Citing Sources

Plagiarism and Citing Sources

Plagiarism by Kris Barton & Barbara G. Tucker is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Original source:  This context was remixed by Emily McWorthy.

Although there are many ways that you could undermine your ethical stance before an audience, the one that stands out and is committed most commonly in academic contexts is plagiarism. A dictionary definition of plagiarism would be “the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person” (Merriam-Webster, 2015). According to the student help website, sponsored by WriteCheck, plagiarism is often thought of as “copying another’s work or borrowing someone else’s original ideas” (“What is Plagiarism?”, 2014). However, this source goes on to say that the common definition may mislead some people.

However, plagiarism also includes:
  • Turning in someone else’s work as your own;
  • Copying words or ideas from someone else without giving credit;
  • Failing to put quotation marks around an exact quotation correctly;
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation;
  • Changing words but copying the sentence structure of a source without giving credit;
  • Copying so many words or ideas from a source that it makes up the majority of your work, whether you give credit or not.

Picture of Abraham Lincoln with a "quote": The problem with quotes on the internet is that it is difficult to verify their authenticity - A. Lincoln

Types of Plagiarism

In our long experience of teaching, we have encountered many instances of students presenting work they claim to be original and their own when it is not. We have also seen that students often do not intend to plagiarize but, due to poor training in high school, still are committing an act that could result in a failing grade or worse. Generally, there are three levels of plagiarism: stealing, sneaking, and borrowing. Sometimes these types of plagiarism are intentional, and sometimes they occur unintentionally (you may not know you are plagiarizing). However, as everyone knows, “Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it.”

When Do I Need to Cite?

Students often are puzzled about what and when to cite borrowed material from sources. However, in most cases you can go by the “repeated information” rule. If you are doing research and access ten sources, and over half of them have the same piece of information (usually a historical or scientific fact or statistic), you can assume this is “common knowledge.” That is, it is common to anyone who knows anything about the subject, and then you do not have to have a citation. If you find a piece of information in one source only, it probably represents the original research or viewpoint of that writer, and should be cited clearly. On the other hand, there are exceptions. An often-cited or used piece of information has an original source, such as a government agency, and you would be better off to find the original source and cite that. Secondly, citing sources adds to your credibility as a prepared speaker. Generally, it is better to err on the side of citing more than less.

How do I cite orally?

A speech is quite different. Saying “According to Jones, p. 78,” really does very little for the audience. They can’t turn to the back of the paper. They don’t have a way, other than oral communication, to understand the type of information being cited, how recent it is, the credibility of the author you are citing and why you think he or she is a valid source, or the title of the work. It is necessary in a speech to give more complete information that would help the audience understand its value. The page number, the publishing company, and city it was published in are probably not important, but what is important is whether it is a website, a scholarly article, or a book; whether it was written in 1950 or 2010; and what is the position, background, or credentials of the source.

Instead of “According to Jones, p. 78,” a better approach would be,

“According to Dr. Samuel Jones, Head of Cardiology at Vanderbilt University, in a 2010 article in a prestigious medical journal…”


“In her 2012 book, The Iraq War in Context, historian Mary Smith of the University of Georgia states that…”


“In consulting the website for the American Humane Society, I found these statistics about animal abuse compiled by the Society in 2012…”

This approach shows more clearly that you have done proper research to support your ideas and arguments. It also allows your audience to find the material if they want more information. Notice that in all three examples the citation precedes the fact or information being cited. This order allows the audience to recognize the borrowed material better. The use of a clear citation up-front makes it more noticeable as well as more credible to the audience.

Quote or Paraphrase?

The speaker should phrase or summarize the ideas of the source into his or her own words. Paraphrasing, which is putting the words and ideas of others into one’s own authentic or personal language, is often misunderstood by students. Your instructor may walk you through an exercise to help your class understand that paraphrasing is not changing 10% of the words in a long quotation (such as two or three out of twenty) but still keeping most of the vocabulary and word order (called syntax) of the source. You should compose the information in your own “voice” or way of expressing yourself.

In fact, you would be better off to think in terms of summarizing your source material rather than paraphrasing. For one thing, you will be less likely to use too much of the original and therefore be skirting the edge of plagiarism. Secondly, you will usually want to put the main arguments of a source in your own words and make it shorter.

Here is an example of an original source and three possible ways to deal with it.

Original information, posted on website, October 31, 2015:

“The biggest federal inmate release on record will take place this weekend. About 6,600 inmates will be released, with 16,500 expected to get out the first year. More than 40,000 federal felons could be released early over the next several years, the U.S. Sentencing Commission said. The sentencing commission decided a year ago to lower maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to make the change retro-active, with the inmate releases effective November 1, 2015. Sentences were reduced an average of 18%, the commission said. Early release will be a challenge for the inmates as well as the judicial bureaucracy” (Casarez, 2015).

With that as our original source, which of the following is truly paraphrasing?

  1. The CNN News website says the federal government is releasing 40,000 felons from prison in the next few years.
  2. According to a report posted on CNN’s website on October 31 of 2015, the federal government’s Sentencing Commission is beginning to release prisoners in November based on a decision made in 2014. That decision was to make maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders shorter by an average of 18%. Over the next several years over 40,000 federal felons could be let go. However, this policy change to early release will not be easy for the justice system or those released.
  3. The largest release ever of federal inmates will take place in early November. At first 6,600 inmates will be released, and then over 16,000 over the first year. The U.S. Sentencing Commission says it could release over 40,000 federal felons over the upcoming years because the sentencing commission decided a year ago to lessen maximum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders and to make this this happen for those already in jail. When the Sentencing Commission says that when it made that decision, the sentences were reduced an average of 18%. Early release will be a challenge for the felons as well as the judicial system. This came from a story on CNN News website in later October 2015.

If you chose the second citation, you would be correct. The first version does not really interpret the original statement correctly, and the third choice imitates the original almost entirely. Choice 2, on the other hand, is in completely different language and identifies the source of the information clearly and at the beginning.

This exercises may raise the question, “Should I always paraphrase or summarize rather than directly quote a source?” There are times when it is appropriate to use a source’s exact wording, but quoting a source exactly should be done sparingly—sort of like using hot sauce! You should have a good reason for it, such as that the source is highly respected, has said the idea in a compelling way, or the material is well known and others would recognize it. If you do, you should make it clear you are quoting them exactly by the way you introduce and end the borrowed material.

Citing Sources in the Outline and Works Cited/References Page

The examples above provide some guidance for how to phrase citations in your speech (orally) and in your outline (written).  For future information on citing sources in the outline or the Works Cited/References page, please make sure to visit the Kirkwood Library’s Citation Guide.

Here is a short video that goes over citing sources on an outline and orally:



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