90 Using Sources Ethically and Avoiding Plagiarism

Yvonne Bruce

Students are often concerned with the details of correct citation—when to include an author’s name in parentheses, how to format a bibliography, how to indicate a quotation within a quotation—and while these are all important and helpful to know, what is more important is understanding the larger ethical principles that guide choosing and using sources. Here are a few of these larger ideas to keep in mind as you select and synthesize your sources:

  • You must represent the topic or discipline you are writing about fairly. If nine out of ten sources agree that evidence shows the middle class in the United States is shrinking, it is unethical use the tenth source that argues it is growing without acknowledging the minority status of the source.
  • You must represent the individual source fairly. If a source acknowledges that a small segment of the middle class in the United States is growing but most of the middle class is shrinking, it is unethical to suggest that the former is the writer’s main point.
  • You must acknowledge bias in your sources. It is unethical to represent sources that, while they may be credible, offer extreme political views as if these views are mainstream.
  • Just because your source is an informal one, or from Wikipedia or the dictionary doesn’t mean that you don’t have to acknowledge it. Quoting a dictionary definition is still quoting: you need quotation marks. Wikipedia is not “common knowledge”: cite it.
  • You must summarize and paraphrase in your own words. Changing a few words around in the original and calling it your summary or paraphrase is unethical. How would you feel if you recognized what you worked so hard to write in someone else’s paper? “I changed some words,” they’d say. But you would still recognize your style. Don’t steal someone else’s.


Plagiarism is something that many people understand to be a bad thing, but few people truly understand. Plagiarism can be intentional (such as copying and pasting large chunks of a website into your paper), or it can be unintentional (such as a weak paraphrase or a lack of reference to authors or sources). But plagiarism is plagiarism, whether it is intentional or not, and it is a serious offense in academic writing.

It can be helpful to understand what plagiarism is if you seek to avoid plagiarizing in your own papers. This video offers a thorough explanation of how one might plagiarize if he or she is not carefully integrating sources into an essay.


Following the guidelines for the ethical use of source materials in your papers can help you to avoid plagiarism in your work. Plagiarism is a serious offense and colleges take instances of plagiarism very seriously.

If you are struggling to figure out how to cite a source or how to integrate it into your work while giving your author(s) proper credit, you can

  • ask for your instructor
  • visit the Writing Center
  • set up a meeting with a university librarian

Each school has a plagiarism policy that both defines what plagiarism is and outlines the consequences that will arise in the event that a student is caught plagiarizing.

This section is from Melanie Gagich and Emilie Zickel’s Guide to Rhetoric, Chapter 11


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Write What Matters Copyright © 2020 by Liza Long; Amy Minervini; and Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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