Is citing necessary in a short work of fiction?

by Katherine
(Watertown, WI)

Question: I am writing a very short story that is a work of fiction (Sci-Fi genre). In it I reference...scientific information, such as the discovery of global warming. If I discuss things in my story, without quoting, do I have to cite it? For example, if I say something in my story along the lines of "We were warned of the potentials of global warming back in 1896 when a scientist named Arrhenius discovered....." does that need a citation? If so, would that be done in MLA citation format?


Answer: As always with questions like this, I am not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice. What follows is simply my understanding based what I have read on the subject.

Providing such a citation would be a pretty unusual thing to do in fiction, unless you are intentionally writing in an academic narrative mode (which you probably aren't).

You are quite correct that you should not quote another published work word for word unless it's in public domain, and even then you should attribute the quotation to the original author. However, in the case of a work published in 1896, chances are it is in public domain (something you could easily check).

More to the point, with a line of dialogue like the example you give above, you are not so much making a claim as referring to a historical fact which falls under the category of common knowledge, which is generally allowed. In other words, you're not claiming it as your own original idea or something you discovered, so you can't get in trouble for it. It's like if I said water molecules are composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, I don't have to provide a citation because this scientific fact is common knowledge. Of course, if the information you are referring to is not widely known, it is a good idea to keep notes on your sources in case an editor or reader raises a question -- much like any journalist would.

Best of luck with the story (which I assume will be a work in the subgenre of clifi).

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