“Following the treatment of”: How to avoid reinventing the wheel

In my last blog post, I wrote about clean-room writing as a way of avoiding plagiarism. In today’s post, I will talk about how you can avoid charges of plagiarism while providing background information that follows a plan established by someone else.

Here’s a common writing problem: You’re writing background material for a larger work. The background material runs to several paragraphs, and you have found a source (often a book) that explains the issue you need to include in your background material particularly well. In science, we don’t quote long passages. As we discussed earlier, plagiarism is unacceptable, and copying someone’s organization is generally a form of plagiarism. Note the word generally in the last sentence. There’s a small loophole, which you have to use carefully, but which is available to you for cases like this one.

Here’s the loophole: If you explicitly say that you’re presenting something the way it was presented elsewhere, it’s OK. To do this, we often use words like “Following the treatment of…”, or “The organization of the material in this section follows…”. The explicit acknowledgment that you are borrowing someone else’s way of organizing a certain topic (and perhaps their notation and/or terminology) makes this OK. Note that you have to be very clear that you are doing this. A simple citation won’t do here.

Now we have to be clear about something else: Explicit acknowledgment does not provide a blanket exemption from the normal rules of plagiarism.

  • You still have to write your own text, i.e. you can’t just use someone else’s words, even if you have borrowed their organization. I would still write text like this using the clean-room technique described in my previous post. The only difference is that my notes in a case like this might be a little more detailed, laying out the logical sequence of ideas to be covered. I would still avoid writing notes in complete sentences to avoid inadvertent reuse of the original author’s wording.
  • You can only do this for a well-defined portion of your work, e.g. a few paragraphs or, at most, a short section on a specific topic. You can’t compose (for example) entire chapters of a thesis this way.

If you use this loophole, it becomes much more difficult to avoid other forms of plagiarism, and of course there’s always the question of whether you have used too much of someone else’s work in constructing your own. This is therefore something that is to be done with considerable caution, and likely with someone else going through your work to see that it has been done properly. However, it’s often useful to avoid reinventing the wheel by simply acknowledging that it has been done, and then just using the darned thing.