VIII: Ethics

8.2 Managing Information

Deborah Bernnard; Greg Bobish; Jenna Hecker; Irina Holden; Allison Hosier; Trudi Jacobson; Tor Loney; Daryl Bullis; and Kathy Anders

In the modern world, it is wonderful to have access to information. It empowers us to have data and knowledge that leads us throughout our busy days and helps us organize our leisure time more efficiently. GPS devices and mobile phones help us locate unfamiliar destinations where we can find places to eat, to stay, and to get entertainment. All of this information is at our fingertips due to modern technology. To some degree, we all take advantage of this technology and use this information to our advantage.

But there are other types of information that we need, not just the kind that provides directions. We seek such information when we are ill and need to look up medical advice. We seek out information when looking for jobs or places to live. We even seek information when in school as very few subjects require only the use of a textbook. In our intellectual work, we need to search for information and then use it because every paper or project produced in college is a product of someone’s creativity.

So how should we handle this product of creativity (a.k.a. information)? Let’s think about a simple example: apple picking in the fall. It is a popular thing to do. People go to a farm, get bags or baskets, gather apples, and then line up to weigh and to pay for them. The farmers’ hard work of growing the crops is being rewarded with the monetary payment from the customers.

Now imagine a different situation. You worked hard and wrote a very good paper and your roommate just copied a couple of paragraphs and inserted them into her own paper because the topics were related. Was this fair? How were you rewarded for your hard work? Just like the farmer was paid for the apples, your roommate should not take your work without making it clear that it was you who wrote it. She should not use your intellectual capital without attribution to you. What she did was an act of plagiarism—intellectual theft.

Imagine that you publish an article in your college newsletter. This article is your intellectual personal property and you hold the copyright, which means that no one has the right to reproduce all or any part of it (i.e. copy it) without your permission. If your roommate wants to distribute copies of your article, she would need to ask your permission in order to respect your copyrights. If, in another scenario, your roommate decides to use some information from your article in her paper, she should provide a citation (the information that will help the reader identify and find your article should they decide to do so). If she is using direct quotes from your article, again, she would need to put double quotes around your words and provide information about the author (you, in this instance) to avoid plagiarism. This avoids intellectual theft and gives credit where credit is due.

However, copyright[1] and plagiarism are just two aspects of ethical authorship with which you need to concern yourself. All writers must respect copyright, i.e. the rights of the author, and avoid plagiarism. However, depending upon what type of information you are using or creating, you may have to make considerations about other forms of intellectual property. Have you heard of patents? If you are planning a career in science and technology-related fields then you also have to learn more about patents. Patents deal with creators’ rights to their invention of new machinery or processes. But machinery and processes are not the only things subject to patent laws. Plants and designs can also be patented. For more information on patent law,[2] consult the United States Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO) Additionally, trademarks and trade secrets are other forms of intellectual property with which you may have to deal.

In addition to being aware of intellectual property concerns regarding copyright, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, you need to be mindful of open access issues which relate to valuable research data and academic publications posted online for everybody to read. This textbook is an example of an open access resource. While it is available widely on the web, you cannot always use the data from open access sources. You often need to ask the author for permission. Many open access publications use licenses from Creative Commons. Creative Commons licensing gives advance permission for certain types of usage but may prohibit some other uses.

There is a lot to learn about using information legally and ethically, but this knowledge will empower you in your academic work and ultimately allow you to succeed. The following examples and tips will get you off to a good start.

Unintentional Plagiarism

Have you ever thought about why teachers and professors seem to spend way too much time urging everyone to be sure to cite all of their sources properly? You’ve heard it all before: footnote this, endnote that, put this in the bibliography, capitalize this word, where are the italics, the commas, periods, hanging indents, yada yada yada! It’s enough to make you give up and just wing it. But hold on a second while you gather your thoughts. Why do your professors always spend so much time urging you to do something that seems to have little practical purpose?


Jackie was working on her 10-page research paper at the last minute. It was 3:30 am and her paper was due in class at 9:00 am. She finished the last sentence at 5:15 am, did a spellcheck and voila! Done! Groggy yet awake she went to class, turned in the paper and waited for her grade. She received an email from her professor that read, “There are some major issues with your research paper that I need to discuss with you. Please see me.” Uh oh. What could it be?

When she nervously went to see him, Professor Muntz told Jackie that she hadn’t cited any of her sources, and because she included a lot of direct quotes in her paper, she was guilty of plagiarism. She received an F on her paper and may be referred to the school administration for academic dishonesty.

Was she really guilty of something that bad? In fact, yes she was. In this chapter we will discuss the importance of managing your information sources and some tips on how to easily and effectively avoid Jackie’s pitfall.

Real World Cases

Students often feel that they are being singled out in regard to plagiarism and academic dishonesty. But that is far from the case. There are numerous examples of scholars and other professionals who have been caught plagiarizing. One such person is Doris Kearns Goodwin, a famous historian who wrote the noted Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2006). She included material in an earlier book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (1987), from three other sources without citing it, according to an article written by Michael Nelson.[3] Although she has since published other works, her reputation has been tarnished, and people may not take her work as seriously because of this. Unfortunately, as Nelson points out in his article, she is not the only well-known historian caught plagiarizing.

Another example, with a dramatic outcome, is that of Eugene Tobin. He was the president of Hamilton College in New York State, when it was discovered that he had included plagiarized material in speeches he had given over the course of almost a decade. He resigned from his position as the head of this prestigious institution, admitting his guilt.[4] Other college presidents and administrators have also been caught violating academic trust: if you try a search using the terms plagiarism and college president, you may be dismayed at the number of results.

