This is “Making Ethical and Effective Choices”, section 7.7 from the book Writers' Handbook (v. 1.0). For details on it (including licensing), click here.

For more information on the source of this book, or why it is available for free, please see the project's home page. You can browse or download additional books there. You may also download a PDF copy of this book (17 MB) or just this chapter (834 KB), suitable for printing or most e-readers, or a .zip file containing this book's HTML files (for use in a web browser offline).

Has this book helped you? Consider passing it on:
Creative Commons supports free culture from music to education. Their licenses helped make this book available to you. helps people like you help teachers fund their classroom projects, from art supplies to books to calculators.

7.7 Making Ethical and Effective Choices

Learning Objectives

  1. Know how to differentiate between common knowledge and proprietary ideas.
  2. Understand how to summarize, paraphrase, and cite sources.
  3. Recognize whether material is available for use.

Three keys to referencing others’ ideas ethically are to know the difference between common knowledge and proprietary ideas, to be aware of how to properly summarize and paraphrase, and to understand the correct methods for citing sources. In addition, you need to make sure that material is available for use at any level.

Differentiating between Common Knowledge and Proprietary Ideas

Common knowledgeInformation that most people know and that does not require a citation. is that bank of information that most people know. Such information does not require a citation. One way to identify such information is to note that it is presented in multiple sources without documentation. Another identification method is to realize that you, along with most people you know, are aware of the information. For example, you can write that “Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming” without needing a reference. On the other hand, if you were to note that there is a high rate of divorce in Cheyenne, you would need to cite that detail. Data about the divorce rate in Cheyenne are proprietary ideasInformation that most people do not know and that requires a citation..

Properly Summarizing and Paraphrasing

When you summarizeTo use a few words or sentences to describe the key ideas of a text., you should write in your own words and the result should be substantially shorter than the original text. In addition, the sentence structure should be your original format. In other words, you should not take a sentence and replace core words with synonyms.

You should also use your words when you paraphraseTo use your ideas to inclusively present the ideas from a selection.. Paraphrasing should also involve your own sentence structure. Paraphrasing might, however, be as long or even longer than the original text. When you paraphrase, you should include, in your words, all the ideas from the original text in the same order as in the original text. You should not insert any of your ideas.

Both summaries and paraphrases should maintain the original author’s intent and slant. Taking details out of context to suit your purposes is not ethical since it does not honor the original author’s ideas.

Study the examples in the following table for clarification between summarizing, paraphrasing, quoting, and plagiarizing.

Original text Some dramatic differences were obvious between online and face-to-face classrooms. For example, 73 percent of the students responded that they felt like they knew their face-to-face classmates, but only 35 percent of the subjects felt they knew their online classmates. In regards to having personal discussion with classmates, 83 percent of the subjects had such discussions in face-to-face classes, but only 32 percent in online classes. Only 52 percent of subjects said they remembered people from their online classes, whereas 94 percent remembered people from their face-to-face classes. Similarly, liking to do group projects differs from 52 percent (face-to-face) to 22 percent (online) and viewing classes as friendly, connected groups differs from 73 percent (face-to-face) to 52 percent (online). These results show that students generally feel less connected in online classes.
Summarized text Students report a more personal connection to students in face-to-face classes than in online classes.
Paraphrased text Study results show a clear difference between online and face-to-face classrooms. About twice as many students indicated they knew their classmates in face-to-face classes than in online classes. Students in face-to-face classes were about two-and-a-half times more likely to have discussions with classmates than were students in online classes. Students in face-to-face classes were about twice as likely to remember classmates as were students in online classes. Students in face-to-face classes viewed group projects as positive about two-and-a-half times more often than did students in online classes. Students in face-to-face classes saw class as a friendly place 73 percent of the time compared to 52 percent for online classes. Summing up these results, it is clear that students feel more connected in face-to-face classes than in online classes.
Quoted text The study showed that personal discussions are much more likely to take place in face-to-face classes than in online classes since “83 percent of the subjects had such discussions in face-to-face classes, but only 32 percent in online classes.”
Plagiarized text Some major differences were clear between Internet and in-person classrooms. For example, 73 percent of the study participants felt they were acquainted with their in-person classmates, but only 35 percent of the participants indicated they knew their distance classmates.

Correctly Citing Sources

Citing sources is critical since you do not want to be guilty of stealing ideas from others, and using others’ intellectual property without giving them credit is, indeed, a form of stealing. A bonus that comes with citing sources is that aligning others’ ideas with your ideas adds credibility to your ideas and helps establish your ethosA writer’s credibility and trustworthiness, established by researchers through the responsible and ethical use of sources.. Also, when you address more than one viewpoint, you strengthen your viewpoint.

In order to know exactly how you should cite sources, you need to know the reference style you will be using. The most popular formats are American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA), Chicago, and Council of Science Editors (CSE). You can read more about these different styles and others in Chapter 22 "Appendix B: A Guide to Research and Documentation".

Regardless of which citation style you use, you should follow the following general guidelines:

  • Enclose all direct quotations in quotation marks and cite the source within the text, including page number, author, and year (if your style requires all these parts) so it is very clear where you acquired the information.
  • When you summarize or paraphrase text, do not use quotations, but note the author and year (or other required information depending on the citation style) either as part of the sentence or in parentheses following the sentence to clearly note that the ideas belong to someone else.
  • At the end of your paper, include a complete list of references, each properly cited using the required citation style.

Making Sure Material Is Available for Use

As you are searching for sources, be sure to determine that you can ethically use the material. As a rule, you can reference most text as long as you properly cite it. Images are another issue. When you search online for images, you will find many private and for-profit sources. You should not use these images without contacting the source and requesting permission. For example, you might find a picture of a darling little boy from someone’s personal unprotected photo page or a good picture of an orderly closet from a company’s web page. Using such photos just because you can access them is not ethical. And citing the source is not adequate in these situations. You should either obtain written permission or forgo the use of such images.

Key Takeaways

  • Common knowledge is information that most people know and that is available in many sources. Common knowledge does not have to be cited. Proprietary ideas are those that belong to someone else and must be cited.
  • Summarized information must be cited, should be written in your words, should be true to the author’s intent, and should be much shorter than the original text. Paraphrased information should be cited, should include all the core points of the original text, should be written in your words, should be true to the author’s intent, and should be about as long as the original text.
  • Take care to put exact quotations within quotation marks and to reference all borrowed ideas; use the citation style you are required to use.
  • You should determine if you can ethically use content from a source, especially in the case of images. You can usually reference text ethically by citing it correctly, but it is wise to have signed consent when using visual content.


  1. Consider these two sentences:

    • The KOA system is a large camping organization in the United States.
    • KOA campers and staff take part in many public service activities.

    Explain whether each of these statements is common knowledge or proprietary and why.

  2. Online, find a source on a topic of interest to you. Copy a paragraph from the source. Summarize the paragraph. Paraphrase the paragraph. Finally, write a paragraph about the passage that includes a direct quotation from it.