Using Sources Properly to Avoid Plagiarism


Many students do not understand when and how in their papers they should acknowledge (cite) the use of materials written by others. In high school they may never have been told that paraphrasing encyclopedias or textbooks or cutting and pasting from Internet documents was wrong. But these and other improper uses of sources, called plagiarism,2 are serious violations of University policy (see the Department of History policy on academic misconduct) that could lead to your failing an assignment or a course or being suspended or expelled from the University. Should you commit plagiarism in a work you publish, you could face grave legal and financial consequences. Fortunately, it is easy to learn the rules and apply them. If there is ever any doubt, err on the side of acknowledging your source, or ask your instructor.

While most plagiarism is of written material, the same principles apply to anything produced by someone else, such as a painting or a song. They also apply to oral sources. For example, if you take something from a lecture or from an interview or reproduce a picture, you should cite your source.

As you read and take notes on a source you might later use in a paper, you should write down all the information that you will need for a proper citation. You should be especially careful to indicate if any wording in your notes is a direct quotation. This will save you a lot of effort trying to find the information later on, and more importantly help you to avoid inadvertent plagiarism. See the examples below for the information you will need for various kinds of sources.

The use of sources

The general rule

In your writing, if you use any book (including a textbook, encyclopedia, or other reference work), article, paper, letter, inscription, Web site, song, work of art, or anything else produced by someone else, whether or not it is published and no matter who the writer or creator is — a professional writer, your friend or relative, your roommate, etc. — you must acknowledge this fact appropriately. You must acknowledge the source whether you quote or reproduce it exactly, paraphrase it, or merely use some of its ideas or arguments. You are using its ideas if you follow its organizational structure, even if you do not quote or paraphrase it or use any of its content.

Elaboration on the general rule

  • Any direct quotation must be enclosed in quotation marks, or, if lengthy, set off as a block quotation.
  • Paraphrasing a source does not mean changing a word or two or substituting synonyms. It means completely rewriting in your own words. If you cannot do this you should quote directly.
  • If you paraphrase, but include a phrase (or even a single word if it is an unusual one) from the original source, it should be in quotation marks.
  • You must cite any idea or argument you take from a source, even if you do not quote or paraphrase, and even if you develop that idea or argument beyond what is in the original source.
  • As an extension of the previous point, if the structural organization of your paper or any part of it depends upon someone else’s work, you must cite the source. For example, if the source makes three main points and your paper makes the same three points, you must cite the source, even if you develop those points in your own words.

Exception to the general rule

  • The only exception to the general rule is if the information can be considered common knowledge, which means that ALL of the following are true:
    • It is purely factual, such as that Leon Trotsky was born in 1879 or that the United States Constitution was written in 1787 at Philadelphia.
    • It is widely accepted. If there is difference of opinion on whether the material is true, you should cite your source.
    • It is widely available — found in many sources, such as encyclopedias, biographies, textbooks, etc. If it is an obscure fact, found only, say, in an obscure book, you should cite your source.
  • Even if the information is common knowledge, you must present it in your own words. If you use exact words, you must quote and cite it.

Notes about the rule

  • The rule might give you the impression that you must document literally every statement you make, unless it is entirely original with you (you thought of it without looking at any other material). In fact, you do not have to have a footnote for every sentence you write. You may be able to let one citation cover a whole paragraph or even a series of paragraphs, so long as your intention is clear to the reader.
  • Even if you follow all the rules correctly and everything you write is correct, that does not mean that your paper necessarily deserves a good grade. A good paper has to be largely your own work and thought. If it is merely a patchwork of correctly-cited quotations or paraphrases you will not get a good grade.



Some instructors may require you to have a bibliography at the end of your paper. This should consist of a list of all the sources you used, with the proper information about them.

It is important to note that having a bibliography does not relieve you of the responsibility of citing the use of sources at the particular places in the body of the paper where you used them. If you use endnotes, the bibliography should come at the very end of the paper, after the endnotes.


More information

Following the principles given above carefully will prevent you from committing plagiarism. To understand the problem more clearly and get concrete examples of plagiarism, you should read the documents under the heading of Academic integrity and the problem of plagiarism at the Department of History’s Web document on Writing and Literature Resources. Several of them have tutorials in which samples of student writing are placed alongside the documents they have used to determine whether or not plagiarism has been committed. You may be surprised by the conclusions.

