EDIT: Part of the community has decided on a less catchy and more representative title than "Socially acceptable plagiarism (with regards to translation)". Let's run with that for a while. GRP.10.27 END EDIT.

The catchy part of the title refers to reusing words or ideas without permission, but without 'rocking the boat'. In mathematics, this is often done by proper attribution of the source, by naming the author/speaker, or providing other clues that the phrasing one has just used is not original.

If this were a discussion forum, I would invite answers that lists various forms of socially acceptable plagiarism; instead I prefer brief mention of such to the comments. This post is about the propriety and etiquette involving translations.

My situation is that I want to devote time to producing an English translation of some papers in German, and make the results available. Assume (although I may end up doing something different) that I place my efforts in a PDF and put it on some web page for public Internet access.

Primary question: What trouble do I get into by doing that?

Answers to this may depend on what things I did wrong, especially if I use certain words, phrases, images, parts of images, without crediting the source or asking for permission. So let's add to the context that the papers are from before 1980, the authors are likely unresponsive, and the source journals are likely discontinued, although online access to the sources are not freely available. I will list the original sources in the PDF, but the following question arises:

What trouble may happen if I do not contact some representative and ask for permission to use old material?

For material published in 1980 and afterwards, there is less of an excuse not to seek such permission or rights, and I would accept anecdotes that might lend guidance and are not obvious applications of common sense, but I am interested in the amount of effort someone in academics expends in order to reuse published material, especially in translated form. I know of a few examples in book publishing where more effort is made in getting such permission, however that appears more expensive than I feel the current scenario merits. This leads to:

What is "due diligence" in producing such a translation? Does it matter if the translation is provided gratis or for a fee?

I don't expect to sell access to the translation; it is my intent to make it freely available to any individual researcher. If someone else wants to put it in a book and sell that book, however, perhaps I could grant them such rights in exchange for a small monetary (or caffeine-ary) consideration.

Finally, let's assume I provide my own translation, except that for some small sections (possibly in a different language) I use someone else's translation of the same or related source. Let's say that I am concerned especially about a fragment that is (roughly) three paragraphs or about 200 words long. The answer to the following questions may be length dependent: if so, consider that I also have a 20 word fragment that is of concern.

How do I attribute this fragment? Do I use a footnote, or mention it in a preface? What is due diligence for making sure I can use this fragment?

This question is barely suitable for MathOverflow; I ask it here because the papers and output are mathematical, and the conventions in mathematics and mathematical publishing may not be addressed were I to ask these questions elsewhere. If they are addressed elsewhere, please provide a pointer to such material.

Also of interest, although I do not need the answers here, is if I have the same situation as above, except that I provide an interpretation (which is laced with my own perspective) rather than a translation (which attempts semantic fidelity and objectivity with respect to the source paper). The answers may stay the same, but it feels like a different situation to me. (A similar situation is mentioned in Mathematical etiquette: Rephrasing / restructuring a work, limited release (with attribution) acceptable? , which has some useful advice, although it does not involve natural language translation.)

Gerhard "Yes, It's About Jacobsthal's Function" Paseman, 2011.10.26

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    $\begingroup$ I think "copyright infringement" would be a more appropriate term than "plagiarism", since you do not try to portray the ideas to be your own. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2011 at 8:00
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ I'm not really sure what sort of answer you are hoping for. It is definitely illegal in almost every country, thanks to the Berne convention. Of course I'm not a lawyer, but my understanding of what would happen legally in the U.S. is this. If you put a free, unauthorized translation online, the copyright holder will force you to take it down if they notice. (How they do that is probably the most country-dependent part. In the U.S. they will use a DMCA takedown notice, and unless you claim to have a legal right to post it, everything will be over quickly.) $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Oct 27, 2011 at 8:06
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    $\begingroup$ The other side of this is the "socially acceptable" side: what will the community accept? I don't think there is a clear consensus. Many mathematicians approve of making otherwise inaccessible information available, and some approve very strongly, but not everyone will agree with the tactics. You ask about due diligence, but I don't think there is anything you can do that will get the whole community firmly on your side (short of getting the legal rights, or determining that the copyright holder cannot be tracked down). The best you can hope for is that many mathematicians will be sympathetic. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Oct 27, 2011 at 8:10
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    $\begingroup$ Your last full paragraph describes a situation completely different from the others. Copyright protects words, not ideas, so there are no legal issues if you explain the ideas in your own words, giving appropriate attribution. And the community norms of mathematics basically agree with this. I say basically because I think some people would object to me writing a survey on current hot research if I had not done any of the work myself or talked to anyone who had. But for work which is 30 years old, I can't imagine anyone objecting. $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2011 at 15:23
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    $\begingroup$ David, why would someone object if you wrote a survey on a currently active area that is not about your own direct work? If you understand the math well enough to explain it in a survey, I can't imagine why someone would call foul, or why there should be a distinction on this point between work being done now and work done 30 years ago. $\endgroup$
    – KConrad
    Oct 27, 2011 at 17:53

