Have you ever received a compliment you didn’t deserve? Maybe you purchased cookies to bring to a party, and your friends admired your baking ability. Or perhaps you hired a contractor to install a hardwood floor, and your guests praised your handiwork. When these situations occur, you can do one of two things: you can pretend you baked the cookies or installed the floor and deceive those close to you; or you can give credit to the baker and installer and also let your friends and guests know how they, too, can acquire that same product or service. Similarly, when you write a term paper, documenting your sources allows you to give credit to those who provided the information and to help your readers find those same sources.
Giving Credit. When you take information from various sources for your paper, you have to acknowledge and give credit to the writers who provided you with that information. If you fail to do so, you are essentially stealing that information and implying that you are the original source. In other words, you are accepting a compliment that you don’t really deserve. In academic circles, that’s called plagiarism, and it’s a serious offense that could, depending on the level of the offense, lead to a failing grade on an assignment, a failing grade in the course, and a suspension from school (“Plagiarism,” The Newbury House Dictionary 654). Thus, you’re much better off if you simply give credit to your source.
Helping Readers. In addition to giving credit to your sources, you also want to let your readers know how to find those sources, so your readers, if necessary, can also go to those sources. If, for instance, you find a new book about depression and teenagers, and if you use some information from that book in your paper, your professor may also want to read that same book. By providing the reader with the author, title, and publication information, you make it easy for the reader to find the book in a library or a bookstore or online.
The next question you may be asking yourself is, “Do I have to document everything in your paper?” Fortunately, the answer is “no.” You do not have to document two types of information: personal opinion and common knowledge.
Personal Opinion. If you are writing an informative paper, your instructor may not want your personal opinion in the paper. However, if you are writing a persuasive paper, you will need to express your opinion, but you don’t need to cite yourself as the source. If, for instance, you feel that Benedict Arnold is the most underappreciated American soldier in history, you could write, “Most Americans remember Benedict Arnold only because of his traitorous actions after the Revolutionary War, but his exploits during that war are remarkable and should be appreciated by historians.” (In your research paper, you should avoid the first-person point-of-view pronouns, such as “I” and “we” and use the third-person point of view exclusively.) Naturally, once you state your opinion, you need to support that opinion with information from your sources.
Common Knowledge. Common knowledge is generally referred to as information that everybody knows or information that can be found easily in a variety of sources. For instance, most people know that Stephen King has written some best-selling novels such as Carrie, The Shining, Pet Sematary, and The Green Mile. Thus, you wouldn’t have to document that information when you refer to his works in general.
How about Stephen King’s birth date? Do you know what year he was born? Most likely, you don’t. However, you could probably find that date easily by looking at one of his books, by checking an encyclopedia, or by finding a website about him. So, even though that information may not have been “common knowledge” for you when you began your research, you wouldn’t have to document it because that type of biographical information is readily available. As a general rule, if you see certain information in at least three different sources, that information is considered common knowledge and does not have to be cited. If you have any doubts whatsoever, though, about whether to cite certain information, you should cite your source because, as mentioned earlier, if you fail to document your sources properly, you will be guilty of plagiarism.
So where did you buy those cookies, and who installed that hardwood floor in your dining room? Once your friends and guests realize that you didn’t bake the cookies or install the floor, they’ll probably move on to the next question: If you didn’t do the work, who did? The same is true for your readers. They’re not surprised or offended when you’re not the original source of information. Instead, readers are generally pleased by your effort to find the information and by your willingness to share your sources with them.