A question about plagiarism and citing sources.

Not wanting to bother a pit thread on Ann Coulter I was wondering something.
When do you need to cite a source?
If you have to cite source information that isn’t your own, well, that should cover most information. After all, unless I’m publishing data that I personally collected, I’m putting out someone else’s data.

For instance, if I say,

George Washington is the first president of the United States. (under our current constitution). Well, I wasn’t born knowing that fact so I must have got that information from somewhere, do I need to cite a source for that?

Check out the wikipedia entries on plagiarism and copywrite infringement. I went there after reading the Ann Coulter thread you mention and found them to be pretty informative.

You do not have to cite sources for “common knowledge,” such as the fact that George Washington was the first president of the United States. Generally, if you can find the same fact in several independent sources and it is uncontroversial, you probably don’t need a citation.

It’s the difference between facts and expression, which is also the basis for all copyright law.

Common knowledge about George Washington is free for all to use. But you should not reuse a sentence like “George Washington, who was not only our first president but our first slave-owning president, was also the first president to free his slaves upon his death” without attribution. All the facts in it are public knowledge, but they have been put together into a larger whole through my expression of them.

A single string of common knowledge facts may, depending upon the uniqueness of the expression, be acceptable to reuse. But if you were to take several paragraphs of my expression, even if it consisted of statements of common knowledge facts about George Washington, and presented it as your own without attribution, any writer would consider it plagiarism and any writer should know better than to do so.

According to Diane Hacker "You must of course cite all direct quotations. You must also cite any ideas borrowed from a source: summeries and paraphrases; statistics and other specific facts; and visuals such as cartoons, graphs, or diagrams. The only exception is common knowledge–general information that your readers may know or could easily locate in any number of reference sources (Hacker 331). It does take some practice and I confess to having been scared to death of plagiarism in the past but I’m becoming more comfortable these days.

I wrote a paper about Rome a few years ago for an English Composition course and debated with myself whether or not I needed a cite that the city was founded c. 753 B.C.E. Normally I would cite a specific date but it’s found in so many books I didn’t feel the need to cite my source any more then I would for listing Dec 7th 1941 as the day the Japenese bombed Pearl or June 6th, 1944 as D-Day because they are all pretty common knowledge.

Fortunately I’ve only seen instructors mark points off a paper for failing to cite correctly but I have seen them come hard on those they believe diliberately plagiarized a paper.

Hacker, Diane. A Writer’s Reference. 5th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

That’s Diana Hacker, not Diane.

And the book is an academic style guide. It is intended for college work, and not necessarily useful for anything else. There are many style guides for non-academic use, like the one the University of Chicago puts out, or the newspaper style guide that the AP puts out, or the various legal style guides, or the dozens of more specialized style guides. You follow the style guide required by the work you are doing.

And none of them will truly address the issue at hand, which is more a matter of feel and experience than anything that can be laid out in rules.