Knowing how to write is not knowing how to write

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A month or two ago, but within the space of two weeks, three very different, very similar, situations:

Situation 1 : a student in a school in Asia wrote a comment on an earlier blog post, How Much Plagiarism?  asking for advice. She had misunderstood the instructions; she “forgot to include in-text citations” in the draft of her IB extended essay. All her citations were at the end of the essay. There was no intention to plagiarise.  Since this was a draft, the IB is not involved;  there was still the opportunity to put things right. But she was worried about her school’s reaction which could include note of her transgression on future university recommendations. Her question was, is this excessive?

Situation 2 : an inquiry on an OCC forum: it was the school’s deadline day for submitting final copies of extended essays.  One student, known for his dilatory habits, managed to submit his essay on time. Reading through before authenticating it, the supervisor realised that in the first half of the essay the student had included footnote references for each superscript number in the text. Then the student seemed to have run out of time or stamina, for in the second half of the essay the superscript numbers were there but with no footnoted references to support them. Would it be ethical to allow the student to add the footnotes, under supervision?

Musing on these two scenarios, I remembered a third situation, though in terms of time this was the first, a week or so before the two related here.

Situation 3 : while trying to learn more about Microsoft Word’s bibliography feature, I have come across Citation Placeholders. There are quite a few YouTube videos to show me how to do it, but having watched them, I’m not sure that they are suitable for the way that I write. Worse, I think the way they are presented could lead writers into bad habits. (I am happy to be steered in another direction or persuaded otherwise, but let’s see first where this goes.)

I viewed just two clips, right at the top of the Google search returns.  Both videos showed how to add a placeholder in an already completed essay. What struck me is that writers are advised to edit the automatically generated [Placeholder] with whatever they can remember, an approximation of the author’s name, part of the title, whatever, and come back later to edit the placeholder as necessary, correcting spelling, adding page numbers or other authors and so on.

These three situations are different, sharing a common theme. Each situation features citation problems, citation in the text.

The student in the school in Asia had no citations at all, though she had a full list of Works Cited at the end.

The student in the OCC situation had some citations but had apparently run out of time. He had placeholders of a kind, the superscript numbers, to indicate where he needed to add footnote citations, but those footnotes were missing.

The video clips are, perhaps, further along this continuum; the advice to add what can be remembered of the authors, title, colour of the book whatever and come back later demonstrates intention to declare that these words or ideas are not those of the writer.

Let’s take these three situations in reverse order. Where I feel disquiet with the video clips is that, in their demonstration, they show a prepared piece of text.  In both cases, it is nonsense text of the lorem ipsum variety, several paragraphs of ready-prepared nonsense.

Word 2016 Tutorial Insert a Citation Placeholder Microsoft Training.


In the TeachUComp video, for instance, we see, left, the writer deciding that a citation is needed, so a placeholder is inserted. Then a stab is made at the author’s name, with the intention stated to come back later and edit as necessary.

In Placeholder Citations in Microsoft Word 2013, Allyson Whipple gives similar advice.

In voiceover, she says:

What a placeholder is, say there’s a point in your umm  You’re trying to manage your references but you know you need something but you don’t quite know remember the details and you don’t want to stop and look it up … you can put in a placeholder and make it easy to find later …

… I recommend doing something like if you know part of the title or part of the author’s name I recommend you make that your placeholder just for your own memory purposes … If the placeholder is there then I can come back to it later and fix it.

I have to admit, I often use placeholders – but not Microsoft Citation Placeholders derived from the References ribbon – as I am writing. Sometimes I’m not sure of the accuracy of what I am writing, perhaps even the accuracy of a quotation. Sometimes I am not sure of the authorship. If I cannot resolve these immediately, by checking my notecards or looking for verification online, I will highlight the problem sentence/s or author. Sometimes I will add a comment as well.  I will do this if I have a thought but want to develop it later, not losing my train of thinking as I continue developing my current theme.  Again, I make it stand out, by highlighting it, changing the colour of the font, so I do not miss it when I go back to it.

