Using sources

Finding sources

  • The MIT Libraries Mathematics Guide has links to databases, electronic books, and other resources for searching the literature of mathematics.
  • The Dartmouth College Library Mathematics Research Guide has links to databases, journals, and other resources for searching the literature of mathematics.
  • Dartmouth’s Kresge Physical Sciences Library also has a more informative explanation for students of how to search the literature, including evaluating sources. “This guide provides a starting point for library research on Markov Chains. It will help you locate the best sources of authoritative, scholarly, and scientific journal articles, and help you find selected information tools. It includes links to resources for evaluating, citing and managing sources…”
  • Your librarian may be happy to visit your class to show students how to search the mathematics literature.
  • A handy trick: if you visit journal websites through your institution’s library account, notice the url. You may find that you can access journals more quickly by simply adding a string like .libproxy.[yourinstitution].edu to the url. You will still be prompted for your login information.

Using and acknowledging sources

The following resources explain or illustrate how mathematicians use and acknowledge the work of others:

  • Terry Tao’s blog post “Write in your own voice” summarizes the motivations for mimicking or paraphrasing other mathematicians, when doing so is appropriate, and what to do instead when it’s not.
  • Stephen Maurer’s Undergraduate Guide to Writing Mathematics includes a straightforward explanation of when and how mathematicians cite their sources, including how these norms differ from the norms in other academic disciplines (see Section 9.3).
  • This annotated journal article, “Maximum Overhang,” illustrates how and why mathematicians review relevant literature in the introductions of articles.

When students’ papers summarize the work of others rather than presenting original research, students are often unsure about how to best acknowledge their sources. The following resources may be helpful.

  • Here is a handout about acknowledging sources in expository papers. Examples illustrate how to clarify which material in the paper is from sources and which material is due to the authors.
  • M.I.T. has a general resource with concrete examples of what constitutes plagiarism at M.I.T. and how to avoid plagiarizing: MIT’s Academic Integrity Handbook (html) (pdf).
    These examples from the handbook clarify some common student misconceptions about how to paraphrase sources, but are not specific to mathematics. For some math-specific examples written in the same style, see this Math Supplement for MIT’s Academic Integrity Handbook.

Of course, how best to acknowledge sources is not always straightforward in practice. Acknowledging some of the difficulties and how you might address them yourself can help students to gain an understanding of the kinds of considerations that go into the decision of when and how to cite. Examples of challenging situations include the following:

  • Steven Kleiman notes that when you use a minor variation of a significant advance, there’s a problem.  You have to cite the variation, but then you do not give due credit to the major contributor because the route to the original breakthrough is indirect.  If you cite both, you have to explain the history, and the issue may be overblown.
  • Please feel free to contribute additional examples.


Students writing within the American academic culture can plagiarize unintentionally if they are unfamiliar with the norms of this culture. To avoid unintentional plagiarism, ensure that students are aware not only of what they should not do but also of what they should do instead. For examples of how to do so, see the resources above for acknowledging sources.

Design assignments to remove or reduce the risk of plagiarism. For example, this term paper assignment guides students to choose a focus for a paper that will enable them to “add value” to the paper beyond that offered by their sources.

Different schools have different procedures for handling plagiarism. Familiarize yourself with your department’s and your school’s guidelines. One example: MIT’s procedures are described in MIT’s Academic Integrity Handbook.

Remember that students have a right to privacy. Except when necessary, do not discuss the situation with others in a way that could identify the student, and store evidence of plagiarism securely.

General resources for using sources (not specific to mathematics)

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