THEY MAY NEED A STRONGER CASE. Chris Lawrence links to additional Daily Egyptian coverage of Southern Illinois president Glenn Poshard's plagiarism.

The situation was complicated further by a Chronicle of Higher Education article Monday reporting Poshard's 1975 master's thesis about drug abuse by rural high school students also includes questionable passages.

The Chronicle stated in the article it obtained a copy of Poshard's thesis from outside SIU and found "cut-and-paste methodology" similar to that in his dissertation. The problems with the thesis seemed less egregious than those in the dissertation, the publication reported.

In one instance, in which the Chronicle referenced, the first two sentences of the thesis corresponds with the first two sentences of a 1969 U.S. government report entitled "Why are drugs being abused these days?"

From Poshard's thesis:

"Drug abuse is not a new phenomenon in America. Various forms of drug abuse have existed for years in the United States and other countries."

From the U.S. government report:

"Drug abuse is not a new phenomenon. Varying forms of drug abuse have been present for years in the United States and other countries."

The Chronicle reported Poshard did not use any quotation marks or citations in those two sentences.

If that government report had appeared in the bibliography, there's a case for use-without-attribution, otherwise known as plagiarism. But how many different ways can one note, as the government and the student did, that there's nothing new about drug use, including widespread and debilitating drug use?

Actually, there is one exception to the rule: "Common Knowledge." If the fact or idea you are using is common knowledge, you don't have to have a source for it. But what is considered common knowledge?

I'm sure there are some other guidelines for discerning whether or not something can be considered common knowledge, but one of the easiest ones I was taught is the following:

If the idea or fact (a) appears in a general source, like an encyclopedia or dictionary, (b) is repeated by over three different sources, or (c) is claimed to be "common knowledge" by more than one author who is in the field and knowledgeable, it can be considered common knowledge. Still, if you have any doubt, go ahead and cite where it was mentioned. It's best to err on the side of citing too much than not enough.

Bias your loss function in favor of excessively citing, in other words. The Northern Illinois University Statement on Plagiarism offers the same advice.
Nor does this mean that every single fact that you learn from some outside source must be documented. Material which is general knowledge or generally available from many sources (such as dictionary definitions, familiar historical facts, and the like) need not be identified; a reader assumes that you got the information somewhere. In most courses, facts drawn from the textbook in that course (but not the author's judgments or conclusions) are fair game. But it is always better to err in the direction of over-acknowledgment: when in doubt, identify your source. Better yet, unless the assignment requires research, rely on your own knowledge, ideas and words.
Otherwise, it's possible to go too far. Consider "The Common-Law Origins of the Infield Fly Rule," in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. The first footnote is to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of "the."

Test yourself: there are several different forms of attribution as well as the non-attribution we call plagiarism.

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