Source Types & Ethical Use

46 Using Sources Ethically

Yvonne Bruce

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 the 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 to use the tenth source that argues it is growing without acknowledging the minority status of the source.
  • 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,” so ideally find a different source cite to support your argument, or cite Wikipedia if you’re going to use 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. Make sure that your paraphrase represents your understanding of the text, and if you are struggling with understanding, you’re surely not the only one. Talk to your professor, colleagues, and writing center tutors to help you understand and then translate this understanding to text.

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