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Information Literacy Concepts : Chapter 6

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The Ethical Use of Information: About academic integrity, avoiding plagiarism, and scholarship


The Ethical Use of Information:  About academic integrity, avoiding plagiarism, and scholarship

Why we cite

To participate in college-level research is to engage with a chain of debate and scholarship that extends well beyond any individual scholar or researcher’s efforts.  As new knowledge builds on or upends older established knowledge, a conversation of sorts develops across time.  When we conduct or synthesize the research or writings of others in a college-level research paper, we participate in that conversation.  Key to holding this vast enterprise together is the notion of citation.

Citation is how scholars acknowledge or point to the work of earlier scholars.  Ideally, citation provides a standard means for tracking down the research of others by providing sufficient information about the original source so it can be easily found.  Citations typically include things like article titles, journal titles, authors, dates, and publication information.  Citations will look different depending on citation style, discipline of study, and the format and nature of the information itself.  The purpose is the same: to make the original source of any information you reference easily findable by others.  This is our responsibility as participants in research.  One day others may use your work in their own research, and those future authors will be obligated to cite you.

Citation also allows you to avoid plagiarism.  Most every educational institution has some sort of academic integrity policy that outlines a student’s responsibilities as a researcher.  These policies may vary slightly from institution to institution, but typically warn against two behaviors:

Committing plagiarism 

Plagiarism is when we use the ideas or research of others and fail to attribute those ideas or research to the original authors.  This is a form of theft easily remedied by extensive use of citation.  Did you get an idea from a book, article, or website?  Cite it as specifically as possible.  Did you find a terrific graph or image online that you want to include in your paper?  Cite it.  Using a quote from any source?  Cite.


This happens when you submit work you completed in one class for a different class.  Most syllabi expressly forbid this.  If you are considering using your previous work for a current project, be sure to cite yourself and to note how extensively you are reusing the work.  Also be sure to talk to your instructor.  What constitutes self-plagiarism may seem murky to you, but your instructor may have bright red lines over what is and isn’t allowed in a particular class.

Why are there so many citation styles?

One common frustration with student researchers is the need to learn more than one citation style.  You may learn MLA in an English composition class, but may also need to learn APA for a sociology class, or Chicago style citation for a history class.  Why are there so many?  Styles have developed for the most part organically to reflect the needs of different areas of study.  While the differences between styles may seem arbitrary, they emerge from how scholars in various fields cite sources and present their research.  For example, historians often use the Chicago style.  Why?  One reason is that Chicago accommodates the footnotes and endnotes essential to history researchers in a way other styles do not.