1.1 Referencing common knowledge
Now that you have an understanding of what common knowledge is, consider the following statement.
‘Common knowledge doesn’t need to be referenced.’
Do you think this statement is accurate?
While the statement is generally accurate as there is no need to provide a reference for a piece of factual information that is deemed to be common knowledge, as you saw in the previous section, it is not a simple distinction to make. Deciding whether something is ‘common knowledge’ is a matter of academic judgement.
If you are in doubt whether something is common knowledge, the best approach is to assume the point is not common knowledge, and therefore you should supply a reference. In general terms, it is better to supply a reference (and for it to not be needed) than to not include one, and discover it was necessary. It is also a good idea to discuss your concerns with your tutor, who can give you advice specific to your subject and level of study.
The following list provides some examples of common knowledge:
- that the Earth revolves around the Sun
- the name of current Prime Minister of the UK
- that football is a popular team sport played around the world
- that Twitter is an example of a social media platform.
You can consider these as common knowledge because:
- most people know these things;
- they are easy to verify by referring to a number of different, easily accessible sources (e.g. a dictionary, encyclopaedia, basic internet search engine query, asking friends, etc.).
Anything that has to be looked up in a specialist reference book or is attributable to a specific author would not count as common knowledge.
Are the following general examples common knowledge?
1. The capital of France is Paris.
Even if you didn’t know the capital of France, you would probably have no difficulty in finding this information. This can, therefore, be regarded as common knowledge.
2. A red traffic light means a car driver must stop at or behind the white line (or where otherwise indicated).
This is common knowledge in the UK (and many other countries too). It is also in the Highway Code, in the section on ‘Signs and Signals’. So you would reference it if you wanted to prove to somebody that this was in the Highway Code; otherwise, you would not.
3. The population of England and Wales in 1700 was about 5.5 million.
Think about how difficult it would be to find this information. Even though this figure might not be contested, it is not the kind of thing that people commonly know and it would be tricky to look up. It is, therefore, not common knowledge and would need a reference.
4. Consider the following statement:
‘Obesity is a medical term describing a condition in which a persons body mass index (BMI) exceeds the recommended level for someone of the height and weight.’
Is this common knowledge?
There is currently a lot of concern about obesity in the UK. You may have seen similar statements in a variety of easily accessible sources, including mainstream media and online sources. As it stands, this statement might be considered common knowledge.
However, it is easy to move beyond common knowledge. For example, questions have been raised about the relevance of the BMI as a measure of obesity as it does not distinguish between fat and muscle; so, for example, many athletes have a high BMI. Questions have also been raised about whether using the term ‘obesity’ stigmatises people who are overweight. Is obesity really a disease? Or is it one of a number of risk factors that may make people more susceptible to conditions such as diabetes or coronary heart disease? Are we focusing too much on reducing weight in individuals and making them feel to blame, rather than tackling environmental causes of obesity, such as over-reliance on motorised transport, manufacture of highly processed foods and lack of safe places to play? As you can see, once you start to explore interpretations or arguments, you need to use references to acknowledge the writers and researchers who generated these ideas.