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College Resource Center : Web Design and Development : Tips for Course Success : Documenting Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism

Truly original ideas are far and few between, and most of our knowledge is built, in tiny increments, on ideas and facts others have learned and shared with us. This may be part of the reason that academic honesty can be a difficult concept to grasp.

Whether you are writing for a class, work, or yourself, it is absolutely essential that you acknowledge information that has come from someone else; to do otherwise is dishonest and unethical—it is a kind of stealing called plagiarism. Plagiarism, unfortunately, can also happen unintentionally. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to understand what kinds of information must be documented and learn to do so correctly.

We will briefly discuss both the problem (plagiarism) and the solution (documenting your sources) here. Your instructor will be able to offer additional help in when and how to document information, as well as guidelines for the particular style manual you will be required to use when you write.


A simple definition of plagiarism is to present another person's words or ideas as if they were your own. This includes quoting exact words or phrases or passages and paraphrasing—putting someone else's distinct idea in your own words—without telling your reader where it first came from. You must also document your use of another person's charts or graphs, drawings, photographs and video or audio recordings.

Documenting Sources

To avoid plagiarism, take careful notes as you read. When you write down an interesting idea, or an effective way of expressing it, also write down information about the source so you can give credit to the author/creator in your writing on your Works Cited page. Be sure you use quotation marks to indicate exact quotes and that you separate your paraphrase of an author's idea from ideas of your own.

What should I document?

Document anything you quote directly, including highly descriptive words or phrases as well as sentences.

Document any information you paraphrase or express in your own words.

Document any ideas you use that came from another source or are the product of someone else's thought.

For examples of correct and incorrect documentation, click http://www.wisc.edu/writing/Handbook/Documentation.html. This site, maintained by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Writing Center, includes general information on documentation as well as summaries and examples for several documentation styles, including MLA and APA.

What doesn't need to be documented?

You don't need to document what might be called "common knowledge"—well known or proven facts that an average person would know or could easily look up. For example, most people know, or could find out quickly, that the Civil War ended in 1865.

You don't need to document information that can be verified in three or more general reference works, such as dictionaries or encyclopedias.

You don't need to document or put in quotes words that are commonly used—nouns, for example. Let's say you are writing a paper about Multiple Sclerosis and you read a book written by a doctor who is doing research on the disease. When you write, you wouldn't need to put either the word disease, or its proper name, Multiple Sclerosis, in quotes. If, however, the author describes Multiple Sclerosis in a distinctive way (the disease's "inevitable, everyday crush") put that word, or words, in quotation marks.

How do I document my sources?

Style manuals give detailed instructions for documentation. Your instructor will tell you which style guide to use: the MLA Handbook, the APA Style Guide, and the Chicago Manual of Style are three widely used style references.

In general, you will need to find the following information for each of your sources:

Books—title, author, city and name of publisher, year of publication, page numbers.

Magazine articles—title, author, name of magazine, date of publication, page numbers of the whole article and of specific information you used.

Journal articles—title, author, name of journal, volume number, date of publication (month and year), page numbers of whole article and of information you used.

Newspaper articles—title, author, name of the newspaper, date of publication (month, day, year), page numbers of the article and the information you used.

Encyclopedia articles—title, author (if given), name of the encyclopedia, year and place of publication, volume and page number.

Web sites—title, author, name of any institution or organization associated with the site, date of publication, date of access, address (the Uniform Resource Location—URL).

Information from a CD-ROM database—electronic date of publication, the name of the database and the name of the company that produced the database—in addition to the information for the specific kind of source (for example, a newspaper article from a database would include information for both kinds of citations).

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