Let's suppose a paper uses an interesting rhetoric element to present idea A. So let's say it says "Wise men have had the brilliant, although not fully correct idea that A". Is it plagiarism, to say in a different paper (even different discipline) concerning (completely) different idea B something similar, like "Wise men have had the brilliant, yet slightly wrong idea B"?

My intuition is no, because plagiarism is the process of presenting ideas as ones own. As long as the rhetoric element is not the idea in itself (lets say a poem) it seems to me it cannot be plagiarism.

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    "Abusing John Knowitall's dictum, it could be said that "Wise men have had the brilliant, yet slightly wrong idea B". Jan 13, 2017 at 14:43
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    @CaptainEmacs I do not understand. Could you elaborate?
    – tomka
    Jan 13, 2017 at 14:51
  • Instead of running the danger of being accused of plagiarism, you could use a phrase such as the one I proposed, with a famous saying by John Knowitall, adapted to my needs. Jan 13, 2017 at 15:42
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    @CaptainEmacs: As an academic, your quoted suggestion satisfies me completely. As a writer it does, to say the least, not satisfy me. In fact, as an academic and a writer, if I read a sentence like that I would then have to decide whether this was honestly bad academic writing or a sly parody of bad academic writing. Be real with me: did you make it bad on purpose? Jan 13, 2017 at 15:55
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    What's so difficult about simply citing the original text? Jan 13, 2017 at 17:26

1 Answer 1


In my opinion what you are suggesting is brushing up against plagiarism. Done just once as you suggest, it will surely not be a problem. But if this is an example of something done more systematically in your writing -- or is indicative of the way you look at borrowing others' ideas and words -- you may in fact have a problem down the line. Certainly I see room for improvement.

Plagiarism is the act of using someone else's ideas or distinctive language without sufficient attribution. So your explanation as to why you are not plagiarizing is not really convincing: the language was distinctive enough for you to want to copy it.

Now you have taken a rather short "rhetoric element" and changed it a bit, from

Wise men have had the brilliant, although not fully correct idea that A


Wise men have had the brilliant, yet slightly wrong idea B

I think it's an interesting question why you changed it. Did you change it because you didn't want to copy too many words verbatim, or because the second one reads as better to you? It's not a trick question: both impulses are good and ought to be taken further. You feel less bad copying a smaller number of words, so keep going with that: keep going until the first six words are no longer identical, at least. In terms of reads better: experienced writers know that anything can be be made to read better if you put more time and work into it. A main task of a writer is to come up with language which is (i) original and (ii) optimized for the subject matter, and in really effective writing these two goals are confluent and mutually beneficial, not antithetical.

What piece of writing is really so good that it needs to be repeated as is from one situation to another? (That's not a completely rhetorical question, and there are a few positive answers, but they are few.) Since you are writing about new ideas and new work, you should (the vast majority of the time) find that new words are more appropriate than old ones.

In the case at hand: I don't find "Wise men have had the brilliant, yet...." to be rhetorical gold or anything close to it. If I am honest, to me it sounds like the kind of hackneyed academic writing that young students sometimes use earnestly and older students and veteran academics either mock or use ironically. (And a tip: that the brilliant and wise are men is going to be noticed in a negative way by some.) I suggest that you practice slinging your own phrases: soon enough you'll be able to do as good and I hope much better than this. (I thought about showing you half a dozen similar phrases to indicate it's no big thing, but I decided not to because I don't know the intellectual content, and choosing language divorced from content is part of what I'm criticizing.)

Good luck. For further reading about what it's like to encounter many short passages of your writing coopted with minor changes, I recommend this piece. (And to gain some respect for the complexity of these issues and remember not to be too critical of others, I recommend this piece.)

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    "Since you are writing about new ideas and new work, you should (the vast majority of the time) find that new words are more appropriate than old ones." - it seems to me like the statement "Since you are writing about new ideas and new work, you should (the vast majority of the time) find that old words are required to make the new ideas comprehensible to readers." sounds just as logical a line of reasoning. Jan 13, 2017 at 16:27
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    @tomka: Sure, here are my thoughts: "I took a note on the phrase sometime earlier and didn't recall it was not my phrase at the time of writing." From now on, when you write down someone else's words, you should write down who it was. I think you see why. In fact, nowadays with it being so easy to store papers in their entirety, I would recommend to just keep the paper itself and the pointer to the paper. " It is the only point in the paper where that happened and a rather short phrase of 7 words of which I changed 2." As I said, in small quantity this is not going to be a problem for you. Jan 13, 2017 at 16:35
  • @O.R. Mapper: I think you are saying that some repetition of old ideas is useful and even necessary in academic work. I agree with that. In terms of how to deal with this issue, the thing I would say first of all is that you should make your reader aware that you are repeating old things. The next thing I'll say is that I do think it is most often possible and desirable to present "old stuff" in a way which is slightly different and adapted to the present purpose.... Jan 13, 2017 at 16:39
  • ....I would think that math is a subject where necessary repetition is at the high end. I have written a few thousand pages of lecture notes (available on my webpage), and of course their coverage is not disjoint or close to it. Just now I am writing up some material on the Nullstellensatz, which appears in my commutative algebra notes and now in my scheme theory course. I didn't cut and paste; I rewrote from scratch. Of course, "many of the words are the same" if that's what you meant. Anyway...gosh, I had better get back to preparing for that course. Jan 13, 2017 at 16:42
  • @PeteL.Clark: That is indeed one possible interpretation. My point was that the statement "Writing about new ideas and new work requires new words." is so abstract that it can be interpreted both in ways where it is absolutely true and in ways where the opposite is true. Jan 13, 2017 at 19:29

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