Documentation basics: What is “general knowledge”?

Or, What don’t you have to cite?

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College students learning to write from research know that much of what they write will ask them to draw from source material and that source material must be cited thoroughly and accurately. They also learn at some point that they are not responsible for citing “general knowledge,” or what is sometimes referred to as “common knowledge.” Early on, academic writers have to wrestle with the distinction between what is and what isn’t “general knowledge.”

For what it’s worth, do be aware that you will get better at identifying general knowledge the more you work with research, and especially the further you study within a particular field.

In the meantime, here are some definitions to help you decide what you may not need to cite in your academic papers.

Facts: Information that is literally factual in terms of history or demographics and that is not obscure–important names, dates, events, etc.–need not be cited. For example, you needn’t cite that Billy the Kid was shot by Pat Garrett at Fort Sumner in 1881, or that Fort Sumner is in De Baca County, New Mexico, or that it was used as a training base during World War II.

Interpretation of facts: When you use material from a source that is interpreting or commenting on facts or historical events, you must cite. For example, you must cite the idea that Billy the Kid was a scapegoat when he was arrested for the murder of Sheriff Brady during the Lincoln County War or the comment that Pat Garrett’s shot that killed the Kid was a lucky one, fired in fear.

Rules of thumb: Most definitions or discussions of general knowledge use one or two rules of thumb to help you determine whether material need not be cited. These rules take different forms, but all have to do with whether and how often the material appears or might appear uncited in other sources. For example, the OWL at Purdue says, “Generally speaking, you can regard something as common knowledge if you find the same information undocumented in at least five credible sources” (http://owl.english. purdue.edu/owl/resource/589/02). The page on documenting sources at the library at Cal State San Marcos goes even further; it details three rules of thumb: “quantity: the fact can be found in numerous places and ubiquity: it is likely to be known by a lot of people,” and goes on to say, “Ideally both conditions are true. A third criteria that is sometimes used is whether the information can be easily found in a general reference source” (http://library.csusm.edu/ plagiarism/howtoavoid/how_avoid_common. htm).

A Good Working Definition
In addition to the ideas and definitions cited above, here is another definition (very similar to the third element of the Cal State San Marcos definition) that most students find helpful:

General knowledge is that information that you can reasonably expect to find in any general source on the subject.

Of course, for this definition to be helpful, you have to have a sense of what a general source might cover on the subject. To find out, you’ll have to check some general sources. These would be, typically, general encyclopedia entries, for example.

If in doubt… cite
As you can see, figuring out what meets the criteria for general or “common” knowledge can be straightforward at times and difficult at times. As noted above, it does become easier; like so much else about writing, it is a skill that develops with practice. In the meantime, if you are unsure about whether something meets the criteria, you are always safest to cite. You will never err if you cite when you don’t need to, but to fail to cite when you should is a problem.