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Going to the Source:

A resource provided by collaboration between the College Libraries, the Writing Center, and the Faculty


Why we all have intellectual debts, and how to acknowledge them

Students arrive at Vassar with varied levels of knowledge about citation forms and methods. Whatever understanding of these matters you bring to campus, once you begin your studies here you are entering an intellectual community—at Vassar and beyond—governed by rules about proper attribution. As a student, you will conduct research and contribute to ongoing scholarly conversations. This requires you to read and observe carefully so you understand other people’s ideas, while also learning to trust your own judgments.

No one's ideas are completely original. We depend on others' insights to come up with our own.

For students, the invitation to develop original arguments may cause anxiety. “How,” you may wonder, “will I think of something no one else has thought before?” Don’t panic. Nobody’s ideas are utterly original. We all depend on others’ insights to come up with our own. As one Vassar professor puts it, “Most original ideas stand on a foundation of received thinking which ought, as far as possible, to be acknowledged.”1

Academic discussions can be exciting, passionate, inspiring—and daunting, especially when you first participate. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke uses the metaphor of a party to describe how it may feel to join such a conversation:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense . . . . The hour grows late [and] you depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.2

When you decide to speak up in such a conversation, the success of your contribution depends on how well you understand what others have said and how effectively you present your thoughts so that others may respond to you.

Whenever the ideas of other people influence your own you must say so, because:

  1. Identifying sources allows others to retrace your steps and decide whether or not they agree with your conclusions. (Since you’ll also need to retrace others’ steps to assess their arguments, you’ll find this system handy.)
  2. It’s unethical to claim someone else’s work as your own or hide their influence on your thinking. These are forms of theft. In some realms (such as popular music), practices such as “sampling” are common, but scholars don’t borrow in this way. In the academic world, any unattributed “sampling” of ideas or words is decidedly theft. Even if you did not intend to plagiarize, you are responsible for what you took without acknowledgement.

When you quote a source directly, place the citation at the end of the sentence with the quotation in it. If your summary or indirect borrow- ing from a source extends for two or more sentences in your own paper, make sure you cite at the end, to cover everything you have borrowed. For examples, see the footnotes in this guide.

1 Robert DeMaria, Professor of English, in the earlier citation guide, Originality and Attribution: A Guide for Student Writers at Vassar College, 5. The last edition of that text, revised by Dean of Studies Sandy Thompson in 2003, is available in Special Collections and Archives, Vassar College Library. The co-authors of Going to the Source wish to thank professors Robert DeMaria, Joanne Long, Benjamin Lotto, James H. Merrell, Peter Antelyes, and Susan Zlotnick, as well as students Logan Hill ’16 and members of the VSA Academic Affairs Committee; Hannah Reynolds ’16 and members of the History Majors Committee; students in History 161, spring 2016; and faculty who participated in the spring 2016 “Talking about Teaching” workshops. All helped make this a far better guide. Any remaining errors are the authors’ responsibility.

2 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Baton Rouge, LA: University of Louisiana Press, 1941), 110-111. [Available in the Vassar College Libraries:]