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Avoiding Plagiarism

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To Cite or Not to Cite?

So when do you cite what you are writing?

You DO need to cite:

You DO NOT need to cite:

  • When you’re quoting from, paraphrasing, or summarizing another author's work.
  • If you are using an image, chart, or diagram created by someone else.
  • If you're using your own thoughts, ideas, opinions, observations, or experimental results.
  • If you're using common knowledge.

It does not matter if the work is a web page, book or television program, always cite when using information from someone else's creation.

Wait... what is common knowledge?

What is Common Knowledge?

Common knowledge is general facts and principles about the world we live in. We know that the world is round, that fish swim in the ocean, and that there are 365 days in a year. Information like this would not need to be cited.

Common knowledge can shift depending on the context of the situation. Information that is considered common knowledge for a specific field or college class may be more in-depth than information that is common knowledge to the general public.

Now... imagine you are a U.S. History student writing a paper on Alexander Hamilton. Which statements below would NOT be considered common knowledge and would have to be cited? Click on the sentence below that you think needs a citation.

Alexander Hamilton was one of the founding fathers of the United States. He believed in a strong central government. He successfully argued that the implied powers of the Constitution provided the legal authority to fund the national debt and assume states' debts.

(Sources: Community College of Vermont Hartness Library. (n.d.). Common Knowledge. Understanding plagiarism: More about common knowledge. and "Alexander Hamilton Biography.",)

Incorrect, this sentence would not need a citation, as this information would be common knowledge to a U.S. History student.

Incorrect, this sentence would not need a citation, as this information would be common knowledge to a U.S. History student.

Correct, this sentences requires citation, as this is not common information.


Quoting is using the EXACT wording of the source material. Direct quotations should be used sparingly, and should be used to strengthen your own arguments and ideas. Some valid reasons for quoting include:

  • When not using the author's exact wording would change the original meaning
  • To lend authority to the point you are trying to make
  • When the language of the quote is significant

(Image: Dombrowski, Q. (2010, June 10). The “library” . Retrieved from Flikr.)


Word to the Wise

Changing every third word in a passage does not count as paraphrasing. You are better off quoting and citing the actual source!

Paraphrasing is when you create your own wording of essential information and ideas expressed by someone else without directly quoting. Paraphrasing is similar to summarizing, however summaries only include the essential ideas of a work, while paraphrasing includes more details. 

Since your paper should only use direct quotations sparingly, you'll probably be paraphrasing frequently. Just remember that you still need to express plenty of your own ideas. Use paraphrasing to support those ideas, and be mindful that you still need to cite paraphrased portions of your paper.

What Does Paraphrasing Look Like?

Paraphrasing is a skill that takes time to develop. One way of becoming familiar with paraphrasing is by examining successful and unsuccessful attempts at paraphrasing. Read the quote below from page 179 of Howard Gardner's book titled Multiple Intelligences and then examine the two attempts at paraphrasing that follow. 
book cover

"America today has veered too far in the direction of formal testing without adequate consideration of the costs and limitations of an exclusive emphasis on that approach."  

Click on the attempts at paraphrasing below to see which one is an acceptable paraphrase.

Paraphrasing Attempt 1: America has now gone too far toward formal testing, without realizing the costs and limitations of exclusively emphasizing that approach (Gardner 179).

Paraphrasing Attempt 2: In the United States, the education system places too much emphasis on formal testing, overlooking the limitations and expenses imposed when that assessment strategy is employed exclusively (Gardner 179).

Although the source is cited, the paraphrasing is too close to the original statement as it retained too much of the original wording and sentence structure.

This paraphrase is different enough from the original source that it would not be considered plagiarism, so long as Gardner is credited.


(Quotes: Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice. BasicBooks, 2006.)