Thinking

Misinterpreting common knowledge is a type of plagiarism caused by incorrectly believing something is commonly known and therefore not referencing it. Common knowledge does not need to be cited and referenced, however people often get confused over what constitutes common knowledge.

If a fact is well known and can be easily verified by consulting standard textbooks or encyclopaedias it could be classed as common knowledge.

For example:

Water = H2O   vs   Coffee = C8H10N4O2

You can also have common knowledge within a specialist subject area, but you need to be clear about what constitutes common knowledge in different subjects as it can vary greatly. Something that is common knowledge to an engineer may not be common knowledge to a doctor.

Also, common knowledge changes over time. If you had described the structure of DNA fifty years ago, you would have had to acknowledge your source, but today it is accepted as common knowledge.

If you are not sure if something is common knowledge it is best to provide a reference for it. You could also ask your tutor’s opinion.

As you become more familiar with your subject area you will develop a better understanding of what constitutes common knowledge in your subject field as you will see what other researchers do and do not reference.

Activity on misinterpreting common knowledge

Now test your understanding of misinterpreting common knowledge by completing the questions below. When you have finished, click ‘Submit’ and review your feedback.

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