6:14
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    To clarify, this isn't literally quoting Tolstoy who probably wasn't an expert on any kind of algebra. However, Tolstoy did write " Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." (Anna Karenina, opening sentence).
    – MSalters
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 15:27
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    This is not a quote or an excerpt, it's a paraphrase. Make the parenthetical remark "(paraphasing Tolstoy)" or "(to paraphrase Tolstoy)". It appears that @ForeverMozart actually wants to paraphrase rather than quote. If the modification isn't witty like this one, but merely informative, you can say "(borrowing from Tolstoy)".
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 18:00
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    A well-known paper by A.R.D. Mathias starts (emphasis mine): "This paper is concerned with combinatorial properties of families of infinite subsets of ω, the set of natural numbers 0, 1, 2, .... Before introducing the notion of a happy family, for the suggestion of which phrase the author is indebted to Professor J.N. Crossley, we state the notational conventions that will be followed throughout the paper and review some familiar concepts." A.R.D. Mathias, "Happy Families", Annals of Mathematical Logic 12(1977), 59-111. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0003484377900067 Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 21:42
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    @MassimoOrtolano Yes, I was just amused (perhaps too easily?) that the particular Tolstoy example that was mentioned had actually been used in a paper I was familiar with. Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 22:03

A good rule is: Do not paste verbatim text from another manuscript into your manuscript, unless it is a clearly indicated quote

You may think that at some point you'll edit the text enough that it will be sufficiently unique. Or you may see it as a place holder that you can use to guide your writing. However, this is very dangerous from a plagiarism perspective. Time goes by and you can forget what was your text, what was taken verbatim from elsewhere, and you can be left uncertain as to whether you have changed it.

Furthermore, even when you are taking personal notes in a working file. Put quotes around anything you take from another source. You do not want to risk contaminating your manuscript with text where it is unclear whether it is your words or the words of another.

However, now that you have a sentence that pretty much comes from another source, unless one of a few exceptions apply, you should remove it and replace it with another phrasing. A few exceptions would be (a) it is a canonical phrase, (b) you've altered enough words and it's generally a fairly standard sentence. Citations and references allow you to more closely paraphrase the words of the original authors; of course, if it is a quote, then use quotation marks.

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    Editing someone else's thoughts is still plagiarism if not acknowledged. IF you copy the words, use quote marks. Copy the thoughts, don't use quotes, but either way acknowledge who helped you.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 6:35

No, do not "excerpt" an excellent sentence. Apparently your point is that that particular verbalization of an idea was sufficiently exceptional that you could see no better expression. And, yes, this is a reasonable conclusion, since it is entirely possible that things are very-highly-optimized. But all the worse, you ought not neglect to credit someone who has achieved that tight, nearly-ultimate, optimization. The "art" of critical expression is not officially recognized, yet it is implicitly recognized in almost all things people do.

That is, think about real-politick...

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    yes, the statement seems highly optimized and concise (perfect for an abstract). Two or three sentences are required to replace it... Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 1:06

Most journals do not allow you to include references in the abstract, but you should not steal the sentence without attribution. Some options:

  1. Remove the sentence from the abstract and include it in the Introduction, with appropriate attribution and referencing.
  2. Put the quote in both the abstract and the Introduction. In the abstract, try the following format: '"This is a beautiful quote about mathematics," accoring to Joe Brown.' In the Introduction, repeat the quote with the full reference.
  3. Put it into your own words in the abstract and include the quote, properly referenced in the Introduction.
  4. Take it out.
  • could I put an asterisk next to the paper in the References section, like * abstract wording Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 1:10
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    That would not be enough by itself, no. Commented Jul 28, 2016 at 1:30

"An authority for the answer — properly attributed": (H. Todd, 1910)

"Everything’s Already Been Said." (S. Guise, 2011) "It is very challenging to write completely original content" (ibid) "but nobody will notice this when reading" (D. Rousseau, 2005) "and great minds think alike anyway" (R. Caner, 2012) "so you might as well just use it", (P. Smith, 2012) as "nobody will care anyway" (J. Solano, 2014) "especially if it is not important to them" (S. Mitchell, 2011)

"I hope that helps" (F. Jensen, 2016)


There are so many opinions out there that you have to be careful! I say that when in doubt go to the source. I suggest you buy the AP or MLA Manual or go to Purdue Owl/online writing lab. There you will find the writing styles and a whole section on 'avoiding plagiarism.' Go to the source, my friend!! Good luck!

  • 1
    There you will find the writing styles and a whole section on 'avoiding plagiarism.' — Coincidentally, one may find a lot of questions concerning best practices for "avoiding plagiarism" on this very site, as well.
    – Mad Jack
    Commented Jul 30, 2016 at 19:36

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