Plagiarism and “Common Knowledge”

When we talk about plagiarism, some things are obvious, including the fact that when you directly quote someone or something, you need to include the source of the quote.

But what about when you’re writing without the use of a specific source, condensing the knowledge you’ve gained from books, articles, films, etc. into a piece with your name as the author? That’s when it’s time to learn about the connection between “common knowledge” and plagiarism.

According to an article on “Academic Integrity” from MIT:

Broadly speaking, common knowledge refers to information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up. This includes:

Information that most people know, such as that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or that Barack Obama was the first American of mixed race to be elected president.

Information shared by a cultural or national group, such as the names of famous heroes or events in the nation’s history that are remembered and celebrated.

Knowledge shared by members of a certain field, such as the fact that the necessary condition for diffraction of radiation of wavelength from a crystalline solid is given by Bragg’s law.

However, what may be common knowledge in one culture, nation, academic discipline or peer group may not be common knowledge in another.

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The Basics: Citations.

Any time you use another person’s ideas or words (whether in direct quote or paraphrase), you must cite the source.

Why? Because it is illegal not to. And readers who like to read further need enough information to find what they’re looking for (author’s name, title of publication, page number, etc.).

While it might be tempting to leave the heavy work to your editor, we are only meant to help with citations—not write them for you. Here’s how to conquer them on your own:

  1. Choose a style guide. The style guide you choose will depend on the type of publication you’re targeting. If the publisher doesn’t recommend a guide, choose the one that best fits the medium (e.g., AP for news sites).
  2. Once you know the style guide, the next step is consistency. That means the formatting for each source should be the same (i.e., books formatted in book format; articles in article format; and so on).
  3. Footnotes should be in a consistent style as well.
  4. If footnotes are complete, there’s no need for endnotes.
  5. If all else fails, there is specialized software that can help.

One important thing to remember is that spell-check doesn’t work well on citations, thanks to the many abbreviations, strangely spelled names, etc. So take your time, and as always, just do your best.