How to deal with citations, attribution, and copyrights

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Citations to other work in scientific literature serve not only to strengthen your argument and to provide proofs (in mathematics), but also to assign credit for work, which is known as attribution. You also need to avoid infringing on someone's copyright.

  1. You need to provide a citation for anything that is not your own work, even if it is only summarized. Depending on the field and the level of writing, this may even include textbook material. Unless you give a citation, anything you write implies a claim that it is your original work.
  2. Be careful when you write about work you did with others who are not coauthors of what you are writing now. It is particularly important to include citation to the earlier work with the original coauthors. Be careful about using "we". If you say something like "we developed" without a proper qualification and citation, it might be misunderstood as a claim that the work was done by you only (and your present coauthors, if any).
  3. You cannot take text from references without putting it in quotes or paraphrasing it. In any case, you must include the citation.
  4. You can use a magical sentence like This section is based on [1], where more details can be found to avoid repeatedly citing the same source. But you still cannot just copy and paste, you must paraphrase or summarize. This applies even if you wrote the referenced work yourself. Another useful magical phrase is we now state some results from [1] in a form suitable for our purposes.
  5. If someone told you something and you want to use it, cite it as a Name, Personal communication, year.
  6. You cannot just take pictures from other papers or from the internet, even if you redraw them. The caption of any picture that you did not create personally or that was published before needs to include a citation of the source and a statement where did you get the right to publish the image. For example:
    1. Reproduced from [1] with permission if the picture is from another publication. If you are writing something to be published (which includes posting on the internet), you actually need to get the permission of the copyright holder, which, for papers and books, is usually the publisher, not the authors. Again, this applies even if the reference is to your own paper. When you are writing a thesis that will not be published, you may not need a permission.
    2. Reproduced from [1] under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License and reference [1] should give the author's name (if available) and URL. You can also just say Reproduced from [1] in the caption and add Available under the Creative... to the bibliography entry.
    3. By courtesy of... for a picture that someone else made personally and gave you with a permission to publish.
  7. Make sure that the references cited actually exist and have what you say is in them. This implies you need to get and look at the material you cite. Do not cite sight unseen.
  8. Be sure to give credit where credit is due, even if it takes some extra space.
  9. Do not engage in "science wars" and purposely omit citations to related work of others, even if you rationalize it for yourself, and even if they do not cite you or you disagree with them. If you know of a closely related publication, you are under an obligation to cite it no matter what. Page limit is not an excuse. It is OK to cite just one representative publication from the voluminous output of some group, or just a few from a large trend in the literature, though.
  10. When in doubt, cite!

Following these simple rules consistently is enough to keep you out of trouble. Once your work is published, it sticks around forever. There are cases where improper citations in publications from many years ago led to ugly scandals and professional careers destroyed.


See also

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