I read a quote a long time ago, but did not know the origin. I want to use it in a paper I am writing, so I tried researching to find out who is the source of the quote.

The quote is "We are the universe trying to understand itself." and I believe it was Carl Sagan who said/wrote it.

Would it be appropriate to credit him in my paper, even though I cannot find the exact source and am not 100% sure he said it?

  • I believe the complete dialogue is this: "We believe that the universe itself is conscious in a way we can never truly understand. It is engaged in a search for meaning. So it breaks itself apart, investing its own consciousness in every form of life. We are the universe trying to understand itself." It is said by a character called Delenn from the 1995 series "Babylon 5: Passing Through Gethsemane" Season 3 ep 4. But I am not sure about Carl Sagan. – Amin Mohamed Ajani Aug 7 '12 at 8:36
  • it is not a qoute by Sagan, though it is a paraphrasing of what he said in "Cosmos" episode many many years ago called "the shores of the cosmic ocean". what he said was "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." similar, yes, but the quote you asked about was Delen from babylon 5 – user8344 Mar 30 '14 at 21:17

No, it would not be appropriate.

It's quite possible that nobody would check you up on this, but quote attributions are expected to be, you know, correct. Mis-attributing a quote might be an honest error, but it's more likely to be a case of insufficient research, or even intentionally lending weight to your work by leaning on an existing respected personality (for example, like so).

In the example you've given, this is very evident: if I Google the quote, I get a lot of hits for an identical quote from a character on 90's SF TV show Babylon 5. You really don't want anybody even considering that maybe you stole a Babylon 5 quote and said it was from Carl Sagan. My Googling also reveals references to Carl Sagan (unsubstantiated) and Charles R. Pellegrino (Ghosts of Vesuvius) - look at this discussion of the same quote.

If your paper is not going to be held to rigorous expectations of research and formality, you might write that the quote is "often attributed to" Carl Sagan. Alternatively, choose one of the similar quotes whose source you are certain of. (Quoting from Babylon 5 is perfectly fine, as long as it's properly attributed!)

Bottom line: don't attribute unless you're certain. If you're not certain, then either say so, or find a different quote.

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  • Thanks, that was helpful. Yes I know a character on B5 said it, but I'm lead to believe that isnt the source. But thanks for the help. Advice taken. – Michael Aug 8 '12 at 3:26

Try something like this:

This quote is often attributed to Carl Sagan, but I can find little evidence to support that attribution. Regardless, I think this quote is important because...

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Can you Google the quote with Carl Sagan? Any other information you might have to narrow it down? At least you can confirm whether it is him, and be sure that the quote is correct.

I have looked, and there seems to be some evidence that it was Sagan, but you would need to confirm for yourself, especially that he was not quoting someone else. TBH, it sounds rather like a Sagan original.

I suspect the Babylon 5 quote took it from Sagan.

If you can identify that he appears to have said it, then you can reasonably credit him with it, as long as this is not a formal academic paper than needs a definitive reference.

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Agree with Standback and Jason Baker.

If you aren't sure of the source of a quote, you should say so, not just give your best guess without qualification.

(Actually, I'd say that for any fact you mention. If it's debateable whether Thomas Jefferson was really influenced by Herbert Fromme when writing the Declaration of Independence (a claim I just made up), you should say "Some theorize that ..." or whatever, not just flatly say it's true.)

It's fairly conventional with debatable quotes to give the quote and then instead of saying "-- Carl Sagan" or whomever, to put "attributed to Carl Sagan", or when really debateable, "sometimes attributed to Carl Sagan". In less formal writing, people sometimes say, "I think it was Carl Sagan who said that ..." If you are just quoting some statement you consider clever or interesting and who said it is not particularly important, a couple of words like this to indicate that you are not sure of the source should be plenty.

If you are actually relying on the expertise or authority of this person to make an important point, then if it's questionable I'd go to a little extra effort to make that clear. To take an extreme example, if you are claiming that the Foobar Party is a bunch of racists based on an outrageous statement made by their leader, but there is some debate whether he really said it, I think it would be very unfair to baldly say, "As their leader said ..." In such a case you should at the least make clear that he denies he ever said this or whatever the story is. If it's really important you should say what the evidence is either way. I've read articles where someone adds a quick qualifier like, "As their leader is reported to have said ...", which strikes me as dishonest: they stick in the "reported" so they can protect themselves if challenged, while trying to give the reader the impression that this is an established fact. I doubt anything this extreme applies to your Sagan/Bab-5 quote, but if in context you're relying on the reputation or authority of Mr Sagan to make some important point, and not just that you think this was a cute comment, then proper attribution becomes important.

Side note: The fact that a statement was made by a character on a television show does not necessarily mean that the writers of that show invented it. They may be quoting someone else -- whether Sagan in this case or whomever. No one expects a TV show to give proper attribution of quotes. I'm not saying the writers of that show didn't invent this quote, I have no idea. Just considering the possibility.

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