What’s common about common knowledge?

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A participant in a recent workshop had a cautionary tale to tell: one of her school’s brightest students, one who scored 40 points in her IB examinations (out of a maximum 42 for the six subjects), had been found guilty of plagiarism in her extended essay. This merited a straight Fail for the essay and that meant she could not receive a diploma (normally awarded to students scoring 24 or more points, with at least a D in Extended essay and Theory of knowledge).

During the investigation, the student accepted that she had not provided a citation for the passage which had been questioned – and declared that, as it was common knowledge, there was no need to cite it. Without seeing the essay and the passage in question, it is not possible to comment on the merit of this claim or to decide whether the examiner and the Awards Committee were over-harsh – or if they were perfectly justified in their decision.

It is a salutary reminder. I always advise classes and workshops of the five golden rules of citation:

Golden rule 1 : If it’s not yours, you cite it.
Golden rule 2 : If it’s not yours, you cite it.
Golden rule 3 : If it’s not yours, you cite it.
Golden rule 4 : If it’s not yours, you cite it.
Golden rule 5 : If it’s not yours, you cite it.

and I usually add golden rules 6 to 10: When in doubt, cite.

That last stands, I suggest, even if the statement is thought to be common knowledge.

Common knowledge is a dangerous term. For starters, what is commonly known might not be as common as a writer thinks. So much depends on the audience, and that is not always a given. Something commonly known in one subject area is not necessarily known to those not studying the subject. Something commonly known in one region or country is not necessarily known nationally or internationally. Something commonly known today may not be commonly known in a year’s time. When one is certain of one’s audience, their knowledge and expertise, then common knowledge of basic ideas and concepts is possible. When one is unsure, and in an externally-assessed examination context one be sure, best advice is to play safe.

I recall the advice, “if you can find the same information in three (or five) different sources, it is common knowledge.” That might once have been a useful guide. No longer, not in the age of the internet and limitless unthinking duplication

Take the sentence “Marijuana is a green, brown, or gray mixture of dried, shredded leaves, stems, seeds, and flowers of the hemp plant.” A Google search for this exact sentence using these exact words in this exact order yields nearly two hundred hits (as of early October 2015).

I might argue that a description of marijuana which uses some – or even all – of these details might be based on personal experience and observation and would need no attribution. I would also argue that a description which uses these exact 20 words in this exact order is either good memorization (which does not equate with common knowledge) or copy-and-paste.

The description might be widespread and easily found, but that does not qualify the sentence as common knowledge. Citation is necessary, certainly in an academic forum. Any of the nearly 200 sources will do, perhaps, though it would be useful to find an authoritative source – authoritative in terms of the context in which the description is used, the National Institute on Drug Abuse perhaps for an “official” description, or the Legal Marijuana Research Chemicals and Bath Salts in USA Ltd if looking for a material for an advocacy/ argument essay.

It is notable that few of the 200 or so pages using this description actually cite their own source/s for the exact sentence, but still this does not make it common knowledge.

I am also reminded of the dangerous advice given in a textbook on marketed for English language learners, published by Longman Pearson, 2nd edition 2002, and used by the English department in my school in Turkey. According to the back cover blurb, the book “helps students progress from the basics of paragraph writing to the development of full-length essays.”

[I won’t go into more detail since I do not wish to embarrass the joint authors.  When I wrote to the authors and their publisher,  I got a response saying that a new edition was in the pipeline, and these chapters were earmarked for replacement.]

These chapters included a number of pages with tables of statistics, and exercises on integrating statistics into one’s essays.  Here is a “model paragraph” showing how to make writing more interesting by using statistics.  The model shows no source attribution.

The tables used in these chapters included “Food production increase over two decades,” the “Annual per person waste in selected countries”

and the numbers of American dead in various wars, as raw numbers and as percentages of the total number of U.S. soldiers involved in those wars.

Instead or recommending attribution, there was a footnote which (un-) helpfully tells the reader

* The information presented here is widely available general knowledge, so it is not necessary to document the sources; in other words, you don’t have to say where the information came from. However, when you get information from outside sources that is specific to the source, you usually have to document your research in your paper. Look at any writer’s handbook for information on how to document your research.

Dangerous advice, I suggest. Very dangerous indeed. Akin to that “if you can find the same information in three (or five) different sources…”

I go further. I would argue that even if these kinds of statistic are easily available, an assertion which is not supported, it does not qualify them as “general knowledge” nor as “common knowledge.”

Citing sources is not just a matter of honesty. Citation provides authority and credibility and context. Citation enables verification. Citation gives crediblity to the writer, as well as to what is written. Even when – if – the material cited is common knowledge (whatever that means), it might not be common knowledge for a reader in another country, or twenty years on.

Citation is not just honesty, it is courtesy.

As for the student whose extended essay was ungraded because of plagiarism, it’s a lesson hard-learned. She will have an enforced gap-year and a chance to re-submit. I wish her well.

One thought on “What’s common about common knowledge?

  1. Pingback: Cans of worms (and other kettles of fish) | Honesty, honestly…

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