I derived a minor result on my own, as part of a paper that I'm working on. I recently discovered that this result already exists in the literature.

If I cite the original work it will seem like I simply took it from there, but if I don't it might seem that I omitted a due citation. Is it more appropriate to

  1. cite the original work
  2. not cite it
  3. either of the above with a comment (if so how can I phrase an appropriate comment?)
  • 30
    I’m not in academia, so please forgive me if my perspective is askew. I fully appreciate your desire to receive recognition for having independently derived this result, but it strikes me that such a derivation would unfortunately not be of any material interest to the academic community (unless the method is itself novel and interesting)? Therefore I can’t help wondering whether there’s any academic value (i.e. over and above personal pride, etc) in doing anything more than simply citing the original paper no differently than as if that is where you first learned of the result?
    – eggyal
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 9:57
  • 1
    @eggyal thanks for the comment. I need this result as a stepping stone for a whole argument, so it needs to be in the paper.
    – Ziofil
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 10:04
  • 1
    Did you use the same method to derive the result? And do the results match? And is the length of the derivation a factor (as in, would you have to cut other material to add the derivation?)
    – corsiKa
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 16:35
  • 18
    @Ziofil As a writer, even an academic one, it's hard to "murder your darlings", but it's frequently needed. You need the result to be in the paper, but do you need the (re-)derivation? That is - aside from the psychological pain - would your paper be any worse for scrapping the whole re-derivation and replacing it with a simple "As shown by Ibid et. al [24], ..."?
    – R.M.
    Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 19:07
  • 2
    If you found out about prior work just mention the fact like "This conclusion was also reached by _."
    – Marxos
    Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 18:29

5 Answers 5


Citation has multiple purposes, as described by several answers on this site (e.g. 1, 2). Broadly speaking, those purposes mostly fall into three classes: giving a trustworthy source, giving credit, or suggesting further reading. Any individual citation might serve several of these purposes, or only one of them. So when you cite a paper, that doesn't necessarily make it seem like you took the result from there; you might simply be giving credit to the first person(s) to publish the result, or referencing an external source to back up what you're saying.

What this means for your case is that you should definitely cite the other paper. The exact wording you use to do so depends on several factors, including whether you think an explicit statement of the result, and/or your derivation of it, are still worth including in your paper - for example, if you think your derivation is more clear, or relaxes some assumptions of the original, or so on. Here are some possibilities along the lines of what I've used or read:

  • "This result was originally derived in reference [1]." (possibly in a footnote)
  • "For a more detailed derivation, see reference [1]."
  • "Here I present an alternate derivation of the result in reference [1]."
  • "(statement of result) [1]. In brief, this can be derived as follows: ..."
  • "This uses the result that (brief statement of result) [1]." (probably in a footnote)

and so on. Or you can just cite it without comment, and unless the conventions of your field are otherwise, people won't necessarily assume that you took the result from the other paper. (Nor will they even care, in most cases.)

  • 19
    "you might simply be giving credit to the originator of an idea" - the point of the question is that in the creation history of the OP's paper, the other author is not the originator of the idea in the sense that the idea originated with the other author, and from there it was passed on until it ended up in the OP's paper. (To be clear, I'd opt for citing the other paper for various reasons, I just do not agree with the implication that the idea in the OP's paper somehow came from the other author.) Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 8:41
  • @O.R.Mapper I didn't intend that implication. That's not the sense in which I was using "originator of the idea"; I simply meant the first person to introduce it to the research community of that field. In any case, the phrase has been edited out.
    – David Z
    Commented Oct 11, 2018 at 18:21

I will write from the perspective of mathematics. This sort of issue comes up often and can often be tricky. One thing is clear: you must cite the prior work. Now you write:

If I cite the original work it will seem like I simply took it from there,

I don't follow. First of all, you can say "I proved X independently, before I became aware of the work of [CITE]." Whether you will get any credit for this is another matter, but you can certainly say it.

But moreover, assuming the literature you found is old enough so that your work really was done afterwards and not at roughly the same time [in mathematics this is usually the case with published literature, since the publication process is rather slow], the only point of mentioning the result is if your take on it is not completely subsumed by the original. If there is some novelty in your approach to the result, it is fine to include result...and your new derivation of it. (Comment on @Massimo Ortolano's answer: in mathematics, appendices rarely contain omitted proofs from the body of the article.)

Let me reiterate that it often happens that after you've written a math paper you find out that there's some amount of overlap with past work. You don't necessarily have to scrap the whole thing or even excise all parts of your paper that overlap with past work -- in some cases, doing this would make your paper less readable with no other benefit. However, you should make a strong effort to do justice to the previous work. (It does not feel good to have a finished paper in hand and learn that X% of it is not new. If I'm being really honest, I often do feel a momentary temptation not to include an "obscure" citation that could lower the perceived value of my work. I've never given into it though, and at this point I recognize it as pure ephemeral evil and it passes through me quickly.) The right way to look at it is this: if no one cares about this part of your article, then no one cares and you have nothing to gain by omitting the citation. If they do care, then the readers who care / know the most will know about the other work -- either immediately or eventually -- and you place yourself in a much better situation by calling attention to the overlap yourself.

  • Meh. My master's thesis has a particularly obscure citation.
    – Joshua
    Commented Nov 9, 2017 at 2:14

The purpose of publishing a paper is not to massage your ego, nor to gain credit for your work - although these are useful side benefits - it is to contribute to the global body of knowledge about whatever subject you are publishing on. You should consider this in deciding whether to include the derivation.

If there is nothing novel or original about your derivation then you serve your subject and your audience better by omitting it entirely and simply using the result and referring them to the paper you have now discovered for the derivation.

If there is something about your new derivation worth mentioning, then you should include it but also cite the earlier paper and indicate what it is about your new derivation that makes it worth mentioning.

Either way you should cite the earlier paper. How you came up with the idea is largely irrelevant.

  • The ideal case may be to contribute to the global body of knowledge. In practice though, most papers are written so that the author can get recognition, leading to new funding sources, and so keep food on the table for their family. So it may be valid to include the new derivation so that the author can demonstrate to prospective employers or clients that they have the mathematical skills to do this type of work. Commented Nov 8, 2017 at 5:18

You should certainly cite the original work.

And since the new derivation is probably not central to the paper you are writing, I would put it in an appendix.

  • Oh yeah, it's definitely not central (I wouldn't even waste space in an appendix for it), but it did take me some days of work...
    – Ziofil
    Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 21:42
  • 57
    @Ziofil You can't imagine how many things that take months of work don't go into a paper ;-) Commented Nov 6, 2017 at 21:44

You should cite the work, no questions there. But I have another proposal for your extra work, depending on your field and specifics of the papers. If the derivation is not well detailed in the original paper or not rigorous, you can include your own derivation and denote that you have performed this derivation on your own and testify that the original derivation is indeed correct.

With so many efforts failing to duplicate the results of already published papers, this will both credit your effort and exemplify the work of the original author. However, as I said earlier, this depends on the context.

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