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Avoiding Plagiarism: Tips and Tricks

What Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is using someone else's work without giving credit.  "Work" includes text, ideas, images, videos, and audio. In the academic world, you must follow these rules:

  • When you use the exact words, you must use quotation marks and provide a citation.
  • When you put the information into your own words, you must provide a citation. (See Paraphrasing tab.)
  • When you use an image, audio, or video created by someone else, you must provide a citation.

Plagiarism is a serious academic offense. Penalties can range from failing the assignment to being expelled from the University. See the Lehigh University Code of Conduct site  (Article III) for information on the University Student Conduct system and the expectations of Academic Integrity.

Reasons For Citing

When asked why they should cite your sources, many students reply, "So you don't get accused of plagiarizing." This is a good reply, but there are other good reasons as well:

  • To make your arguments credible. For example, if you are writing about a disease, using statistics from a reputable source like the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control can lead your reader to trust your argument more.
  • To preserve the reputation and rigor of your institution.  Help to uphold Lehigh's high academic standards.
  • To show you've done your homework.  Certain experts frequently appear in articles and books about your topic. Citing their work shows you have done your research. 
  • To build a foundation for your paper.  Breakthroughs in scholarship typically build on earlier, groundbreaking work of others.   Newton said: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." What writings inspire you?
  • To allow your readers to find the sources for themselves.  Citing sources *within* your paper ("in-text citations") inform your reader what sources relate to parts of your argument. The full citation at the end of your paper helps your reader locate the sources.

When not to cite: What is common knowledge?

Common knowledge is information that is accepted and known so widely you do not need to cite it:

·         Common sayings or cliches. Examples: Curiosity killed the cat.  Ignorance is bliss. 

·         Facts that can be easily verified. As you are conducting your research on a topic, you will see the same facts repeated over and over.  Example: You are writing a paper on presidential elections, and you want to mention that Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980.  Although you might not have known this fact before your research, you have seen it multiple times and a citation is never included. 

·         Facts that you can safely assume your readers know.  Examples: Richmond is the capital of Virginia. The North won the U.S. Civil War.  Fish breathe using gills.

Not all facts are common knowledge. Please see below for some exceptions, where facts need a citation.

·         Facts that surprise you or your reader.  Example: Michelangelo was shorter than average (1). 

·         Facts that include statistics or other numbers. Example: As of June 2009, 42 states had laws that explicitly ban gay marriage, and 6 states have legalized it (2). 

·         If you have reason to use the exact words of another writer, even if the content is common knowledge.  Example: "Lincoln’s political career began in 1832, when he ran as a Whig for the Illinois state legislature from the town of New Salem and lost" (3). 

Common knowledge can be course-specific and audience dependent. For example, the number of bones in the leg could be considered common knowledge in an athletic training course.  But if you are using that fact in an English paper, you cannot assume your professor has that knowledge, and you would need to cite it.

If you have any questions about whether something is common knowledge, ask your professor for advice.

Works cited:

1. Hughes, Anthony and Caroline Elam. "Michelangelo." Grove Art OnlineOxford Art Online. 15 Jun. 2009<>.

2.  "States Debate Marriage Rights (Research Feature)."  World News Digest.  June 2009.  Facts On File News Services.  15 June 2009  

3. "Lincoln, Abraham." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr.. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 450-452. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. RADFORD UNIV. 15 June 2009 , p. 451.

"Real World" Plagiarism Examples

Regardless what profession you go into, these "real world" cases of plagiarism and research misconduct underscore how important it is to cite your sources and what can happen if you don't: