To Cite or Not to Cite

Information Literacy Module V: Preparing to Use Information Ethically

You may have heard a rumor that you don’t need to cite or document “general knowledge,” but what is “general knowledge”? If you’re conducting research to learn about a topic, chances are most of the information you encounter is new to you, so it might be hard to distinguish between information that needs to be cited and documented and information that is considered “general knowledge.”

This used to be a matter of accessibility. If the information was something that anyone could find easily in any number of sources, then it was considered “general knowledge” and did not need to be cited. However, in the age of the internet, information is at our finger tips, so it’s no longer a question of accessibility. Instead, it’s an issue of how basic or widely understood the information is.

Which of the following pieces of information do you think are common knowledge, and which do you think would need to be cited? State your reasoning for each one.

  • The fact that drunk driving is a major cause of auto fatalities
  • The exact number of people who died in drunk-driving accidents between 2006 and 2008
  • The idea that President Obama was a community organizer before he became a senator
  • A dollar amount representing President Obama’s financial impact on Chicago’s south side

You get the idea! If a piece of information is specific (like a number), if it’s debatable, or if you’ve found it in only one of your sources, be sure to cite. If it’s general information that several sources agree upon, there’s no need to cite. When in doubt, it can’t hurt to give credit to your source. Imagine the author of the source is watching you use the information you learned from his or her source. Would they be pleased with your use of their information? It’s better to overdo it on the citations than it is to appear dishonest.

Guiding Your Research
 List two pieces of information that you learned through your research: one that needs to be cited and one that does not.


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