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Academic Integrity and Plagiarism: When to Cite

A guide for helping students understand and avoid plagiarism.

The Common Knowledge Rule

The general rule of thumb for citations is "If it's not common knowledge and it's not your own idea, you need to cite it." Since you know your own mind, perhaps a better question than "when should I cite" is "what is considered common knowledge?"

According to the Purdue Owl website, information is common knowledge if:

  • it can be found uncited in multiple credible sources
  • it is regarded as common knowledge by most of your audience (i.e. within the field of study)
  • it can readily be found in a credible reference source
  • the information is widely accepted as true

You can also use the "man on the street" rule: if you can walk up to a group of people on the street and at least one of them knows the information you need to cite, then it is probably common knowledge.

However, what is common knowledge can vary within the context of a specific class or a field. For example, what is common knowledge to mathematicians may not be common knowledge to psychologists. This is why, for example, a mathematics article will not cite that Carl Gauss coined the idea that mathematics is the "Queen of the Sciences," but a psychology article might. As always, if you are unsure, talk to your professor or contact a librarian.

(image source: shishberg on flickr, cc by-sa) 

Why Citations Are Necessary

Citations are necessary for a number of reasons. Not only is it expected by most of your professors, but it is the way that scholarship and ideas progress, by giving credit (and thus incentive) to the authors of the original ideas. Additionally, using citations:

  • shows that you did your research
  • shows that you recognize how your own ideas fit into the context of other people's ideas
  • gives strength to your argument by showing you have consulted outside sources
  • gives the author of the original idea credit for their work

Think about this: how would you prefer your own ideas to be used by others?

(image souce: f-oxymoron on flickr, cc by)

Images, Video, and Sound

Just because it's on the Internet, does not mean it is free to use or "in the Public Domain". In fact, almost every image, video, and sound clip on the Internet is copyrighted by default in the United States (regardless of whether it actually says "copyrighted" anywhere). 

Even if your assignment doesn't require you to cite multimedia content, it's good practice to include the author's name and the source of the image, video, or sound file (e.g. the name of the website or the URL). If your professor requires that your citations be in a specific format, such as MLA, APA, or Chicago, you should know that there is a standardized way to cite almost anything you find online: webpages, videos, tweets, games, you name it! If you need help, contact a librarian.

(image source: dan4th on flickr, cc by)