Part 3: Valuing Sources

28 Ethical Information User

Contributing to the conversation

Way back in Part 2 of this textbook, we discussed scholarly sources. In that chapter, I stated that authors of scholarly articles are engaging in a conversation with each other, formulating and debating complex ideas, balancing competing perspectives, and frequently citing each other to build on previous work and advance the field.

Well, as a college student, whenever you complete an academic assignment, be it a research paper, a speech, or report in which you gather and synthesize information on a topic, you are participating in that conversation. Pretty cool, huh? Your work at COCC is a way to add your own voice to the scholarly conversation—by reviewing what research has been done, drawing connections and conclusions from published information, and adding your own experiences, opinions, and ideas about what previous research has shown.

Citing Sources

When we engage in conversations with other people, we often say things like, “I heard on the news today that…” or “The cashier at the store said…” When we do this, we not only back up and further support the point we are trying to make, but we also give more credibility to what we are saying by letting others know the origin of the information. It is also a good idea to let others know where our information came from when engaging in a scholarly conversation. A citation is a mention to another source and the phrase “citing your sources” means you’ve communicated the sources of information that you’ve used in your own work.

It is unethical to use somebody else’s information in your own work and not cite where you got that information. As long as you give credit where credit is due, using information from others to support your own thoughts, opinions, and research findings is good practice. Not only does it acknowledge the hard work of others, but it also shows that you did your research on the topic, you know what information exists about it, and you can integrate your knowledge into the existing research, continuing the conversation. You can see in certain chapters (including this one) I include references to other textbooks that I have taken from and adapted to create this textbook—so even I do it!

Watch and consider the following video discussing this concept as well as the practical side of citations, such as MLA and APA formatting.


You might have heard about plagiarism from instructors before. Basically instructors tell you to avoid it! But what is it? Plagiarism is when we use the ideas or research of others and fail to state where we got those ideas or research. We avoid stealing from others by providing citations, which lets our readers know where the information came from.

Whether you’re purposely passing off information as your own (i.e., copying and pasting text or paraphrasing another source without giving credit) or doing so unintentionally  (i.e., not knowing how to cite sources), plagiarism goes against the moral and ethical code for students. As a COCC student, you’ve agreed to be honest and fair in and out of the classroom by avoiding cheating or plagiarizing (it’s part of the Principles of Community in the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook). But, beyond that, in this class we’ve learned about the effort it takes to create information, get it published, and distribute it to an audience, so it’s important to value information for many reasons, not just to get good grades.

Intellectual Property

When you avoid plagiarism by citing your sources, you are respecting other people’s intellectual property. Just like physical property that you can call your own, intellectual property describes a creation that can be owned and protected, most commonly using copyright, patents, and trademarks. Copyright is a type of licensing of intellectual property that gives you exclusive rights to the material, meaning others cannot legally copy, distribute, display, modify, or perform (e.g., a play or piece of music) without getting your permission to do so. Copyright is automatic, meaning you don’t have to register it through the U.S. Copyright Office. That picture you took of your pet doing something cute? You own that copyright. The doodle you made in the margins of your notes? You own that copyright, too. Copyright in the United States lasts the life of the creator plus an additional 70 years, so you own that copyright as will your descendants.

So when you find an image on Google and copy and paste it into your essay, are you violating copyright? Well, there are exceptions, and often educational uses give you some wiggle room. It might not be the most ethical, especially if you’re not giving credit to the creator, but you’re probably not going to get in trouble. One way to avoid the moral and legal dilemma of using copyrighted material is to look for the Creative Commons logo. This logo marks a Creative Commons license, which allow creators to define what they want others to be able to do and not do with their work. Instead of tracking down the creator and asking for permission, the license encourages reuse and, in some cases, additional creativity by permitting adaptations and remixes.

The content I adapted from other textbooks are licensed under Creative Commons, as is this entire textbook. It encourages anyone to use the material in whatever way works best for them, while allowing the conversation to continue and valuing the information they discovered.

This chapter was adapted from the following:
Introduction to College Research by Walter D. Butler, Aloha Sargent, and Kelsey Smith, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Finding Information by Kirsten Hostetler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.