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How to Properly Cite Common Knowledge Sources in Papers

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By Susan Hoffman
Contributor, Online Learning Tips

In class, you’re often asked to write weekly papers, midterm projects or final projects and list your research sources on the final page. You’re also expected to use proper in-line citations throughout your paper.

Proper citation, however, can be a tricky business. If you quote directly or paraphrase from a source such as a scholarly journal, a book or a website, you’re expected to cite that source. Otherwise, you’ll get marked down for plagiarism by your instructor.

But what happens when you cite material that could be considered common knowledge? What standards do you use to determine if the information in your source needs to be cited or not?

Standards for Determining What Information Is Common Knowledge

One way to determine if information in your paper is considered common knowledge is to apply the “man-on-the-street” test. Look at your information and think about whether or not an average person would know this information.

For example, most people know that George Washington was the first president. But if your source said that George Washington was also a land surveyor who completed nearly 200 surveys, that information would not be common knowledge to everyone. As a result, you would be expected to provide the source of that information in your paper.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has additional advice for determining what is common knowledge, such as:

  • Is the information shared by a cultural or national group, such as the names of famous national heroes or events?
  • Is the knowledge shared by members of a certain field?
  • Who is the intended audience?
  • What can you assume your audience already knows?
  • Will the instructor ask you where you obtained the information?
  • Does the information come from statistics, studies or other sources that the reader would not know unless he or she did the research?

MIT also points out that “what may be common knowledge in one culture, nation, academic discipline or peer group may not be common knowledge in another.”

Similarly, the California State University San Marcos Library has other standards for judging if information is common knowledge:

  • Can the information be found in three to five independent sources?
  • Is the information generally known by a lot of people?

Other Resources Are Available

If you’re still unsure about whether or not to cite a source, check with your instructor to see what he or she prefers. You can also contact one of the university’s librarians for help. Just click on the “Library” link at the top of the ecampus homepage when you first log into the ecampus or enter your classroom, click on “APUS Library” on the left-hand side and look for the “Contact Us” link on the library’s page.

Susan Hoffman is a Managing Editor at APU Edge, whose articles have appeared in multiple publications. Susan is known for her expertise in blogging, social media, SEO, and content analytics, and she is also a book reviewer for Military History magazine. She has a B.A. cum laude in English from James Madison University and an undergraduate certificate in electronic commerce from American Public University.

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