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9.1: Using Sources Ethically

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  • Students are often concerned with the details of correct citation—when to include an author’s name in parentheses, how to format an MLA bibliography, how to indicate a quotation within a quotation—and while these are all important and helpful to know, what is more important is understanding the larger ethical principles that guide choosing and using sources. Here are a few of these larger ideas to keep in mind as you select and synthesize your sources:

    • You must represent the topic or discipline you are writing about fairly. If nine out of ten sources agree that evidence shows the middle class in the United States is shrinking, it is unethical use the tenth source that argues it is growing without acknowledging the minority status of the source (see also Chapter 5).
    • You must represent the individual source fairly. If a source acknowledges that a small segment of the middle class in the United States is growing but most of the middle class is shrinking, it is unethical to suggest that the former is the writer’s main point.
    • You must acknowledge bias in your sources. It is unethical to represent sources that, while they may be credible, offer extreme political views as if these views are mainstream.
    • Just because your source is an informal one, or from Wikipedia or the dictionary doesn’t mean that you don’t have to acknowledge it. Quoting a dictionary definition is still quoting: you need quotation marks. Wikipedia is not “common knowledge”: cite it.
    • You must summarize and paraphrase in your own words. Changing a few words around in the original and calling it your summary or paraphrase is unethical. How would you feel if you recognized what you worked so hard to write in someone else’s paper? “I changed some words,” they’d say. But you would still recognize your style. Don’t steal someone else’s (see also Chapter 9.3).


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