Documentation, part 5:
The thorny issue of Common Knowledge:
...........Colored footnotes

Here's what to do:

1) Write your paper as you normally would, being careful to document (footnote) all of your facts carefully. Remember always to include page numbers in your footnotes. You will, of course, NOT use footnotes when the ideas are your own--for example, when stating the results of your own careful analysis of theory, facts, or a work of art relating to your topic. Put these first footnotes in BLACK text.

2) When you're done, look critically at your documentation. Which footnotes strike you as documenting "common knowledge"--the sort of thing that a person familiar with your topic would know? These footnotes that you've identified are candidates for being placed in the "common knowledge" category, and--ultimately, but not right away--omitted from the final version of your paper.

3) Double-check these facts that you judge to be candidates for the category of common knowledge, looking for two other solid sources that say the same thing. At this point, it's OK to use a textbook or a reference work, such as Oxford Art Online.

a) When find a second source that says the same thing, ADD another citation within the same footnote (that documents a given fact). Only this time, put the second citation in a DIFFERENT color, such as blue. Be consistent in your use of colors throughout your paper. In documenting common knowledge, your second citation should always be the same color, such as blue

b) Do this again, looking for a third solid source that documents the same fact. Add a third citation, this time in another color, such as red. Again, be sonsistent in your use of colors throughout your paper. Here's an excerpt from the paper by a student who did this very well: EXAMPLE of colored footnotes correctly done (Microsoft Word format).

A trick that will save time later is to mark your triple citations by changing the color of the footnote superscript1 in the text of your paper so that it's very easy to see. This will help when it's time to delete the footnotes with triple citations.

c) You may find that there's some difference of opinion in the sources you're using for common knowledge. This is also a GOOD finding! See the next page ("Why bother with colored footnotes?") for an explanation and how to proceed.

Remember that this is something you do ONLY for facts that you judge are probably common knowledge. Leave the remaining footnotes alone.

4) You'll now have a rather colorful draft of your paper. Some of your footnotes will include triple citations--the first in black, the second in blue, and the third in red. Be sure to end this draft of your paper with a bibliography that includes the sources you used to nail down facts that are common knowledge. In this bibliography you may want to identify sources you used for common knowledge only by changing the color of the text of their bibliographic entries, perhaps putting these entries in red text. Now your common knowledge sources will be easy for you to spot--which is important as you will consider removing some of these works from the bibliography of the final draft of your paper.

© Jan Mainzer