Smarthinking Writer's Handbook

Using Your Sources Wisely

Chapter 2: Section 3, Lesson 8

Maybe you’ve heard the theory that Francis Bacon actually wrote some of the plays attributed to Shakespeare and that Shakespeare took credit for them. Shakespeare didn’t have a keen-eyed professor to contend with, but students do, and it’s important to know when and how to use outside sources—and how to avoid plagiarizing them!

Knowing when to use outside sources is important because many essays neither require them nor benefit from them. Knowing how to use outside sources is necessary so you can identify your sources in a recognizable way, allowing readers to do more reading into the topic and allowing you to integrate research in an organized way. Knowing how to avoid plagiarism will strengthen your own confidence in your writing and research abilities and avoid the possibility of academic discipline.

When to Use Outside Sources
While common knowledge doesn’t require the use of outside sources, more specific information does require using them. It’s important to use outside sources from necessity rather than convenience.

Common Knowledge
You might want to use outside sources if you need to illustrate your discussion with information that is not common knowledge. Common knowledge is information that’s generally widely known—the sky is blue, car accidents happen from time to time, some people get married, and many people go to work each day. You can assume that you and your readers share this common knowledge. As such, it isn’t necessary to document common knowledge, either with in-text citations or bibliographic entries.

Specific Information
However, in some essays, you might need to use specific information that isn’t common knowledge: What physical or scientific process makes the sky appear blue? How often do car accidents happen, and are they worse in specific cities, or were they worse in specific decades? What cultures or religions emphasize marriage, and are there any cultures in which people do not get married? What is the current unemployment rate, and what industries are adding jobs? Finding out this information requires that you research to locate sources; getting the information to readers requires you to document your sources.

It’s important to know that the use of outside sources is a means toward an end. Writers use outside sources to illustrate an issue, support an argument, provide context, make an evaluation, and so on. If you use outside sources, these sources should be necessary to illustrate your discussion. Sources shouldn’t be used to pad a discussion or meet a minimum word-length requirement.

How to Use Outside Sources
There are three important ways in which you can bring outside sources into your paper: through summary, paraphrase, and direct quotation.

A summary is a brief statement that relays an idea from a source. For example, you might need to summarize the two or three key findings of an academic study or the main argument of a newspaper’s editorial from a particular day. A summary doesn’t present every detail from the original source; rather, it presents only the key idea(s). If you summarize a key finding, idea, conclusion, theory, or opinion from a source, you should include an in-text citation so that your reader can accurately identify which source included that idea. For any in-text citation, you also need a corresponding bibliographic entry for each source that you cite.

Paraphrases involve more detail than summaries. Whereas a summary involves highlighting the key idea(s) from an outside source, a paraphrase usually offers the same amount of detail as the original source offered. When paraphrasing, you should present one or more pieces of detailed information from an outside source, but do so in your own words. For example, you might need to paraphrase a passage from a study that discusses detailed quantitative findings, or you might need to paraphrase the four or five key supporting reasons discussed in the newspaper editorial. Of course, when you paraphrase, you’ll include an in-text citation and a corresponding bibliographic entry for each source that you cite in text.

Direct Quotation
If a source has phrased a piece of information in a particularly effective, fresh, or appealing way, you might want to quote that source in your essay. The length of your quote will depend on the nature of the section you want to quote and how it relates to your own discussion. If the quote is a single sentence, part of a sentence, or a lengthy passage, you must include the direct wording from the original as well as quotation marks around that wording. (For more on how to punctuate direct quotes, see Quotation Marks.) Just like summary and paraphrase, you need to include an in-text citation to let your reader know where that quotation comes from. Note that when quoting longer passages, some style guides require that you specially indent the quotation rather than using quotation marks to demarcate it; this is usually called a block quotation. As with any in-text citation, you also need a corresponding bibliographic entry for each source that you cite in text. To hear more details about different style guides and their standards for citing direct quotes, see MLA, APA and Chicago/Turabian.

Avoiding Plagiarism
Many times, you can avoid plagiarism by double-checking for errors in the documentation of a source. Many good, honest writers unintentionally plagiarize simply because they don't double check their citations. Don't let that happen to you!

Intentional Plagiarism
A writer might intentionally plagiarize by copying sentences or paragraphs from another source and pasting them into his or her own piece of writing with the intention of presenting these sentences or paragraphs as his or her own words. Or a writer might intentionally plagiarize by rewriting another’s essay and presenting its ideas as his or her own. Intentionally presenting another writer’s words or ideas as your own constitutes plagiarism, a form of academic dishonesty, and it often carries heavy consequences such as failure of the assignment, failure of the class, and even permanent expulsion from the school.

Accidental Plagiarism
Accidents and errors in documentation, while not necessarily academically dishonest, are still a serious academic issue. For example, you might open your writing up to charges of plagiarism if you paraphrase information, such as an idea, figure, or statistic, and forget to include the citation. In cases like these, your reader will have trouble differentiating the source’s ideas and wording from your own. While such errors are not necessarily intentional, they do affect the credibility of your writing because you aren’t attributing ideas and wording to outside sources in a correct and consistent way. If readers can’t trust one part of your essay, how do they know they can trust other parts?

Avoiding intentional plagiarism is easy: you should never wish to present another’s writing or ideas as your own. Avoiding accidents and errors is more difficult but no less important. Proofread your essay carefully from a printed copy to ensure that your writing includes the necessary citations and quotation marks. Watch carefully for key facts that need accompanying citations.

Think About It

  • When is it necessary to incorporate outside sources into your writing?
  • Where should you summarize, paraphrase, or quote from your sources?
  • Which documentation errors need to be polished to avoid accidental plagiarism?

Using your sources wisely requires that you consider why you want to use research, how you want to use research, and how to avoid plagiarism.