Like some of the historians Nelson cites in his article, many students fall into a trap when they do research because they fail to mention where they found all of their information. Thousands of students in schools, colleges, and universities are guilty of committing plagiarism, but often they don’t know they are plagiarizing.

Let’s look at plagiarism and how to avoid it, and then continue on to some other intellectual property issues you may need to deal with.

What is Plagiarism?

In short, plagiarism is when you use words, thoughts, or ideas that belong to someone else without giving them credit. In the classroom (and in the world of publishing), documenting your information sources is the only way others can tell how thorough and careful you’ve been in researching your topic. If you don’t tell readers where your information came from, they may think (and many do) that you either made up the information or “stole” it. Failing to cite your sources is plagiarism.

By managing the sources in your papers, you encourage others to do the same and you can be a go-to expert for your friends and classmates when they need help with how to find out how to cite sources properly. The information and advice you impart may help them avoid serious difficulties. Some students truly don’t know that they are doing something wrong when they paraphrase information without citing the information source. They might feel that paraphrasing the words of someone who is clearly an expert on the topic is the best way to write an accurate paper. And because they aren’t quoting it directly, it doesn’t need quote marks or attribution, does it? While the penalties they receive might (and this is a big “might”) be less severe than someone who buys a paper online or copies and pastes big sections of material into their work, the penalties could still be substantial. Raising your friends’ awareness so they won’t face this situation would be a kind thing to do.

When to Cite

Now that you have gathered all of your information resources, you need to be mindful about how you used them in your research project. There are some very firm rules about what constitutes plagiarism:

  • If you copy a sentence or paragraph verbatim (exactly) from a book, article, website, blog posting, or anywhere online or in print, you must provide information on the author and the publication in which the sentence or paragraph appears. This is known as “citing a source.”
  • If you use some of the exact phrases in a sentence or paragraph, even if you are not copying the whole sentence or paragraph, you must cite your source.
  • If you use original information that you have obtained from an interview or conversation with someone, you must cite your source.
  • If you do not use the exact sentence or phrase but paraphrase it, or use the ideas inherent in the exact sentence or phrase, you must cite your source.
  • If you reprint images, maps, diagrams, charts, or tables, you must cite your source.
  • If you embed video files or audio files into your work, you must cite your source.

When Are Citations Not Needed?

  • You do not need to provide citations for commonly known dates and facts. One guideline is that if a fact appears in more than five sources it is commonly known. However, if it was not common knowledge to you, and you use a source, then go ahead and cite it.
  • You do not need to provide citations for common turns of phrase or idioms, such as “One in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

Five Tips for Avoiding Plagiarism

  1. Consider your need for information. If you are contemplating intentionally plagiarizing something, ask yourself what information you need to finish your assignment and consider alternate means for finding it. Your professor, the Writing Center, and the TAMU Libraries are great places to go to get more information.
  2. Give yourself time. Make sure that you leave enough time to complete your assignment. If you give yourself enough time to complete your assignment you will be able to ask for help when necessary and will not feel the pressure to “cut and paste” in sections of writing.
  3. Take notes. When you are researching, always drop in the last name of the author, or even just a note saying “CITE,” in your writing. Take down as much bibliographic data as you can at the moment. This way you can keep track of your ideas and where they came from. You can format your citations later in the revision process.
  4. Ask for help. If you are unsure about what you need to cite and what you don’t, ask your professor, a librarian, or a Writing Center consultant. Here is the address for the TAMU Libraries contact information: Links for contacting librarians by phone, chat, text, or email are at the bottom of the page. The Writing Center’s website is You can make an appointment to speak with a consultant.
  5. Ask questions about texts and talk to people. You may feel like you don’t understand the assignment or the text and think that the only way to complete your work is to plagiarize. If this is the case, contact the professor (through email or by going to his/her office hours) to talk about the assignment and/or the text. Your professor is there to help you, and one-on-one meetings are available if you feel like you don’t want to ask questions in class. If you don’t want to talk to your professor, bounce ideas off of a friend, family member, or classmate. Talking about your readings is a great way to start coming up with ideas.

Practice Activity

This section contains material from:

Bernnard, Deborah, Greg Bobish, Jenna Hecker, Irina Holden, Allison Hosier, Trudi Jacobson, Tor Loney, and Daryl Bullis. The Information Literacy User’s Guide: An Open, Online Textbook, edited by Greg Bobish and Trudi Jacobson. Geneseo, NY: Open SUNY Textbooks, Milne Library, 2014. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Archival link:

  1. United States Copyright Office, Copyright Law of the United States and the Related Laws Contained in the Title 17 of the United States Code, Circular 92 (May 2021).
  2. Consolidated Patent Laws, USC 35 (March 2021).
  3. Michael Nelson, “The Good, the Bad, and the Phony: Six Famous Historians and Their Critics,” The Virginia Quarterly Review, 78, no. 3 (2002): 377–394.
  4. Maurice Isserman, “Plagiarism: A Lie of the Mind,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 49, no. 34 (2003): B12.


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8.2 Managing Information Copyright © 2023 by Deborah Bernnard; Greg Bobish; Jenna Hecker; Irina Holden; Allison Hosier; Trudi Jacobson; Tor Loney; Daryl Bullis; and Kathy Anders is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.