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Citation Help

Footnotes, references, bibliographies, avoiding plagiarism & more.

Shunning the "P-word"

Plagiarism has long been a decidedly ugly and disheartening word. It is ugly because accusations of plagiarism can ruin careers at all levels, and it is disheartening both because so much energy is expended on its prevention and because it is relatively easy to avoid. 

If one consults the OED, one finds that the etymology of plagiarism extends back to classical Latin, where, we’re told, a plagiarius was a kidnapper, an abductor of children and slaves, and a hijacker of words and literature. At some level, writers may all be thieves and desperados, but none should ever stoop so low as to steal the literary offspring of their fellows.

Academic thievery not only offends the ideals of intellectual honesty but impunes the personal integrity of the offender. To knowingly steal the work of others is jaded and callous, and overt offenders should be treated accordingly.

Yet, much of the problem with plagiarism often stems more from ignorance and neglect than from intentional theft. And, in this sense, the critical issue becomes simple attribution – clearly citing and documenting the appropriate source through the judicious use of footnotes, endnotes, or in-text citations, and through the conscientious use of quotation marks or blocks, when reproducing a specific passage or phrase. The researcher must also understand that these admonitions extend not only to formally published, academic work, but to other forms of writing and communication – a website or blog, a news source, a report, or, even, a lecture. 

Okay, so how does one avoid making mistakes? Get organized early in the research process.  Keep careful notes, either written or electronic, on sources, statistics, compelling quotations, and key information, so that they’re easy to locate again. Construct a research portfolio of promising materials using citation management software or simple pencil and paper. Remember that replication is the key to citation and being thorough from the beginning will save considerable time in the end. 

To Cite, or Not to Cite?

The allied questions of “what to cite and when to cite it?” can be difficult to disentangle, even for experienced researchers.  So, let’s rattle off some basic rules…

No citation is necessary for:

  • Common knowledge – information generally shared by or accessible to a target audience
  • Readily acknowledged historical facts and events
  • Rhetorical allusions to well-known passages from literature or aphorisms from popular culture
  • Personal experiences or reflections

Citation is necessary for:

  • Statistics, figures, diagrams, tables, charts, photographs, and other visual supports
  • Direct quotations -- which should be rendered exactly as they appear in the text.  It may be acceptable to link phrases with an ellipsis…or add a minor word in brackets [in] order to maintain the clarity or grammatical consistency of the quotation, but such measures should never be used to change the gist of the original passage.
  • Paraphrases – which restate passages or concepts in different words but retain the original meanings and intent.
  • Significant ideas, theories, commentaries, points, and refutations developed by or associated with others.

It seems apparent from this brief list that citation confusion is most likely to arise in regard to the use of “paraphrases” and “significant ideas.” 

As a literary technique, paraphrase allows the writer to convey in their own words an important thought or idea first proposed by someone else, while maintaining their own narrative flow.  Stylistically, paraphrase may help to avoid a cumbersome overdependence on direct quotation.  And, for the nascent researcher in particular, paraphrase may also allow the writer to work through and internalize key concepts and ideas in greater depth. 

Yet, the paraphrase is consciously intended to communicate the essential meaning of the original passage, and, thus, must reference that passage clearly.  Introductory phrases, like “According to Hoyle…” or “As Smithson argues…” or “Drawing on Howard…,” followed by a brief parenthetical reference, can substantially reduce misunderstanding.  For example…

As Eisenstein suggests, traditional print media is likely to persist alongside newer digital formats for the foreseeable future (2011, 240).

The same sort of caution holds true when discussing “significant ideas” and theories proffered by others but integral to a writer’s evolving argument.  For example…

While Morris is often portrayed as little more than a romantic idealist, recent scholarship suggests that he conducted his worldly affairs with considerable business acumen (Harvey and Press, 1992).

It’s important to remember that citations demonstrate to the reader that a work is well-researched and that the evidence presented is reliable and authoritative.  In this sense, the use of proper citation should be seen as a boon to the writer, rather than an albatros.

Self-Guided Practice

The link below is to a PDF reproduction of Beverly Lyon Clark's essay, Plagiarism and Documention: A Self-Instructional Lesson.  It is reproduced by the University of Canterbury with permission of the author.  The essay provides a practical, question-and-response style primer on what to cite and when to cite it in order to avoid unpleasant consequences.