9.4 Ethics and documenting sources

The chapter titled “Citation and Plagiarism” stresses the importance of documenting your sources. Documenting your sources includes showing exactly what you borrowed both where you used it and in a Works Cited, Works, or References (the different terms reflect different documentation systems, not just random preference) list at the end.

Including an item only in the source list at the end suggests you have used the source in the report, but if you have not cited this source in the text as well, you could be seen as misleading the reader. Either you are saying it is a source when in fact you did not really use anything from it, or you have simply failed to clarify in the text what are your ideas and what comes from other sources.

Documenting source use in such a way as to either mislead your reader about the source or make identifying the source difficult is also unethical—that would include using just a URL or using an article title without identifying the journal in which it appears (in the Works Cited/References; you would not likely identify the journal name in the report’s body). Unethical source use also includes falsifying the nature of the source, such as omitting the number of pages in the Works Cited entry to make a brief note seem to be a full article.

Unethical source use includes suppressing information about how you have used a source, such as not making clear that graphical information in your report was already a graph in your source, as opposed to a graph you created on the basis of information in the source.

Note that many problems in documenting sources occur because the writer is missing the point of source use:

  • you must clearly distinguish between your ideas and borrowed material,
  • and you must use borrowed material primarily as evidence for your own, directly stated ideas.

If you blend source material together with your ideas (including as “your ideas” your analysis or application of borrowed materials), you will indeed find that showing exactly what is borrowed versus what is yours is impossible. That is because you cannot ethically blend your ideas together with source material. Any time you find you cannot apply documentation principles, consider whether you are using the source(s) unethically. Students often argue that they cannot separate their ideas from borrowed ideas because they would then have to document the whole paper—if that is true, the paper is most certainly not making “fair use” of the sources.

Chapter Attribution Information

This chapter was written by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0. Thanks to Eleanor Sumpter-Latham, Humanities/Writing Professor at Central Oregon Community College for contributing to this chapter.


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Technical Writing Copyright © 2017 by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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