Citing Information

Technology has made information readily available. Thus, the issue of misusing information becomes a concern particularly when you use something and claim it as your own. Ethically and legally, society should recognize that individuals creating “intellectual property” have the right to receive credit and be protected from the incorrect use of their creations. Intellectual property is the result of intellectual activities in the arts, science and industry (Beekman, Computer Confluence, Prentice Hall, 2001) and as such is the property of the creator.

The DMCA and other copyright laws all have “fair use” provisions that let you paraphrase or quote small portions of someone else’s work, provided that you give proper credit to the author for the material you use. For example, if you’re writing a paper for a class and you want to show some great person’s idea that everyone should use, you can summarize the idea in your paper—and then you must indicate whose idea it is and where you got it. This is generally done by adding a pair of things to your paper. 1) Add an in-text reference to the author and publication year of the work used right after the borrowed material in the paper. 2) Add a full citation of the work (author, title, publisher, publication year, etc.) at the end of your paper. If you don’t do these two things, you will probably give at least some of your readers the impression that the material you borrowed originated with you. That’s bad. It’s so bad, it has a name, plagiarism, and it’s a form of fraud (more on fraud below).

More and more information is available via CD-ROMs, the Worldwide Web, online databases, and other electronic communication channels. Such electronically published information is protected by copyright laws just as it was when it was distributed on paper. Generally speaking, then, we're not to access, use, create, or destroy electronically published information without the owner's permission. Current legal doctrine says that publishing information freely on the Web implies the owner's permission to access it (why else would it have been put out there?). However, permission to copy or incorporate the information elsewhere is not assumed; for that you need explicit permission from the information owner.

Quoting and citing information is just as important with computer sources as with traditional written works. Even though computers and the Internet allow easy access for cutting and pasting items, it is considered plagiarism when the creator has not given permission and/or been given credit for his/her work. To be legally and ethically correct, it is imperative to cite where the information was found and give the creator credit even when no copyright is evident. On many campuses, plagiarism, such as cutting and pasting from Internet sources without attribution, can result in severe consequences, ranging from failure of class to suspension or expulsion from the institution.

When using intellectual property, it should be used in the context originally intended and presented correctly so the meaning is not changed from the original intent. Otherwise, this is considered misusing information and also becomes an ethical issue. It is important to note that there is such a thing as "public" information, stuff like the phone book and government publications; public information is not protected by copyright law and can be accessed and used freely.

Blatant misuse of information in which the user knows he/she is plagiarizing but chooses to use the information anyway is an example of fraud. The Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines fraud as "the act of deceiving or misrepresenting" (Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2001). Accidental plagiarism is a form of negligence. Negligence occurs when an individual is unaware or ignorant that he/she has misused intellectual property. Both fraud and negligence are ethically wrong and illegal.

SCENARIO: Ralph Williams wrote a paper for his Geography class about the Grand Teton Mountains. He found some information on the web that worked well into his paper. He did not intend to claim the information as his own but he did not mention in his paper where he got the information. Is this okay?

SOLUTION: He should have quoted the material and then reference the site from which the material was taken. This is true even when the material used is found on the World Wide Web.

To avoid misusing information, individuals need to become educated about how to cite and use intellectual property. Properly citing works can often cover the legal issues when done correctly. Web documents share many of the same elements found in a print document (e.g., authors, titles, dates). Therefore, the citation for a Web document often follows a format similar to that for print, with some information omitted and some added. Courses vary in their style guides for documenting sources. Two popular ones are MLA (usually used in English) and APA (usually used in psychology, social sciences, and education).

Modern Language Association (MLA)

See for a complete description.


Jones, John. Home Page. 1 May 1997 America Online 1 September 2001 <>.

American Psychological Association (APA)

See for a complete description.


American Psychological Association. (1995, September 15). APA public policy action alert: Legislation would affect grant recipients [Announcement]. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved January 25, 1996, from the World Wide Web:

Plagiarizing is extremely unethical, usually illegal, and always a serious violation of school policy that can get you thrown out of a class or worse. Don’t plagiarize. Always give credit where credit is due by properly citing information sources, whether they are electronic or hardcopy.