- 1. Research and Writing Responsibly
- 2. APA Documentation
- 3. APA Document Formatting
- 4. APA Conventions for Grammar and Mechanics
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1.4.3 Determining what needs to be cited
While the examples in Section 1.4.4 below address the practical considerations for how to integrate the words and ideas of others appropriately into your own writing project, this section focuses on one of the trickier aspects of responsible documentation: determining what to cite when common knowledge or casual observations are involved. The APA’s Publication Manual (2010) has a highly instructive passage on this very issue:
The key element of this principle [determining when to cite] is that authors do not present the work of another as if it were their own work. This can extend to ideas as well as written words. If authors model a study after one done by someone else, the originating author should be given credit. If the rationale for a study was suggested in the Discussion section of someone else’s article, that person should be given credit. Given the free exchange of ideas, which is very important to the health of intellectual discourse, authors may not know where an idea for a study originated. If authors do know, however, they should acknowledge the source; this includes personal communications [e.g., e‐mails, interviews, etc.]. (p. 16)
The gist of this passage is that you should give credit to all sources you know influenced the ideas and wording you present alongside your own work. While the principle is fairly straightforward, when student writers work on research papers, many common confusions come to light, some of which lead to fallacies in citation. Most of these fallacies derive from misunderstandings about more or less subtle distinctions pertaining to the influence of other thinkers on a writer’s work and what those distinctions mean for academic audiences.
- Borrowing words versus borrowing ideas
- Copyright violation versus plagiarism
- Common knowledge versus personal memory
- Common knowledge versus specialized knowledge
Borrowing words versus borrowing ideas
Both kinds of material need to be cited, but all borrowed words must also be put within quotation marks or, for longer quotations, put into block formatting (see more below). Sometimes student writers borrow phrases and passages verbatim from the source, but then only acknowledge them as borrowed ideas. This most often happens when students do not properly paraphrase the ideas of sources (again, see more below). Anytime you copy‐and‐paste words from a source into your own paper or otherwise take passages verbatim, you should immediately put quotation marks around the borrowed material to show readers (and remind yourself) that you did not just use a source’s ideas, but also its original means for explaining the ideas—that is, the words themselves.
Copyright violation versus plagiarism
One related fallacy student writers often have concerns passages in the public domain, that is, passages not protected by copyright laws. The status of a passage as public domain or not does not alter the requirement to cite and quote properly. When the same wording is repeated without citation on multiple websites, student writers and the sites copying these passages may be exempt from charges of copyright violation—assuming the passages are truly in the public domain—but student writers are not exempt from charges of plagiarism if the passages are not properly identified with quotation marks and in‐text citations.
Simply put, plagiarism is not the same as copyright violation. An individual or organization can buy the rights to use words and ideas from any original author and use them without acknowledgment (as is often the case for material appearing on commercial websites). This practice nonetheless constitutes plagiarism and is unacceptable where original work is expected. No matter how many sources you can find similar to the phrases in question, you must put all words you copy‐and‐paste from a source within quotation marks, providing also proper citation in the body of the paper and on your References page. In such a case, you would ideally cite the most authoritative source repeating the wording (e.g., a government document, professional website, or earlier printed reference), since this key source is probably the one from which the others took their wording.
Common knowledge versus personal memory
Another common fallacy student writers have about academic citation pertains to the distinction between common knowledge and personal experience. Often, students will omit citation for facts or details they “just read (or heard) somewhere.” When those facts or details truly represent common knowledge, they need no citation. However, the test for common knowledge is not based on one’s personal memory, but rather on the expectation that your audience would already take that fact or detail for granted.
In practical terms, then, common knowledge in the context of academic documentation is audience dependent, based on what the audience holds in common as an accepted and generally understood observation. To illustrate, most educated audiences will not expect you to cite references to the dates of the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, or other dates audience members can easily recite off the tops of their heads or readily recall with a quick reminder. By contrast, facts and details that you acquired through your own personal experiences (readings, lectures, or other activities outside the common educational experience shared by audience members) should, in most cases, be credited to an authoritative reference. Besides doing your readers the service of providing a reference they can use to learn more about the information in question, you also force yourself to verify that what you recollect is accurate.
Common knowledge versus specialized knowledge
Student writers often mistake the accepted facts, theories, and details held by a specialized group of readers for common knowledge among a broader audience. You may read academic sources from special professional or disciplinary journals wherein no citations appear for information or ideas that do not seem part of common knowledge. Such details usually reflect the common knowledge of experts in the field, who would be the primary audience for specialized publications like academic journals. When writing for a broader academic and professional audience, however, writers should generally provide fuller documentation, especially to identify their sources for expert knowledge. An accountant, for instance, may take for granted that fellow accountants are familiar with a particular practice for recording depreciation; however, this accountant cannot expect a broader business audience to share the same understanding. A reference can help the audience in such a context understand the bases upon which experts derive some of their common concepts and practices.
As a student writer, more importantly, you need to show your instructors from where you are deriving your understanding of particular professional and academic fields. Your instructors for classes within your major will ultimately give you a sense about which facts, theories, and details do not need citation for an audience of fellow specialists. Until then, err on the side of caution. If you are not sure whether particular information should be attributed, provide a citation, especially if you can recall specifically where you acquired the information. If you cannot recall the specific source where you originally acquired a piece of information, look for an authoritative source conveying the information in question—experts regularly verify and cite details they take for granted when presenting them to colleagues. Remember, finally, that exact wording from a source— no matter whether the wording discusses some detail within common knowledge or not—must be put within quotation marks and provided a citation to avoid plagiarism (see more in Section 1.4.4).