When writing academic papers and essays, or preparing any other kind of college project, considering your reader should seem like a pretty logical thing to do. However, when you’re in the thick of things—sourcing research, forming your evaluation and editing (then editing again!), all with deadlines looming—this simple step is easily skipped over. Big mistake!
Looking at your paper from your reader’s perspective is essential, but to do this you first need to determine their level of common knowledge within the specific subject area. You can then tailor your work accordingly.
What Is Common Knowledge?
Common knowledge is defined as information that you could reasonably expect most people to know. It’s essentially those facts and figures that we have floating around in the backs of our heads, but we can’t really pinpoint how they came to be there. The names of world leaders and capital cities are usually considered common knowledge, for example.
However, when you’re applying the common knowledge test to a specific subject area, the rules are a little different. What could reasonably be assumed to be common knowledge for one person, might be completely fresh information to another. This is why knowing your audience is so important.
If your research paper subject is the Big Bang theory, you can assume that your physics tutor has a higher level of common knowledge than your average physics student. And if you are presenting to a class of your peers, you can assume that they will have a lower level of common knowledge than your physics tutor, but a higher level of common knowledge than, say, an English major.
Let’s look at some statements and if/when they can be considered common knowledge:
The Big Bang theory states that the universe expanded from a single point, and is still expanding today.
This can reasonably be considered common knowledge.
The Big Bang theory states that the universe was formed 13.7 billion years ago, when an infinitely hot, dense center (known as a singularity) began to rapidly expand.
This can reasonably be considered common knowledge among physics students.
The Big Bang theory states that only the first two elements on the periodic table, hydrogen and helium, existed in the early universe.
This can reasonably be considered common knowledge among physics tutors.
Referring to a scientific study proving the above, US Santa Cruz doctoral student Michele Fumagalli said, “It is very good news because the existence of gas without metal has been predicted by the Big Bang theory but never observed.” (“Elemental gas clouds”)
This can’t reasonable be considered common knowledge.
How Does This Affect My Paper?
The level of common knowledge that you assume your reader to have matters for three reasons:
- Terminology used
Some terminology is very subject-specific. You can usually use this confidently and without explanation when writing for your subject tutor or your peers.
- Level of explanation
The level of explanation that you need to give will differ depending on your audience. If you are writing for a layperson you will need to provide a more detailed (but not too technical) level of explanation, to ensure their understanding of an unfamiliar subject/topic.
- Citing your sources
Whether you’re required to cite a source will depend on whether you can assume the information to be common knowledge for your reader. Citations are an extremely important element of your academic work, and you’re usually expected to correctly cite all sources using both in text citations and either a works cited list or chicago style annotated bibliography, in your lecturer’s choice of format. The exception to this rule is when something is considered common knowledge.
“Elemental gas clouds formed minutes after the Big Bang formed”. ZME Science, 27 October 2017, https://www.zmescience.com/space/elemental-gas-clouds-formed-minutes-after-the-big-bang-found/.