Common Knowledge in Academic Writing – chequelist

24.03.23 Plagiarism overview Time to read: 4min

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Common Knowledge

Common knowledge refers to information that the majority of neurotypical adults are presumed to know, like the fact that Paris is the capital of France or that two plus two equals four.

Nevertheless, when it comes to academic writing and avoiding plagiarism, understanding what constitutes common knowledge can be more nuanced.

Common Knowledge – In a nutshell

Common or public knowledge is factual information that most people know or can be easily verified. Understanding when to cite knowledge in the public realm is an essential skill in academic writing.

Definition: Common Knowledge

Some facts and ideas are so widely known in mainstream society that it is unnecessary to cite their source. However, it can be difficult to establish what is common knowledge because the way one interprets this idea varies.

There are two categories of common knowledge:

  1. Information that the general public could reasonably be expected to know.
  2. Shared knowledge that’s widely known in a group, such as historians, doctors, or lawyers, such as a specific professional field.

When deciding whether it is necessary or not to cite what you believe to be in the realm of common knowledge, make use of three main principles:

  1. When in doubt, quote.
  2. Always acknowledge the source of arguments.
  3. Ask your teachers or lecturers for advice for further clarification.
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Citing Common Knowledge

Why does general information not have to be cited in academic papers? How do you know a statement is public knowledge?

  • Who is the audience?
  • Could the audience argue against the statement?
  • Can the statement be verified across several sources?

Consult presentation guides, librarians, writing consultants and professors in your field of study for advice specific to your discipline in quotation material. However, keep in mind that providing a reference for a fact known to all and sundry may, in certain circumstances, be beneficial to your work – for example, if you quote texts, primary sources, controversial information and assertions that cause controversy.

Examples of Common Knowledge

Included in Common or Public Knowledge:

Example

  • There are twelve months in a year;
  • Joe Biden is the President of the USA;
  • Cats and dogs are popular pets.

Not included in Common or Public Knowledge:

Example

Statements including facts or figures:

  • 90% of girls hate sports
  • The majority of cars in the UK are purchased using credit

Subjective statements include interpretation, opinions, philosophies, and beliefs. It is particularly important to cite emotional or controversial statements:

  • Without Oliver Cromwell, the Roundheads would never have won the Civil war;
  • Institutional racism is rife throughout all public services in the UK.

Comparison of three scenarios

Here are three statements about Charlotte Bronte that represent three versions; clear common knowledge, debatable common knowledge, and no common knowledge:

  1. “Clear common knowledge”

“Charlotte Bronte wrote Jane Eyre.”

This is clear common knowledge that most educated adults in the UK would know.

  1. “Not common or public knowledge”

“The 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth was marked on April 21st 2016.”

  1. “Debatable common knowledge”

“Jane Eyre was highly controversial from the mument of its publication in 1847.”

This is debatable knowledge – many would agree, but many may not be aware or disagree with the subjective statement, so it requires a source.

This is not widely known as it involves a specific date that is not known by people outside a certain group (fans of the author’s work and academics specializing in 19th-century litreature).

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FAQs

If the accuracy of the information in your writing could be questioned, then it is not common knowledge.

For example, if you gave information about the price of sweets in a region of India in the 1970s, the reader wouldn’t be able to quickly find that information from multiple sources. It’s specific and therefore requires a citation to include in your work.

When we refer to arguments made by somaeone else, even arguments we encounter often, it is recommended to quote the text in which the statement was invoked. These arguments constitute their authors’ effort and intellectual contribution; the link between the argument and the author should therefore be acknowledged using a citation.

Some information that is often seen and widely accepted may seem factual and known to all. However, some people may consider this same information material to be controversial. When you must cite such information, consider whether the audience you are referring to considers this information to be factual or if they are sceptical about it.

It’s important because not doing so risks being accused of plagiarism, which can seriously impact a person’s academic or professional career.