Introduction: Acknowledging Sources

If you’ve taken classes that involve writing, particularly writing and research, chances are you’ve heard the term plagiarism before. You may have received syllabi that mention plagiarism and describe the penalties for it, such as a failing grade in the course or even suspension from school. You may also have read your campus plagiarism policy, which most likely offers a brief definition of plagiarism and issues dire warnings about what will happen if you plagiarize. And if you read or watch the news, you may have noticed that plagiarism is a big deal not only within academic settings but outside of them as well. Recently, the New York Times published a four-page story detailing the case of journalistic fraud and plagiarism against one of its reporters. In another case, the rector of a church in Michigan was suspended after his congregation accused him of plagiarizing some of his sermons from Internet sources. Clearly, plagiarism is serious business. But what is it, exactly? And how do you avoid doing it?

Plagiarism, defined simply, is the unattributed use of someone else’s words or ideas. However, this apparently simple definition can be quite complicated. It tends to change across contexts and may be understood differently by different readers. Despite the slipperiness of the definition, every writer has the responsibility to learn how to navigate it and to attribute sources accurately and fully.

Why Acknowledgment of Sources is Important

Within the western academic tradition, new ideas are built on older ones. Writers give acknowledgment in writing to their sources for a number of reasons:

Changing Contexts, Changing Rules

Citing sources works differently in different contexts. For instance, the way that writers acknowledge one another in a business setting differs from the way they acknowledge one another in an academic setting. A company memo to employees may be written by a support-staff member, but signed by the person who is responsible for whatever information or policy appears in that memo. Some business communications are "signed" by a department or a company rather than an individual. And some business writings, such as annual reports, may be partially reproduced year after year, even when the person or committee who authors them changes; this practice is called "boilerplating." Formal citation as it’s expected in the academy is often not required because the notion of authorship is often different in a business setting than it is in an academic setting.

Another setting in which acknowledgment of ideas works differently than in academia is in journalistic writing. For instance, these excerpts by Hendrik Hertzberg about Jimmy Carter's 1979 televised speech addressing the nation's energy crisis demonstrates the way that some journalistic writing may provide acknowledgment:

For those who weren't yet born on July 15, 1979, or were too little to stay up and watch TV that night, the "malaise" address was President Carter's most famous, most notorious, most ambitious, and (in my opinion) most interesting foray into big-time speechifying, a field in which he was only intermittently successful (although, to be fair, he did manage to talk his way into the Presidency).

Note here that Hertzberg gives the date and informal but well-known name for Carter's speech, so that readers can identify it, but doesn’t give a formal citation for the speech itself.

Carter was in unusually good form that evening. In fact, he never delivered a television speech better than he did this one. Much of the credit for that must go to Gordon Stewart, who had been a theatre director in a previous life. (He was the original director of The Elephant Man on Broadway until felled by a collapsed lung.) Gordon showed chutzpah beyond the call of duty.

Here, Hertzberg alludes to facts about deputy chief speechwriter Gordon Stewart without giving the exact source of his information and without formally citing. Within the domain in which Hertzberg's writing (political journalism), this information can be considered common knowledge, and thus doesn’t need to be cited. Hertzberg’s account of Gordon's contribution ("showed chutzpah") is characteristic of some editorial journalistic writing.

My friend and, at the time, White House colleague Gordon Stewart had an excellent anniversary op-ed about the speech in Wednesday's Times. That same edition of the Times also carried Dwight Garner's review of a new book on the entire "malaise" episode, by Kevin Mattson, a professor of history at Ohio University.

In these lines, Hertzberg is referring to other recent works about the historical speech (Stewart's op-ed in the Times, Garner's review, and Mattson's book), acknowledging the precise sources without using formal academic citation.

Acknowledgment of sources also may work differently across cultures. A student who has learned to write in a setting outside the United States may understand ideas such as “acknowledgment” or “giving credit” differently than they are understood in the United States. For example, as Helen Fox explains in her book Listening to the World, such a student may purposely quote a source without specific acknowledgment, because that is his or her culture’s way of demonstrating intellectual sophistication. Students from other cultures may also find the insistence on ownership of ideas strange, since this perspective promotes traditions (private property, capitalism) which are usually taken for granted in the United States, but not necessarily elsewhere.

Whatever your cultural background, the main thing to keep in mind is that plagiarism and acknowledgment of sources are powerful and important ideas, but do not hold true across all situations. Like any community, the U.S. academic community has developed a set of norms and rules to meet its needs. When you write within this context, you are expected to operate according to its rules and norms. The rest of this tutorial is devoted to offering you concrete information about, and strategies for applying, the conventions of citation and acknowledgment in academic writing.

Resources for Further Understanding

If you’re looking for more information on plagiarism, it’s likely that the first place you’d look would be the guidelines given out by your department or school. These formal guidelines are helpful starting points because they give the exact language that defines plagiarism in your particular setting. However, these documents usually don’t give very helpful information on how not to plagiarize.

For more detailed and constructive information, your teacher is a good resource. Since he or she assigned the paper, he or she probably has a pretty good idea of what sort of citation is expected. (Since your teacher and your class are probably located in a specific discipline, such as history or anthropology, you may also get helpful tips on the conventions of doing research in this discipline and where to look for sources.) You should also find out if your school has a writing center with tutoring available. Tutors can discuss ways of citing information and can often refer you to other sources of information if you need additional help. A third resource to consider is writing handbooks. A good handbook will include not only the cut-and-dried rules of academic citation, but also chapters on conducting research, managing information, and citing sources responsibly. For more information on plagiarism and documenting sources, consult your handbook.