The difference is that I do this as I go along.  I know when citations are needed as I write. I know what thoughts are incomplete, or need developing or checking. I do not wait until I have finished, then go back to see what I need to check.

It is surely unhelpful to demonstrate writing a complete piece of work AND THEN going back to find the places in which citations are needed. It is not good practice. It can lead to missed citations, and thus plagiarism. It can lead to attribution to the wrong source because the writer has forgotten or mis-remembered which source provided these words, these ideas, this information.

It seems to me that best practice is to write from notecards throughout, so citations can be added as you write, quotations checked for word-for-word accuracy as you write them, paraphrases and summaries and other forms of data checked for accuracy – and to ensure that you have put the right author to the right quotation or summary.

Second-best practice is to highlight when you are not sure of the accuracy of a quotation or your data, not sure of an author’s name. Ideally, this will happen – if it has to happen at all – only occasionally, when you are writing as described in the previous paragraph but a new thought comes to you, an apt quotation, something outside your original mapped ideas. The highlighting stands out – by definition, as it were.

Not good practice is to write the piece, inserting placeholders that you don’t recognise as incomplete, inserting superscript numbers which lead to footnotes that you don’t get round to completing. Intending to go back afterwards may be good intention but it is not good practice.

Terrible practice is when you miss checking and correcting those incomplete or possibly inaccurate citations, terrible when frail memory clicks in and you insert the wrong source. This is what the OCC student did, and he ran out of time.

Why, I wondered, did the student feel unable to explain his situation and ask for an extension? Was he so frightened of internal school punishment that he was willing to risk an inevitable charge of academic misconduct which could blight his future career? Would it be acceptable, ethical, to allow him to add the footnotes, under supervision to ensure that he did not further research, made no other changes to the essay? That might depend on whether he had actually signed off to the effect that he had acknowledged every incidence of use of someone else’s work. It might depend on one’s interpretation of the flowchart in the IB’s Handbook of Procedures, which allows for completed work to be “corrected” in certain circumstances.

Meanwhile, disastrous practice is to include no citation markers and no placeholders, at all.  That is what the student in Asia did, and she was in very hot water indeed.

Where it gets particularly worrisome (in her case) is that she had no intention of cheating. In the stress of writing her essay, she stopped thinking. She had been instructed to check that she had included citations for all of the sources she had used – and she included citations. References. It’s that confusion I mention every so often, the confusion between citations that go in the text and the references to which the in-text citations link, at the end of the paper. Use the terms inter-changeably and students – and teachers – are confused. It happens. Not often, perhaps, but it happens. Here, it did.

If we demonstrate our honesty by citing in the text at point of use, then it seems so important that this is what we do, as a matter of course, a matter of habit – in all our work and from the earliest stages of education – and life. It is not the list at the end which demonstrates honesty, it is citation at the point of use in the text. The Microsoft Placeholder videos demonstrate bad practice; citation as afterthought. The two students exemplify the dangers of this, they demonstrated bad practice, dangerous practice.

I do not know what the school decided to do in the second situation, the citation markers which lacked the citations. I do know what happened to the student in Asia: she pleaded her case with her principal, and he ruled that she should put right her omissions in an extended detention, no further punishment or consequence necessary. She wrote later that she had learned a valuable lesson, learned from her mistake. A mistake she swears she will never make again.

Do we take too much for granted? I wonder. Do we assume that, because the students we teach can write, we assume they know how to write, how to write in academic style, for academic purposes? I’m not so sure.

Rule number one: it seems so simple – and it is simple, for those who know, to those who practice good practice. “Cite as you write.” It’s a simple mantra, easy to remember. Cite as you write and you can’t go wrong. Let’s get the message across!

A footnote on footnotes

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Just as a footnote to my last post, Yes and No – footnotes (in MLA8), there is now a post in the MLA’s Style Center which addresses this very question. I don’t think this page was there at the time I wrote my post, but I won’t swear to that.

