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As part of a freshman Computer Science course, I've been assigned the task of writing an MLA-format essay on a relatively fundamental subject within the field. The instructor stated that "This essay may require additional research outside of the text." However, I'm able to completely describe the topic entirely from my own knowledge and experience.

In this sort of situation, is it implied that I must cite at least a few external sources, or is it acceptable to write an essay entirely from my own personal knowledge?

And, if so, do I omit the Works Cited page entirely or just put "None" under the Works Cited heading?

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    It would be worth asking your instructor. In general for academic research papers, one does include citations, because original academic research builds upon existing knowledge. – Dave Clarke Apr 21 '14 at 19:47
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(this might strictly speaking be out of scope of this site, but I'll answer anyway as I think the question in general comes up quite often)

Generally, when one is asked to write a scientific paper of some sort in university, there is an explicit or implicit expectation that you will use references. Often, students think this is unnecessary because they feel they know already "everything", or at least enough, about the subject without searching through the literature.

This is usually a fallacy for a number of reasons:

  • Oftentimes, students check web pages like this one and learn that in a published research paper, a certain level of common ground can be expected and does usually not need to be referenced. However, what "can be expected" is clearly dependent on the type of paper you are writing, and a published research paper works differently than a term paper in a freshman course.
  • Further, there is an underlying misunderstanding of what one needs to reference. References are not only required for what you are learning from literature "right now", i.e., in the current class. The things you already know you probably did not research on your own, entirely independently. You learned them in a previous course, and (maybe long before that), there was a paper or textbook that introduced these concepts.
  • Keep in mind that any paper writing assignment in a course is foremost a learning experience. One of the goals is that you should learn to research additional material (hence the "This essay may require additional research outside of the text."), and to cite it correctly. Circumventing this learning goal by basically just writing down what you feel does not require citation usually does not make instructors happy.
  • Generally, writing (only) about your "own experience" is a bit of a fallacy in itself. You should understand that you are in that case basically generalizing from a sample size of 1 (you / your experience). Let's look at an example. Maybe you have, for instance, worked a bit as software engineer, and hence believe that you do not need to read the literature in order to write a paper about software engineering processes (I am making examples up here). However, in that case, you know exactly your own company processes, and know little about how everybody else is building software. This is where you would look over published papers for more rigorous studies.

All that being said, in the end Dave Clarke's comment is accurate: It would be worth asking your instructor.

  • It is a standard assumption that you do not need to cite "common knowledge" in your own field. In physics, for instance, you don't need to reference Newton's second law or Schrödinger's equation. Typical "textbook" material doesn't need to be referenced, unless you're quoting specific text. – aeismail Apr 21 '14 at 21:05
  • @aeismail in a research paper yes. In a freshman's term paper, the level of what should be considered common knowledge should be significantly lower. Correct? – xLeitix Apr 21 '14 at 22:04
  • Well, basically the level would be what a freshman in CS would likely know. – aeismail Apr 21 '14 at 22:17
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    Just to add, the functions of citation include 1) giving others a chance to find out more about the topic 2) giving others a chance to verify that you've understood the original source correctly 3) give credit to the original source. Even if someone is writing something based on their own knowledge, crediting the sources they originally learned it from still serves all three functions. (Of course, a freshman essay is probably only read by your professor, but it's still good to get into the habit of proper referencing.) – Kaj_Sotala Apr 23 '14 at 8:35

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