Common knowledge is the knowledge that most neurotypical adults would be expected to know, such as the capital of France and the sum of two plus two. However, this concept becomes a little trickier in terms of academic writing. Read our guide to understand common knowledge in academic writing.
Definition: Common Knowledge
Some facts and ideas are so widely known in mainstream society that it is unnecessary to cite their source. However, it can be difficult to establish what is common knowledge because the way one interprets this idea varies.
There are two categories of common knowledge:
- Information that the general public could reasonably be expected to know.
- Shared knowledge that’s widely known in a group, such as historians, doctors, or lawyers, such as a specific professional field.
When deciding whether it is necessary or not to cite what you believe to be in the realm of common knowledge, make use of three main principles:
- When in doubt, quote.
- Always acknowledge the source of arguments.
- Ask your teachers or lecturers for advice for further clarification.
Citing Common Knowledge
Why does general information not have to be cited in academic papers? How do you know a statement is public knowledge?
- Who is the audience?
- Could the audience argue against the statement?
- Can the statement be verified across several sources?
Consult presentation guides, librarians, writing consultants and professors in your field of study for advice specific to your discipline in quotation material. However, keep in mind that providing a reference for a fact known to all and sundry may, in certain circumstances, be beneficial to your work – for example, if you quote texts, primary sources, controversial information and assertions that cause controversy.
Examples of Common Knowledge
Subjective statements1 include interpretation, opinions, philosophies, and beliefs. It is particularly important to cite emotional or controversial statements:
- Without Oliver Cromwell, the Roundheads would never have won the Civil war;
- Institutional racism is rife throughout all public services in the UK.
Comparison of three scenarios
Here are three statements about Charlotte Bronte that represent three versions; clear common knowledge, debatable common knowledge, and no common knowledge:
This is not widely known as it involves a specific date that is not known by people outside a certain group (fans of the author’s work and academics specializing in 19th-century literature).
If the accuracy of the information in your writing could be questioned, then it is not common knowledge2.
For example, if you gave information about the price of sweets in a region of India in the 1970s, the reader wouldn’t be able to quickly find that information from multiple sources. It’s specific and therefore requires a citation to include in your work.
When we refer to arguments made by someone else, even arguments we encounter often, it is recommended to quote the text in which the statement was invoked. These arguments constitute their authors’ effort and intellectual contribution; the link between the argument and the author should therefore be acknowledged using a citation.
Some information that is often seen and widely accepted may seem factual and known to all. However, some people may consider this same information material to be controversial. When you must cite such information, consider whether the audience you are referring to considers this information to be factual or if they are skeptical about it.
It’s important because not doing so risks being accused of plagiarism, which can seriously impact a person’s academic or professional career.
1 Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Common Knowledge.” August 28, 2001. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/common-knowledge/.
2 Libguides SSJU. “Plagiarism.” Accessed March 15, 2023. https://libguides.sjsu.edu/plagiarism/what-does-not-need-to-be-cited.