The question asked was Are notes compatible with MLA style? – and the answer was much as I suggested: in the absence of specific guidance, follow the suggestions made in the previous edition, MLA7: you can use footnotes (or endnotes) to “offer the reader comment, explanation, or information that the text can’t accommodate,”  and you can make bibliographic footnotes in limited circumstances: “bibliographic notes are best used only when you need to cite several sources or make evaluative comments on your sources.” Footnotes are the exception, not the rule, not if you want to abide by strict MLA style.

[For the purpose of IB assessments, possibly other exam boards too, you should note that the first use is heavily discouraged: such footnotes MAY NOT be read but WILL count towards the word count.]


Readers might want to know that the latest edition, the MLA Handbook, 8th edition, is now available in Kindle format.


Yes and No – footnotes

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A question that comes up regularly in the forums is, “We use MLA; can we use this style with footnotes?”

I think there are two answers to this. The first is “No, you can’t.” The second is, “Yes you can.”

Before I explain my thinking, I will just add that the reason most frequently given for wanting to use MLA and footnotes is “the word count.” If the citation is in a footnote and footnotes aren’t counted in the word count, then the rationale is that using footnotes will save words. This could be crucial in, for instance, an IB Extended Essay.

Q:  Can we use MLA style and footnotes?
A:  No, you can’t.

MLA, the student-level style guide of the Modern Language Association as published in the MLA Handbook, recommended the use of footnotes in the 1st edition, published in 1977;  in the 2nd edition, published in 1984, MLA stated a preference for citation in the text. (This piece of history is gleaned from page xi of the 8th edition, published in 2016.)

The 6th edition (2003) noted that some disciplines using MLA still used “endnotes or footnotes to document sources,” and gave a few examples in an appendix (298 ff). The only recommendation regarding footnotes in the 7th edition (2009) was that Continue reading

Smoke and mirrors

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“Technological solutionism” – a term coined by Evgeny Morozov – offers us solutions to problems we often do not know we have. Some might feel that it sometimes creates new problems, too often without solving the problems it is designed to solve. So often and too often, it fails to do what it says on the tin.

On the other hand, technological solutionism can make big money for the companies behind the so-called solutions. It can blind us to other, often more workable, often more less expensive and more low-tech strategies, approaches and solutions.  Worse still, it can divert attention from the real problems, including situations which might cause the problems in the first place.

I have blogged before about technological solutions which promise far more than they deliver. Turnitin and EasyBib are the ones which come most readily to mind. You can name your own “favourites.”

And now, Microsoft has just released enhancements to Office 365. The announcement is made in an Office Blog article posted on 26 July 2016 with the snappy-catchy title New to Office 365 in July—new intelligent services Researcher and Editor in Word, Outlook Focused Inbox for desktop and Zoom in PowerPoint. The piece is written by Kirk Koenigsbauer. He is a corporate vice president for the Office team, heavy-hitting stuff indeed.  In this post, we’ll be looking just at Researcher and Editor.

In the blog, we read that

Researcher is a new service in Word that helps you find and incorporate reliable sources and content for your paper in fewer steps. Right within your Word document you can explore material related to your topic and add it—and its properly-formatted citation—in one click. Researcher uses the Bing Knowledge Graph to pull in the appropriate content from the web and provide structured, safe and credible information.

and that

Editor assists you with the finishing touches by providing an advanced proofing and editing service. Leveraging machine learning and natural language processing—mixed with input from our own team of linguists—Editor makes suggestions to help you improve your writing.

Powerful tools indeed.  If they work.

Given the first look that Microsoft gives us, they have a long way to go.

First, Researcher. The section heading in the blog reads Continue reading

Seeds or weeds?

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It is sadly ironic when someone writing about plagiarism (with the intention of helping readers understand what plagiarism is and how to write correctly) commits plagiarism.

It happens all too often. I am sure that, in most cases, it is unintentional. The trouble is, readers of their work may sometimes be confused, especially if confused examples are presented. As instances, there are writers on plagiarism who still seem to believe that it is enough to list their sources at the end of a paper.  There are some who appear to think that citation in the text is enough, but are apparently unaware (or who forget) that quoted words demand quotation markers (such as quotation marks or indented paragraphs or a change of font).

