paper head with brain open to learning common knowledge

When Common Knowledge Isn’t So Common

A cat is a common pet. Chocolate is a common candy. The fact that trees are plants is common knowledge… but what does ‘common knowledge’ mean exactly?

Whether your teacher requires MLA, APA, Chicago Manual of Style, or another citation format, you already know how important it is to cite the sources used in any academic papers you write. But you might not know about a little citation loophole that we call ‘common knowledge’. Interested?

What is common knowledge?

Common knowledge is, as the name suggests, information that could reasonably be known by the average person. For example:

  • Grass is green
  • Fish live in water
  • China is a country in Asia
  • An adverb is a part of speech
  • Ice melts when exposed to heat
  • Committing plagiarism is bad

Common knowledge could also be a fact that not everyone would know off the top of their heads, but that’s been generally verified and could be confirmed easily. For example:

  • Missouri became a US state in 1821
  • Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit
  • A subordinating conjunction joins independent and dependent clauses.
  • Riga is the capital of Latvia
  • Naira is the currency of Nigeria
  • Depending on its use, “which” can be a pronoun or an adjective

When common knowledge not so common

When thinking about whether something is common knowledge or not for academic purposes, consider your audience and the context.

For example, if you’re a psychology major then you could reasonably assume that the person reading your paper (i.e., your psychology professor), will already have a good understanding of Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory and wouldn’t need you to cite a source about it. However, if you were referencing this theory as part of a history or English paper, it would be reasonable to cite your sources to allow your lecturer to look it up.

Ask yourself:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What can I reasonably assume they already know?
  • Will they want to know where I got my information?

If in doubt, always cite

Using the above example, there are still many times when a psychology student would need to cite information when referencing Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory. It all hinges on the question: “What can I reasonably assume that they already know?”

For example, the following statement would need a source citation, as it’s very specific information that may not even be known to some psychologists:

The Nobel-prize winning physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was inspired by the progressive ideas of I.M. Sechenov, the father of Russian physiology.

You should also always follow with the question, “Will they want to know where I got my information?” Even if your subject professor knows something, they might still want to check where you found the information and which sources you used for your research.

If you need any help with formatting your citations correctly, you’ll find an MLA and APA citation generator at EasyBib.com (other citation styles are also available). You can also find information on how to set out a works cited page MLA, how to do an annotated bibliography MLA style, and much more.