Important General Writing Standards

From Observatory

Plagiarism and Proper Attribution

Do not ever plagiarize. It could get you (and your reputation) in trouble—that is the last thing we want for you. Imagine if someone used your words without giving you credit.

Every time you quote or paraphrase someone, put the quoted words in quotation marks, make it clear in the text who said/wrote it and where it appeared or was said if possible, and link to the source if a link is available. Any phrases copied verbatim should be in quotation marks—do not paraphrase incompletely or skip crediting the source. Always make it very clear when words or ideas aren’t yours, and make it clear where they came from. See Ethics and Standards for further explanation on citations, and more technical Tips for Accurate Quoting later in this style guide.


We want your spin, your analysis, your take on a topic, not someone else’s. If your entire article or a significant majority of it is someone else’s words, it’s probably not your article. This includes press releases and government websites.

You must properly identify and credit each organization, individual, or publication you have quoted. It’s best to intersperse your analysis rather than repeat their words, to add value and explanation beyond the original material.

Fair Use, Public Domain, and Copyright

Do not violate copyright. If you do not have permission from a copyright holder to use their words or ideas, you need to be very careful not to plagiarize or violate copyright. We take this very seriously, so please do your homework on this and learn about fair use, public domain, copyright, and attribution.

External Resources on Fair Use, Public Domain, and Copyright

To determine if you are following fair use guidelines when quoting heavily from any cited source(s), consider factors such as word counts and the percentage of the original piece being quoted, etc. See resources about fair use, public domain, and copyright from:

The U.S. Copyright Office

This explains the law in detail but can be confusing. We strongly encourage you to further your understanding by looking at the more approachable resources below.

The American Library Association (ALA)

The American Library Association (ALA) offers tools to evaluate if images or text might be covered under the special fair use or public domain categories, including:

This is an especially helpful resource, with case examples and plain-language explanations of each of the four factors determining fair use. It also explains public domain: “The one sure way to determine whether a work can be used under fair use guidelines is to determine whether the copyright on the work has expired. This is referred to as passing into the public domain.”
This is highly recommended if you are at all unsure about if you are violating or following fair use guidelines.
This is a basic, helpful tool to figure out dates, but not everything old is in the public domain, so read the fine print on the results.


You are responsible for your own fact-checking. Please do your best to make sure facts are correct, including big ideas and details like spellings of names, organizations, events, and places as well as dates. If you are unsure, you can ask your editor, but generally better to leave out things you’re not sure about or else take the time to look them up and confirm you have the facts right. You can even copy-paste (using paste-and-match-style) to make sure there’s no transcription error.


Don’t say anything untrue about a person or organization. If you are alleging something that there’s any chance you might get legitimate backlash for, make sure you have evidence and have included it in your article or discussed it with your editor. When in doubt, leave it out, if the piece can work without it—or else get the evidence you need through legal means.

This reference guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

Reprinting with attribution to the authors for ​​noncommercial use is allowed under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license guidelines, excluding third-party content.

For inquiries regarding content reuse, reprint rights, and licensing, visit the Observatory’s Reuse and Reprint Rights Guidance page.

Last Updated: October 27, 2023

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