I don’t know what to make of the writer of the article, “Planting Seeds,” published in Blossoms: the official newsletter of Abuja Preparatory School (No. 25, 9 March 2016).

The newsletter is aimed at parents. Full credit to the writer for trying to help parents understand what plagiarism is, and understand how students can legitimately use other people’s words and work [“All they have to do is always acknowledge who and where they got it from”]. There is also a section on how some forms of help which parents often give are actually unhelpful, not least because they encourage bad habits and understanding/s. I am particularly impressed that this school takes students up to year 6, ages 10 to 12. I believe the earlier the values of honesty and integrity are inculcated, the better – the awareness of honest use of others’ work is “planting seeds” indeed.

But there are two paragraphs in the newsletter article which give me pause.

The first of these is Continue reading

Self-serving survey?

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When a company (or other group with vested interest) conducts its own research and publishes its own analysis of the results, it is usually worth investigating more deeply. Turnitin has long been a favourite source of disingenuous disinformation (see. for instance, my posts How much plagiarism?, Guilty: how do you plead?, A second look at SEER, and Not as I do, but… ).

Now my attention turns to RefME, the reference generator (unless it is a citation generator; there may be language differences here, as discussed in Language and labels).

RefME has just published a report Survey Reveals Unique Insights to US Students’ Attitudes Towards Plagiarism on two surveys which the company carried out in recent months. It seems a prime example of how not to analyse data, how not to write a report. That’s a brutal assessment, but I think the brutality is justified. Just be sure to get in quick in case the report is edited or deleted.

I think there are (at least) five or six ways in which the report can be considered flawed. Fuller explanation follows the list:

  1. the discussion of the surveys reads at times like an inadequate discussion of the surveys and at times like a press release produced by the RefME publicity bureau;
  2. the report manages to confuse and conflate incorrect or inconsistently formatted references with plagiarism and/or academic misconduct;
  3. the discussion grabs at different research and studies, and suggests (inter alia) that small-scale surveys can be regarded as universal truths;
  4. in grabbing at those different research reports and studies, the writer misreports some and fails to do the homework, to check on the source behind the source;
  5. the report, despite praising RefME for enabling correct and consistent referencing/ endnoting, manages to be incorrect, incomplete and/or inconsistent in at least 11 of its 13 references.
  6. a small matter of several, many, passages which reuse so much wording from source documents that it might be felt that quotation marks are required; some readers might even class these passages as plagiarism.

This is not to denigrate the RefME software itself. I have no opinion there. Until I bought a new computer a few months ago, I found the app hung up too often to enable a valid critique of its performance as a reference (or citation) generator. Now, I find it Continue reading

Language and labels

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Different people have different understandings of the terms “citation” and “reference.” This can – and does – cause confusion. In my classes and workshops, I usually start discussion of use of other people’s work by stating how I use and will be using these terms, following the International Baccalaureate (IB)’s use of them. In brief:

  • citations are the short notes which go in the text, as part of the text or in parentheses;
  • references are the full bibliographic information which goes in the list at the end.

If we all have the same understanding of the terms, we are nearer being sure that we are talking about the same things.

There is much to suggest that many students go through secondary school and enter university believing that they understand how to document their use of source material correctly and appropriately, when all they have learned and practised is making an alphabetical list of sources at the end of their work. When told they need to cite their sources, Continue reading

Copy, paste, EDIT

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Following on in this mini-series of common errors in extended essays: one of the ways in which IBDP extended essay candidates drop marks for  Criterion I: Formal Presentation (Criterion D: Presentation from 2018) is inconsistency in the formatting of references.

IB examiners are instructed that consistency and completeness of references is more important than notions of accuracy, which is good. Given that students are free to use any referencing style that they wish, it is not possible for an examiner to declare that this or that reference is recorded inaccurately, not according to style guide.

