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When Not To Cite In A Research Paper

Is It Plagiarism Yet?

Summary:

There are few intellectual offenses more serious than plagiarism in academic and professional contexts. This resource offers advice on how to avoid plagiarism in your work.

Contributors:Karl Stolley, Allen Brizee, Joshua M. Paiz
Last Edited: 2013-02-13 12:01:30

There are some actions that can almost unquestionably be labeled plagiarism. Some of these include buying, stealing, or borrowing a paper (including, of course, copying an entire paper or article from the Web); hiring someone to write your paper for you; and copying large sections of text from a source without quotation marks or proper citation.

But then there are actions that are usually in more of a gray area. Some of these include using the words of a source too closely when paraphrasing (where quotation marks should have been used) or building on someone's ideas without citing their spoken or written work. Sometimes teachers suspecting students of plagiarism will consider the students' intent, and whether it appeared the student was deliberately trying to make ideas of others appear to be his or her own.

However, other teachers and administrators may not distinguish between deliberate and accidental plagiarism. So let's look at some strategies for avoiding even suspicion of plagiarism in the first place

When do we give credit?

The key to avoiding plagiarism is to make sure you give credit where it is due. This may be credit for something somebody said, wrote, emailed, drew, or implied. Many professional organizations, including the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA), have lengthy guidelines for citing sources. However, students are often so busy trying to learn the rules of MLA format and style or APA format and style that they sometimes forget exactly what needs to be credited. Here, then, is a brief list of what needs to be credited or documented:

  • Words or ideas presented in a magazine, book, newspaper, song, TV program, movie, Web page, computer program, letter, advertisement, or any other medium
  • Information you gain through interviewing or conversing with another person, face to face, over the phone, or in writing
  • When you copy the exact words or a unique phrase
  • When you reprint any diagrams, illustrations, charts, pictures, or other visual materials
  • When you reuse or repost any electronically-available media, including images, audio, video, or other media

Bottom line, document any words, ideas, or other productions that originate somewhere outside of you.

There are, of course, certain things that do not need documentation or credit, including:

  • Writing your own lived experiences, your own observations and insights, your own thoughts, and your own conclusions about a subject
  • When you are writing up your own results obtained through lab or field experiments
  • When you use your own artwork, digital photographs, video, audio, etc.
  • When you are using "common knowledge," things like folklore, common sense observations, myths, urban legends, and historical events (but not historical documents)
  • When you are using generally-accepted facts, e.g., pollution is bad for the environment, including facts that are accepted within particular discourse communities, e.g., in the field of composition studies, "writing is a process" is a generally-accepted fact.

Deciding if something is "common knowledge"

Generally speaking, you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources. Additionally, it might be common knowledge if you think the information you're presenting is something your readers will already know, or something that a person could easily find in general reference sources. But when in doubt, cite; if the citation turns out to be unnecessary, your teacher or editor will tell you.

Information qualifies as common knowledge when it can be found in a significant number of sources and is not considered to be controversial. General descriptions of social customs, traditions, and observable world phenomena qualify as common knowledge, as well as popular expressions and sayings such as “the early bird gets the worm.” Common knowledge can vary between subject fields, so think about your audience. If you have doubts about whether something is common knowledge, ask your professor or another expert in the discipline.

 

Example

Common Knowledge: 
Davidson College was established in 1837 by Presbyterians.

Needs a Citation:
Davidson College was established in 1837 by Presbyterians who bought the land primarily for its rural location, far from the immoral enticements of cities.

 

For more information about when you don't need to cite, see:

  • Ballenger, Bruce P. "Appendix A: Guide to MLA Style." The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers. New York: Longman, 2009. 257-318. Print.

    Contains information about the circumstances in which to cite and some examples of common knowledge.
    Check WorldCat record.

  • Fowler, H. Ramsey, and Jane E. Aaron. "Avoiding Plagiarism and Documenting Sources." The Little, Brown Handbook. New York: Pearson Longman, 2010. 626-634. Print.

    Contains a section on what qualifies as common knowledge.
    Check WorldCat record.

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