Acknowledging the Work of Others

(The pamphlet Acknowledging the Work of Others was prepared by the Office of the Dean of Faculty, Cornell University, August 1993. Passages have been quoted with permission granted to Georgetown University.)

Education at its best, whether conducted in seminar, laboratory, or lecture hall, is a dialogue between teacher and pupil in which questions and answers can be sought and evaluated. If this dialogue is to flourish, students who enter the University must assume certain responsibilities. Among them is the responsibility to make clear what knowledge is theirs and what is someone else’s. Teachers must know whose words they are reading or listening to, for no useful dialogue can occur between a teacher and an echo or ghost.

To acknowledge the work of others, observe the following conventions:

1. If you adopt someone else’s language, provide quotation marks and a reference to the source, either in the text or in a footnote, as prescribed by such publications as Format, The MLA Style Sheet, or the manual of style recommended by the course instructor. Footnote form varies from discipline to discipline. In some fields, writers group references to a number of sources under a single footnote number, which appears at the end of a sentence or even of a paragraph. In other fields, writers use a separate footnote for each reference, even if this means creating two or three footnotes for a single sentence. It seems pointless, even counterproductive, to make the mechanics of footnoting unnecessarily complicated.

If in a short, informal paper you cite a passage from a work all the members of your class are reading in the same edition, it may be entirely sufficient simply to cite page numbers (and if necessary the title of the text) parenthetically within your own sentences: “Hobbes suggests that life outside civil society is likely to be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ (Leviathan, p.53).” To ascertain what form to follow in these matters, ask your instructor.

2. If you adopt someone else’s ideas but you cannot place them between quotation marks because they are not reproduced verbatim, then not only provide a footnoted reference to the source but also insert in the text a phrase like one of the following: “I agree with Blank,” “as Blank has argued,” “according to some critics”; or embody in the footnote a statement of indebtedness, like one of these: “This explanation is a close paraphrase of Blank (pp. ),” “I have used the examples discussed by Blank,” “The main steps in my discussion were suggested by Blank’s treatment of the problem,” “Although the examples are my own, my categories are derived from Blank.” A simple footnote does no more than identify the source from which the writer has derived material. A footnote alone does not indicate whether the language, the arrangement of fact, the sequence of the argument, or the choice of examples is taken from the source. To indicate indebtedness to a source for such features as these, the writer must use quotation marks or provide an explanation in his or her text or in the footnote.

3. If some section of the paper is the product of a discussion, or if the line of argument adopted is such a product, and if acknowledgment within the text or footnote seems inappropriate, then furnish in a prefatory note or footnote an appropriate acknowledgment of the exact nature of the assistance you have received. Scholarship is, after all, cumulative, and prefatory acknowledgments of assistance are common. For example: “I, . . . , wish to express my appreciation to Dr. Harlow Shapley of the Harvard Observatory, who read the original manuscript and made valuable suggestions and criticisms, with particular reference to the sections dealing with astronomy” (Lincoln Barnett, The Universe and Dr. Einstein [New York: the New American Library, 1958]).

A similar form of acknowledgment is appropriate when students confer about papers they are writing. It is often fruitful for students to assist each other with drafts of papers, and many instructors encourage such collaboration in class and out. All students need to do to avoid misunderstandings is to acknowledge such help