But the criterion requires that references are consistently formatted within the list itself. If the reference list is something like this: Continue reading

Back to basics – MLA8 revisited

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I have to admit, I am excited by the latest edition of the MLA Handbook. Gulp! Does that make me some kind of uber-nerd?

I am breaking into my mini-series on common documentation errors in IB extended essays to share my excitement. MLA8 gives us a new way of looking at citation and referencing, very different to the approach taken in the previous edition. What’s more, the hopes I expressed for this new edition (well before it was actually published – see the post MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook) are incorporated in the new approach.

The special delight is because, in basing its new approach on the principles and the purposes of citation and referencing, MLA8 provides us with principles which can be applied to any referencing style or style guide. What you might call a WHYs move, perhaps. Continue reading

Orders are orders

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In my last post, What’s in a name, I discussed the need for clear linkage between the name/s used in an in-text citation and the name/s used to start the entry in the list of References. If the citation reads,

“According to Michaels and Brown, ……”


“‘……’ (Singh 2014)”

then it is helpful to the reader if the entries in the References list start

Michaels, J., & P. Brown….


Singh, V. (2014).

Many students, however, seem unable to make the link. A number of extended essay examples posted by the International Baccalaureate show instances where students manage to mismatch names – detailed in that last post. Two of the instances I listed were essays in which students had used Continue reading

What’s in a name?

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In my last post, Credit where it is due, I discussed IB’s approach to referencing, with special regard to the new Extended essay guide. The guide affects students starting their two-year diploma programme in September this year, for first examination in May 2018.

In an attempt to ensure standard understanding of citation and referencing, IB is instructing examiners to refer to the Awards Committee all cases of inaccurate or inconsistent citation and referencing. This will be, I hope, for the good, for the benefit of students. I fear, however, that the committee will be inundated with such cases.

I have another concern here: the comment (on many commentary forms printed alongside sample essays) reads, “Under the new requirements this essay must be referred as a possible case of academic misconduct due to incorrect and inconsistent citing and referencing.” My concern is that examiners may be wrongly influenced in their overall assessment of the essay by any “incorrect” or inconsistent citation or referencing; they may be prejudiced as they read, and award lower marks than if the student had used “correct” and consistent citation and referencing – even when there is no misconduct, just mistakes. This is a big concern, but I will reserve discussion of this aspect for another post.

For the moment, I want to ignore notions of misconduct and concentrate on consistency, possibly with a view to reducing the number of essays submitted for further consideration.

So, in that last post I discussed the notion of accurate referencing, which could be seen to contradict other IB advice to the effect that “Students are not expected to show faultless expertise in referencing…”. I argued that the notions can be reconciled if “accurate” referencing is taken not to mean accuracy of formatting of the references but instead used to mean that the right authors are cited (as against just any names randomly plucked from a hat). Now, accuracy makes sense.

The right authors, the right names

Some of the comments on the sample essays suggest that essays are referred to the Awards Committee because Continue reading

Credit where it is due

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I have to admit, I’ve long been puzzled by seemingly contradictory statements from the International Baccalaureate. They are highlighted once more in the new Extended Essay Guide (for first examination in May 2018).

On the one hand, we have the statement:

“Students are not expected to show faultless expertise in referencing, but are expected to demonstrate that all sources have been acknowledged” (p. 33 of the pdf guide),

and on the other:

“Producing accurate references and a bibliography is a skill that students should be seeking to refine as part of the extended essay writing process … Failure to comply with this requirement will be viewed as academic misconduct and will, therefore, be treated as a potential breach of IB regulations” (p. 88).

Can we reconcile the suggestion that “faultless expertise” is not required while at the same time requiring “accurate references” – especially given that “correctness” is impossible to judge, given that IB allows use of any recognised style guide. Continue reading

Tangled trail

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In the course of this blog, I have engaged in the occasional tortuous tangled trail.

