Over the last few years, I have been writing several papers in the same direction as part of a research program. This means that the same exact setup is introduced at the beginning of each of my papers: i.e. the basic assumptions on the categories I am using, the basic terminology and notions, etc. As you can imagine, there are only so many ways of stating the same exact assumptions over and over again in each paper and now the first one and half pages of all my papers are beginning to look very much alike. I am a little worried: is this some kind of misconduct? Even though the content of my papers is different, is this "self plagiarism" or something when the first part of the first section looks almost identical to that in other papers?

I should mention here that by "first part of the paper", I am not talking about the introduction. Obviously, each paper has different motivations and different results and hence different introductions. I am talking about the first page of the body of the paper, where you put in stuff like "Let C be a category satisfying ....yada yada yada...and we will denote this operad by this and so on..."

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    $\begingroup$ This thread on academia.stackexchange might help: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/2893/… $\endgroup$ May 22, 2013 at 9:03
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    $\begingroup$ If all your work is in one sub-field, it would be surprising to not see isomorphic background sections for all your papers. It's only cause for concern if you are claiming a new contribution each time or something, which does not sound like the case. I would recommend citing some of your earlier papers along with other related material at the outset of your latest background section, with a sentence like "the following definitions and results are similar to those in [5,6,8,12,16]" $\endgroup$ May 22, 2013 at 9:42
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    $\begingroup$ I had similar concerns at some point. However, most of the time it turns out that my views of many things change a bit as time passes, and apart from the notation or main definitions (which I don't think constitute self-plagiarism anyway, only for a robot reading a paper), the "background" section actually is never the same. But maybe I am too much of a perfectionist. $\endgroup$ May 22, 2013 at 10:15
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    $\begingroup$ Here is a general rule which I tell my students when they need to write background material which they learned from another source, and which perhaps applies to material from ones own earlier writings. Don't be lazy: learn the old references in your heart of hearts, and then rewrite it anew the way you need it for your current paper. $\endgroup$
    – Lee Mosher
    May 22, 2013 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ Being referred to another paper for an explanation of notation is something I tend to not enjoy much... $\endgroup$ May 22, 2013 at 14:31

2 Answers 2


I find the question very relevant. And I think that there is a big difference between Mathematics and other subjects. In Mathematics, we want definitions to be exactly the same. We want to define a topological space in exactly the same way in all papers dealing with topological spaces. And let us be frank there are only so and so many ways to define topological spaces. Once I have found a very nice way to define and present it, in a notation that follows the general tradition, is very readable etc, why should I rewrite it for another paper?

I know that some people say that maybe at some point you do not need to explain topological spaces anymore, but this is out of question. The exponential time hypothesis(ETH) is used in 1000's of papers and still reviewers usually require a formal definition again and again.

The point here is that the majority of Mathematicians are not considering a folklore definition as a substantial contribution of the paper in any way. Nevertheless, it might be necessary to include it in all papers, for reasons of self containment.

It also makes little sense to quote yourself on it, as it became "folklore" for some of the community working with ETH.

I think this is very different to texts in other sciences as history, philosophy etc. So it would be nice, if there could be some realistic consensus on the subject of self-plagiarism for the field of Mathematics.

best Till

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    $\begingroup$ Is this an answer to the OP question? $\endgroup$
    – Qfwfq
    Feb 16, 2017 at 18:57
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    $\begingroup$ No. But I give my opinion and two reasons to revive the discussion. I think there is no definite answer. It is about the way the community wants to set standards. $\endgroup$
    – Till
    Feb 16, 2017 at 21:00

In terms of misconduct, I imagine it can be mollified with adequate references and noting from where you are borrowing. If it is clear that it is just setup material and not repeating the same results, you are including material for the convenience of the reader and or to make the paper self contained.

At this writing, more and more use is being made of repositories like the ArXiv. I think it quite reasonable (contrary to Mariano's sentiments above) to make a 'travel version' of your setup which is compact and condensed for inclusion in a paper, and repeated for several papers, all containing a reference to an expanded version of the setup as part of an ArXiv paper which includes more motivation and discussion for the new reader. This way you can accommodate both first-time and more experienced readers of your material, almost all of whom have access to ArXiv.

Gerhard "Make Your Work Go Places" Paseman, 2017.02.16.


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