You have been advised that there is no need to provide afor a piece of factual information that is deemed to be common knowledge. However, deciding whether something is ‘common knowledge’ is not always straightforward. Indeed, it can touch on one of the most exciting aspects of academic study.
As an Arts student you will develop your ability to make judgements about statements that claim to be factual. If a piece of information like a date or a place is not in dispute you don’t need to provide a reference. But if scholars are arguing about such matters and discovering further information, or if popular opinion (common knowledge) is contrary to the latest research, you do need to provide a reference to show that you are aware of complexity as well as to avoid plagiarism.
Here are two examples. Would you describe this information as common knowledge?
Henry VIII of England ruled from 1509–1547: Yes/No
Even if you didn’t know the dates of Henry VIII you would probably have no difficulty in finding them. This can, therefore, be regarded as common knowledge.
There is a difference between what you know or don’t know and what can be regarded as common knowledge. You may have to look up the dates of Henry VIII but there is no dissent about his dates and it is very easy to find them.
Modern scholarship places the dates of Jesus of Nazareth at 4BCE–29CE: Yes/No
Think about how most people would answer the question, ‘In which year was Jesus born?’ Many would know that our calendar system is based on CE ‘the common era’, BCE ‘before the common era’. Far fewer people would know that modern scholars disagree with the traditional dating and some would probably resist or question this development.
This information may be common knowledge among scholars but it is not common knowledge among non-specialists and, therefore, needs a reference.
Sometimes you may think that a particular idea is common knowledge but find, when you start to study Arts subjects more deeply, that what you had taken for granted is not as obvious as you had thought. When this happens you need to provide a reference.
Click on the media player below to listen to historian Professor Clive Emsley explaining what is regarded as ‘common knowledge’ within Arts.
Transcript: Professor Clive Emsley
Professor Clive Emsley
Generally common knowledge is something that you don’t have to look up. It’s the obvious. Two plus two equals four. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. The First World War was fought between 1914 and 1918. These are things which are so generally accepted you don’t have to look them up. We almost imbibe them with our mother’s milk.
Common knowledge in the Arts is really no different from common knowledge in anything else. We know that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. We know that the first atomic bomb was dropped in 1945. These are simply things that we know, and that are related to issues within the broad disciplines in the Arts. The examples about dropping bombs, the examples about war, obviously are common knowledge in history. The examples about who wrote what, that Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. These are simply things almost, that you could say, we know without really knowing how we know them.
The decision as to what common knowledge is, essentially is up to the student. It does get a bit messy the closer that you focus in on an issue. If you are writing in broad terms about wars, about authorships, then you will employ common knowledge: Joseph Conrad wrote The Secret Agent or Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent because that’s simply something that you’re referring to in passing. Similarly, Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, something that you’re referring to in passing. If, however, you are focusing on a question about the authorship of novels or plays, then you might have to start referencing issues of authorship. I suppose the best examples of this would be the dispute over whether or not Shakespeare wrote those plays. A lot of people have asked whether it is conceivable that a relatively simple actor from the wilds of Warwickshire could write this fantastic poetry, and some people have come up with the answer that it’s absolutely impossible; it must have been somebody else. Now, the moment that you start focusing down on authorship, and debates about authorship, that’s really when common knowledge ceases to be a tool that you can employ, and you have to get down to referencing. You have to say, who says Shakespeare couldn’t have written those plays? And who did write those plays, given the way sentence structure, the way the poetry has been put together, in comparison with the way other poems and other sentences are put together by other playwrights of the period?
And here’s another example, going back to the issue of wars. Now, in common knowledge terms the First World War is 1914 to 1918. The Second World War is 1939 to 1945. Common knowledge that we all accept, or at least that we all accept in our part of Europe. Now, if you come from the Balkans, you may well say, well actually the First World War, or the series of conflicts that encapsulate the First World War, begin in 1912 and go on to 1922. That’s the period of the First World War for a Greek or a Turk, or any other of the Balkan peoples. With regard to the Second World War, 1939 to 1945 – well if you’re an American, the Second World War starts in 1941. If you’re Chinese and Japanese the Second World War starts in the middle of the 1930s.
Now, when you are employing, when you are investigating those perspectives, that’s when you need to start referencing. The closer that you are focusing down on an issue, the more common knowledge is beginning to be questionable; is beginning to be unpicked by your work.
Academic judgement is when you go beyond common knowledge, and when you recognise that not everybody is actually going to agree with what I’m saying here, or what I’m saying here is drawn from the judgement of other people. And when you use the judgement or the conclusions of other people, that’s when you have to start referencing. You need to say who the individual was, and there’s not a lot of point in saying, ‘well, some historians say that’, or ‘some literary critics say that’. You really ought to specify at least one or two of those literary critics. Otherwise the whole thing is left in the air. We don’t know, we who are marking your work, don’t know who you’re talking about. Well, we might know who you’re talking about, but can we be sure that you know who you’re talking about? So that’s when you need to reference.
The other thing is absolutely essential. You should not lift other people’s work – cut and paste into the middle of an assignment, an essay, or whatever – without referencing it. It is astonishing the way large numbers of people do this, and do it thinking that we won’t actually notice. Generally speaking, associate lecturers and other people do notice when the language of an essay changes. And if you take a paragraph out of an historian, or a literary critic, or an art critic, or a philosopher, and just put it in your essay without referencing it, it will almost certainly be picked up. That’s poor academic judgement on the part of the student, and it suggests probably that the student is not understanding either the issues that are being discussed, that they can’t tell the difference between common knowledge and where people are going beyond common knowledge, and actually questioning issues. That’s what a university education is all about. It’s questioning issues, often issues of common knowledge.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean to say that you play everything safe and that you reference absolutely everything. You have to think about what you’re doing. You have to recognise that there are some things which are, if you like, common knowledge, which are unchanging. But there are other things, which are the result of careful, constructive thought.
Now you shouldn’t just lift chunks from other people’s work and put them in, because one of the key things that we are looking for is not whether you can go to Wikipedia and slice out a chunk and paste it carefully into the centre of your essay. But when you have a much more sophisticated argument, when you go beyond the common knowledge, when you’re into thinking carefully about an issue and incorporating other people’s thoughts about an issue, that’s when you need to reference.