I doubt if any of my trails – or trials – is as complicated as one recently followed by Debora Weber-Wulff. In her latest blog post, A Confusing Pakistani Plagiarism Case, she relates how she tried following up a report in the Pakistani Express Tribune, Confession: Ex-HEC head apologises for plagiarism.

Her difficulties involved trying to find the original paper which the former chair of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) might or might not have co-authored and which might or might not have been included in this writer’s CV and which might or might not have appeared in an academic journal; the paper might or might not have included plagiarised material. This last doubt arises because any plagiarism in the paper might not be considered plagiarism on the (questionable) grounds that the paper was published before Pakistan had legislated any policies regarding plagiarism.

Weber-Wulff sums up her investigation and the issues Continue reading

MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook

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Heads up: MLA – the Modern Language Association – is about to release the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook.

The MLA site says it will be available some time in April, but warns that the online version of the 7th edition will not be available after 31 March., the American warehouse, gives a release date of March 14, 2016 (four days ago at time of writing) – but also states “This title has not yet been released.”, the British warehouse, gives a release date of 30 April 2016.

Two things catch the eye immediately, the subtitle and the price.

The Amazon US site carries no sub-title at all.



The Amazon UK site gives the title as “MLA Handbook: Rethinking Documentation for the Digital Age (Mla Handbook for Writers of Research Ppapers).” Ignoring the typo and the punctuation of the bracketed instance of MLA, we see what is possibly a new approach: “rethinking documentation…“.

This notion of a new approach is borne out in the price, $11.42 in US and £10.50 in UK. That compares with $16.79 and £18.50 respectively for the still available 7th edition.

It is not necessarily generosity behind the reduction in price for the new edition. The 8th edition is 145 pages against the 292 pages of the 7th edition – the new edition is Continue reading

Snake (in the grass)

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A recent posting in an OCC forum* got me investigating again.**  The post included a recommendation for the free “plagiarism scanner” Viper.

I have warned about Viper, and its parent company in an earlier post, Authentic authenticity. There I noted that Viper’s then Terms and Conditions included the statement

When you scan a document, you agree that 9 months after completion of your scan, we may upload your essay to our student essays database so that other students may use it to help them write their own essays. You agree that any right you may have to remuneration for such use of documents is waived.

Some of the other sites using that same “student essays database” are paper mills, selling on pre-written student essays. Viper and Scanmyessay may be free to use, but the cost is the possible loss of one’s original essay, one’s rights to it, and the possible loss of one’s reputation.

That wording is slightly different Continue reading

In other words…

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The usually excellent Jonathan Bailey has, I fear, fallen short of excellence in his latest post in the WriteCheck blog.

Granted, he upholds that standard in much of the post – How to paraphrase. It is good advice – but there is, to my mind, one vital notion missing.

He gives a three-step guide to good paraphrase: read and understand what you are reading, put it aside and don’t look at it again, then note or write fully what you remember as most important, the “key points.”

Bailey does not define “key points.” I would make the point that what is key may well depend on your purpose, why you want to make those points, why you think they are important and worth noting.

That is a minor point. The big point I think he has missed is that, Continue reading

Another fine can of worms

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In my last post, I reflected on text-recycling. This is the practice of re-using one’s own work without acknowledgement. While (I think) most academics frown on the practice and call it self-plagiarism, it seems to be accepted and possibly widely practiced by academics and their professional bodies – in very limited circumstances – in a number of disciplines.

In those fields which do accept text-recycling – or at least turn a blind eye to the practice – it is claimed to be a useful device for speeding the writing process and for ensuring consistency of language when compiling, for instance, a review of the literature, or when describing methods and methodologies. It is not seen as acceptable to copy-paste someone else’s literature review, but it is acceptable (in those fields in which the practice is accepted) to copy-paste one’s own previously published literature review, as long as, for instance, material which is irrelevant for the current study is deleted.

I am not sure that I accept the argument, but, as Cary Moskovitz has argued Continue reading

Cans of worms (and other kettles of fish)

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I have long been aware of the notion of self-plagiarism, reusing one’s own work without acknowledging the earlier use. The post Elusive allusions is especially to the point.

