The Rules about Plagiarism

The good news about the rules regarding plagiarism is that there are lots of ways to do the right thing. To follow academic procedures, you'll need to understand several concepts: common knowledge, incorporating sources, and citing sources.

What is common knowledge?

For writers, common knowledge is an important concept because material that can be considered common knowledge does not need to cited in a text. Unfortunately, determining what counts as common knowledge can be confusing if you don't understand how assess the information.

Common knowledge is knowledge that is shared between the writer and the readers. If you can assume that your readers will already know a fact, it is likely common knowledge. It is important to remember your readers in your thinking about common knowledge; if they are not likely to know something as common knowledge, you should cite it even if the fact is already familiar to you.

Some common knowledge is widely known. The examples below could almost always go un-cited because you could assume that all readers of your college-level essays would know these facts just by living in the United States in the 21st Century:

  • China is the most populous country in the world.
  • Hawaii was the 50th state.
  • The Olympics are played every four years.
  • The current U.S. president is Barack Obama.

Some instances of common knowledge are more specialized, depending on your audience. Some audiences will share specific knowledge that a writer could consider common, but if the same information was written in an essay for a different audience, it would no longer be considered common knowledge. The facts in the examples below could go un-cited for members of the common-knowledge group but should be cited if you are writing for another audience.

  • The JSCC mascot is the General. (Common knowledge to all JSCC students and to most people in JSCC' service area. We hope!)
  • The mockingbird is the state bird of Tennessee. (Common knowledge for the people of Tennessee.)

Always remember your readers when deciding what common knowledge is. Would they need to find more information to trust that your statement is accurate? If so, provide a source. Similarly, if a fact was new to you when you read it during your research, it is obviously not common knowledge, and you should cite it when you use it in your own work.

How can I incorporate sources?

Whenever you find information that you use in your own work — whether you use the information you read word-for-word or put someone else's ideas into your own words to support your points — you'll need to incorporate those sources smoothly into your paper while following the rules of academic integrity.

You have several ways to incorporate someone else' work into you own — quote, paraphrase, or summarize. Each option requires you to cite the sources properly and to remain loyal to every original source' tone and intention. Information on citing sources comes later on this page.

Quote — A quote is an exact reproduction of an author's exact words in your own text. Be sure to use quotation only sparingly. It should be used to fill in gaps or provide authority for your essay and should never comprise the bulk of your paper. If you have more than a few sentences quoted per page, you are likely quoting too much and might be violating academic integrity guidelines, even if you cite properly.

Think about it: Your professor wants you to prove that you have ideas about your topic, with support from established authors and researchers. S/he doesn't want to just read another person's ideas; otherwise, s/he'd just go to the Library and read your source material instead of assigning you the paper!

The rules about citation require some special formatting for quotations:

  • Enclose the word-for-word quote in quotation marks (" ") to show that the source author's exact words appear in your paper.
  • If you change anything about the original material to make it fit more neatly or clearly into your essay, use square brackets ([ ])to indicate that material has been added or changed.
  • Use ellipses (. . .) to show that material is left out.
  • If the material you are quoting is longer than four lines, use block quote format, which means that you should not use quotation marks but instead indent the whole quoted bit one inch from the left margin so that it is clear what is your original work and what is quoted.


Paraphrase — A paraphrase is your restatement of an author's ideas in your own words that conveys the same meaning as the author's original. Paraphrases are usually about the same length as the original material. If you paraphrase a whole article, for example, you'll have quite a bit of material to write to accurately paraphrase the source. Inside a paraphrase, you might use quotes sparingly.

To understand paraphrase better, think of a television show or movie you recently watched. If you tell a friend about it scene-by-scene and give him/her enough information about the episode that s/he doesn't need to see it for him/herself to know what happens, you've paraphrased the film or show. You'll have put the content into your own words but included all of the characters, the major events, the minor events, and maybe even some dialogue (quoted directly). That's different from summary, which you'll read about below.

Summary — A summary is a brief restatement of an author's ideas, focusing only on the main ideas. A summary is usually quite a bit shorter than the original source since it addresses only the main points. You may use quotes sparing inside the summary as well. Summary is often used when you got an idea for an essay or an idea that you use in your essay as evidence, support, or proof of your own points.

To contrast a summary and a paraphrase, let's revisit the television show or movie idea above. From a paraphrase, you've probably spoiled the movie or episode for your friend by giving so much information about the plot, characters, and themes. In a summary, you'll provide much less information. If you give your friend just enough information in your own words to allow him/her to get the gist of the plot, characters, and themes, you'll have summarized it. Summaries contain enough information to allow a reader to understand a concept or article but not much more.

Whatever method you use to incorporate source material into your own essay, you'll need to cite all of your sources at all times to avoid plagiarizing.

How should I cite sources?

The procedure for acknowledging that you have borrowed material from someone else and incorporated into your own work is called citation. Other than common knowledge, all material you incorporate into your papers must be cited.

Most papers require two types of citation — in-text citations that give a reader an immediate note about source material and end references that lead readers to source materials with detailed citations. The format for each type of citation varies based on the citation style your professor or discipline requires. The two most common are the style guides of the Modern Language Association (MLA) and the American Psychological Association (APA). Some professors also use Chicago or Turabian formats. Be sure to ask your instructor which style to use if s/he does not specify a format in your assignment. Brief guidelines are available for download at the Writing Center and Library websites, and you can use the full reference books at the Library or in the Writing Center.

In-text citation — An in-text citation Informs readers where source/borrowed material is located within your work and directs readers to a reference at the end of the text. Each paragraph of a research paper (except for the introduction and conclusion) should, in general, contain in-text citations. In-text citations should occur as close as possible to the source material in your essay. This way, readers can distinguish where new source material begins easily.

In-text citations may be part of a sentence or parenthetical. If you mention an author's name in your sentence with a phrase like "According to Jeffries, . . . ," you've used a sentence-based citation. If you don't mention the author's name in your sentence, you should write his/her name in parentheses at the end of the sentence(s) you wrote about his/her material, like this: (Jeffries). If you're using a direct quotation, add the page number you found the source quote on in the original source [(Jeffries 86) or (Jeffries, p. 86)]. If you've paraphrased or summarized, you usually don't need a page number. If you have an online source that doesn't have page numbers, use a useful heading, like a link name you clicked on to get to the material instead.

Remember that your goal in providing in-text citations is to get your readers from a specific fact in your paper to the matching entry on the end references page as easily as possible.

End references (works cited or references page entries) give readers detailed information about where they can find the original source of the borrowed material. All of the sources you used in a paper will be collected in one page (or more, depending on how many sources you've used) at the end of your document. Depending on the style your professor requires, the page will be formatted differently. Look in the APA or MLA manuals (or in the manual for the style your professor requires) for specific information on formatting your end reference page(s).

A quick note about online citation software: Remember that you alone are responsible for the final product you turn in. Some online citation software makes mistakes, and you will be graded on the accuracy of your citations. If you choose to use software or an online program to help you create your in-text or end references, be sure to double-check the accuracy of those programs' results before you trust them for a final grade.

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