2 Answers 2


Comments. For my book Classics on Fractals I published translations of various relevant papers. I wrote to the copyright owners (such as learned societies who published the journals) for permission to do this. (This was back in the Olden Days, 20 years ago, when email was not as common as today.) My publisher (Addison-Wesley) gave me the wording to use in making the requests. In a few cases, the publishing organization asked for some payment in return for permission, or for a copy of the published book. In a few cases the original copyrighting organization no longer existed but some successor organization provided permission. For 3 (out of 20) papers I got no response, or did not find anyone to ask. But I kept the documentation of what I had done in case they would surface later (none has in 20 years).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for this. Did you do the translations yourself, or was that also arranged through the publisher or someone else? Also, were the papers more than 30 years old at the time you were asking for permission? Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.10.28 $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 16:51
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    $\begingroup$ So for the 3 papers where you couldn’t get a response, you went ahead and used the translations — and your commercial publisher was happy to with that? That then sounds much like the situation GRP originally outlined; and if a commercial publisher was happy to run with it, then it should surely be safe for an individual mathematician to do so for non-commercial purposes. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Peter: I think GRP never said he/she tried to get permission. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerhard: Dates were from 1872 to 1967. So some were more than 30 years old, but not all. Some I translated myself, one was done by a student of mine, one was previously translated (and published by the AMS), but most tranaslations were arranged by the publisher. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 18:50

I want to acknowledge the contributions others have made; I choose the answer format to help with emphasis.

I should have mentioned copyright issues in the question, as that is the major consideration when asking about trouble; thanks to Michael Greinecker for pointing this out and to Henry Cohn for expanding upon this. (This teaches me to preview questions on meta.mathoverflow where being, shall we say, less thoughtful carries less stigma or less embarrassment.) Since this handles the primary question, I will accept one of their answers if a) they submit an answer with that content and b) no one else gives a more thorough answer regarding due diligence.

Much as I liked my original title, I thank darij grinberg for changing it to reflect a key issue of the series of questions. (I do have mixed feelings, grumble, grumble. At least I read the bit in the FAQ about collaborative editing before posting.) Although I am still interested in hearing of other examples of socially acceptable plagiarism, I agree with darij that this question is more about due diligence with respect to translations.

I am glad for Gerald Edgar's contribution; I am hoping to see more anecdotes like those, and I should have said so more loudly. I will wait at least three days and then accept his answer if I do not see one I like even better.

I also thank David Speyer and KConrad for their remarks. I have not yet decided, but their comments sway me towards writing an expository article which contains my intepretation of the papers of interest, and adds some original material. That would force me to do more summaries and cutting, but that may be a good thing.

Based on the number of views and votes, and the fact that the question is still open, I thank the community for tolerating this kind of question. I hope more good answers will appear so that this can serve future readers.

Gerhard "Can't Wait For Oscar Night" Paseman, 2011.10.28

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    $\begingroup$ I seem to have a hard time writing a response to this comment without seeming agressive or arrogant. This is probably due to my youth. In any case, to me there is no ethical issue to consider. There is scientific knowledge out there. It belongs to all mankind. Making it available, in any language, is fine as long as you quote your sources. That we live in the dying embers of copyright legislation has no relevance. $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 21:34
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, Gunnar. I wish that life treats you with just enough roughness to season and improve you, and not dampen your spirit. May you enjoy the fruits of your labours as well. Michael and Henry have reminded me that taking someone else's words and rearranging them has potential for harm. If I see that and you don't, still that is enough for me for now. Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.10.28 $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ That's very sweet, Gerhard. Thank you. I read the comments of Michael and Henry and there I found only potential for harm in the legal sense. I'd appreciate if you had the time to explain a little how your interpretation differs from mine $\endgroup$ Oct 28, 2011 at 22:02
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, my comments about copyright law above were intended to address the "What trouble do I get into by doing that?" aspect of Gerhard's question. I agree that scientific research ought to be available to the public online, although I'm not sure what the best way to transition to that is (for example, reasonable journal subscription fees support the activities of many learned societies, so some alternative funding model would be necessary). Sadly, copyright legislation appears to be getting stronger over time, rather than weaker, and I don't expect an easy solution. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Oct 29, 2011 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ Incidentally, one thing I'd emphasize is that you should always ask the author, if he/she is askable. If the author is not pleased with the idea, then the polite thing to do would be to write your own exposition rather than a translation (even if you have the legal or moral right to do it anyway). If the author is pleased, then you might get useful assistance. I imagine authors would generally be very pleased, but the best way to be sure is to ask. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Oct 29, 2011 at 15:07

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