Citing Sources: When do I have to cite?

In over a decade of teaching, the #1 reason I find for student plagiarism is students not understanding when to cite a source. In this post, I’m going to get right to the point and tell you exactly when you need to cite.

First, if you haven’t read my previous posts on citation, please start there. Read Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It? for more on what we’re actually doing when we cite. Read Avoid Plagiarism: Take Good Notes for tips on how to note-take strategically to avoid plagiarism. Finally, check out Pointing to Each Other: Citation Basics to help you understand the underlying logic behind citation styles.

When should I cite a source?

  • Any time you use information from a source (facts, statistics)
  • Any time you use an idea from a source, including ideas for how to structure your argument
  • Any time you use a quote from a source, whether partial or full sentence or more
  • Any time you summarize or paraphrase material from a source

This last one seems to trip students up the most. Somehow, a lot – and I mean a lot – of students have gotten the idea that if they put something into their own words, that means the information now belongs to them.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that your car gets totaled, and now you need a new car. You’ve gone to car dealerships, and there’s a sweet sports car that you would really like to have. So you test drive it, and keep it (without paying for it). You paint it a new color and give it some cool new rims, really expressing yourself with this car. It now looks like you. Does that make the car yours? Of course not. When they catch you, you’re going to go to jail.

As I’ve noted in Citing Sources: Why Do We Do It?, the consequence of plagiarism isn’t jail, but can be severe. When you borrow material from another source and modify it for your use, it still doesn’t belong to you. Instead of the thousands of dollars you’d pay for a sports car, the price of borrowing someone else’s ideas (in an academic context) is a citation.

How do I handle it when my teacher tells me I’ve plagiarized?

Short answer: go ahead and feel bad if that’s your first response. I’ve actually had students break down in tears in my office because the idea of having cheated – even if inadvertently – was so shameful that they were very upset.

I’ve also had students get defensive and tell me, accusingly, that “no teacher has ever had a problem with my writing before.” That’s usually followed by the claim that they, in fact, always get As on their papers. I’m being completely unreasonable.

Here’s the problem with that second approach. At its heart, it’s an attempt to bully the teacher by making them feel inadequate. It’s a numbers game: a lot of teachers were fine with it; why are you – one teacher – giving me grief? This tactic rarely works, and in fact damages the important relationship between yourself and your teacher. How likely are they going to be to cut you some slack later? To write a reference letter for you?

Worse, the defensive approach prevents you from learning something. Your teacher went to the trouble of telling you that you’ve been making a major mistake for years – one that can get you expelled. Learn and grow from the experience instead of angrily defending your ego.

When do I not have to cite a source?

You do not need to cite a source if the information is common knowledge. The sky is blue, college is hard, student loan debt is a problem – all of these things are common knowledge.

The more specific you get, though, the more likely you are to need to cite. I can say that student loan debt is a problem because that concept has been tossed around in the news and on social media for several years now. Politicians are campaigning on it. But if I were to talk about specific levels of student loan debt, or what politicians are saying, it’s no longer common knowledge, and I need to cite my sources.

What constitutes common knowledge can vary (the link above takes you to a nice discussion of this from MIT). When my students are trying to decide whether something is common knowledge, I ask them to consider their audience. Will their audience accept that this is something that they would know? If not, then they need to cite it.

Let’s say that a student has worked with victims of intimate partner violence for years. It’s likely that they have a lot of knowledge from that work experience that’s considered common knowledge in their field. But they’ve decided to go back to college, and are writing a paper in their English class. The teacher will not expect an undergraduate to have extensive knowledge about this topic. In this case, I would encourage the student to introduce their expertise in the beginning of the paper – situate themselves as an expert who is therefore capable of understanding what is common knowledge in the field. But if that student starts using recent statistics, then that student still needs to cite.

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