There are many guides for citing the use of the words, ideas, or organizational structure of other persons’ writing, by either footnotes (or endnotes) or parenthetical references. Ask — before you write your paper — which one your instructor wants you to use. The point is that, whatever guide you use, you must cite the use of other persons’ writing, and you should use the form that your instructor requires..

The most comprehensive guide is The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003). Most departments of history (we are one of them) use Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), which is based on the principles of The Chicago Manual of Style. Your instructor may permit you to use another guide, such as Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research ’s, 6th ed. (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2003), or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 5th ed. (Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association, 2001).

How to cite sources: footnotes, endnotes, and bibliography

Footnotes and endnotes have the same form; the only difference is where the information about your source appears.

The form of a bibliography is somewhat different from that of a footnote or endnote. The bibliography is in alphabetical order by author, and several items by the same author are listed in alphabetical order by title.

At the end of a passage that uses another source, you should insert a raised number. The first note will have the number “1,” and each successive note should have a sequentially higher number. You then will put the actual citation at the bottom of the page (footnote) or at the end of the paper (endnote). Most word processors will do this automatically for you.

Following are examples of the correct form of footnotes/endnotes and bibliographical entries for different kinds of sources, according to the guidelines of Turabian/Chicago Manual of Style. Consult one of these sources for the correct way to cite other kinds of sources, such as movies or theses.

Footnotes or endnotes must give the page numbers actually used for the particular passage. Bibliographies give the complete page range of an article or a chapter in a book that is a collection of articles, but do not specify page numbers for a book.

All the examples are for items written by a single author. If there is more than one author of a work, you need to list them all, separated by commas. In all cases the second, third, etc. authors should be listed first name first, then the middle name or initials (if any), and finally the last name, even if the examples tell you to list the first author differently.

Note that after you first cite a source fully in a footnote/endnote, you should use a shortened form. Pick words from the title that are distinctive enough to be recognized. There may be several acceptable ways to do this.

All the examples here are of publications by faculty of the Department of History of The University of Memphis.


Footnote or endnote: James M. Blythe, “Family, Government, and the Medieval Aristotelians,” History of Political Thought 10 (1989): 15.

Subsequent citations: Blythe, “Family,” 4.

Bibliography: Blythe, James M. “Family, Government, and the Medieval Aristotelians.” History of Political Thought 10 (1989): 1-16.

Note: “10” is the volume number of the journal.


Footnote or endnote: Peter J. Brand, The Monuments of Seti I: Epigraphic, Historical and Art Historical Analysis (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000), 146-53.

Subsequent citations: Brand, Monuments of Seti I, 68.

Bibliography: Brand, Peter J. The Monuments of Seti I: Epigraphic, Historical and Art Historical Analysis. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000.

Note: “Leiden” refers to the city of publication. If the city is obscure or ambiguous, include the state or country; e.g., "Germantown, TN:"

Article or chapter in a collection:

Footnote or endnote: Janann M. Sherman, “‘Senator-at-Large for America’s Women’: Margaret Chase Smith and the Paradox of Gender Affinity,” in The Impact of Women in Public Office, ed. Susan Carroll (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001), 97-9.

Subsequent citations: Sherman, “Smith and the Paradox of Gender,” 103.

Bibliography: Sherman, Janann M. “‘Senator-at-Large for America’s Women’: Margaret Chase Smith and the Paradox of Gender Affinity.” In The Impact of Women in Public Office, edited by Susan Carroll, 89-116. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Note: Be sure to notice how you should include the editor of the collection. You would follow the same form for a translator (abbreviated “trans.”).

Electronic source:

Note: The first date is the date the source was last updated on the Internet (often you may not be able to find this information, in which case you should skip this part). The date in brackets is the date you used the source. Most electronic sources do not have page numbers. If the source (such as a PDF document) does have page numbers, they of course should be given in the footnote or endnote.


      1Much of this document originated as a guide entitled “Using Sources in Your Papers,” written by Dr James M. Blythe for his students. [return to the text]

      2Webster’s 11th New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc., 2003) under the heading “plagiarize” reads: “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own . . . without crediting the source.” The Office of Student conduct definition reads: “Plagiarism - The adoption or reproduction of ideas, words, statements, images, or works of another person as one's own without proper attribution.” [return to the text]