That post was built around a piece by Paul Greenberg, In Praise of Plagiarism, in which he suggests that the re-use of a master’s prose (he names Cervantes and Shakespeare) may be excusable (along the lines of: you cannot say it any better than a master, so why try?). Not excusable, he continues, is the case when a plagiarist uses “… bad prose. It’s not the theft that troubles in such cases, but the poor taste of the thief.” Possibly in an attempt to establish a claim to literary taste and mastership, Greenberg’s January 2015 piece included large chunks of an article he had published in 2007, which in turn included large chunks of an article he had published in 2000.

I have recently come across the term “text recycling,” the practice of re-using one’s own words in new pieces, without noting that the text has been used before. Plagiarism? Self-plagiarism? Where is that line to be drawn?

Many sites and sources use (without thinking?) and usually attribute the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of plagiarism such as ” the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something” This definition be found in the online Meriam Webster Dictionary as well as in myriad resources which have used this definition.

But if the words or ideas are one’s own and not someone else’s, then it cannot be plagiarism, can it? Self-plagiarism? Not by the Merriam-Webster definition.

Where it gets complicated, even more complicated, is that, in some disciplines, it seems that text-recycling, the re-use of one’s own words may be – in some circumstances Continue reading

What’s common about common knowledge?

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A participant in a recent workshop had a cautionary tale to tell: one of her school’s brightest students, one who scored 40 points in her IB examinations (out of a maximum 42 for the six subjects), had been found guilty of plagiarism in her extended essay. This merited a straight Fail for the essay and that meant she could not receive a diploma (normally awarded to students scoring 24 or more points, with at least a D in Extended essay and Theory of knowledge).

During the investigation, the student accepted that she had not provided a citation for the passage which had been questioned – and declared that, as it was common knowledge, there was no need to cite it. Without seeing the essay and the passage in question, it is not possible to comment on the merit of this claim or to decide whether the examiner and the Awards Committee were over-harsh – or if they were perfectly justified in their decision.

It is a salutary reminder. I always advise classes and workshops of the five golden rules of citation: Continue reading

Zero credibility

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BBC News today carries the story of Mariam Malak, The star pupil who scored zero in all her exams.

It seems that Mariam expected to score highly in Egypt’s high-school graduation exams. She had such a good record that she, her family, her school expected her to be among the country’s top-scoring students. She expected, and was expected, to score well enough to make it to medical school.

Instead of which, she managed to score a zero in all seven exams. It is pretty difficult to score a zero in one exam, never mind seven. According to the BBC report, “To get the minimum possible score, a pupil must more or less leave the paper blank.”

First thoughts, evidently, were that she had been discriminated against because she is a Coptic Christian in a Muslim country. Then corruption was suspected; now it seems likely that Mariam’s papers were switched with someone else’s papers, someone who had written out the questions – but nothing else. This seemed especially likely when a handwriting test showed that Continue reading

Lighten the load

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At a recent in-school workshop, one of the year 11 students put up her hand and asked, “Is referencing taken as seriously at university as it is in this school?”

Good question – but maybe a sad question as well.

This student seemed to have the wrong understanding. The question suggests that she sees citation and referencing as an empty chore, a hoop to be jumped through, some kind of torture that teachers enjoy inflicting on students, without point or purpose.

She did understand that citation – in-the-text indication that words or ideas or data or information does not originate with the writer, along with quotation marks or markers as and if necessary – demonstrates honesty and integrity (as discussed in Nothing to fear).

But she seems not to have understood – yet – that or how referencing adds to one’s writing, enhances it. Referencing shows that the writer is ready to take part in conversation Continue reading

When you get wrong answers to the wrong questions…

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There has been a bit of a splash in the last few days, publicity regarding a study of Turnitin by Susan Schorn of the University of Texas.

iSchoolGuide, for instance, splashed an item by Sara Guaglione: University Of Texas At Austin Writing Coordinator Susan E. Schorn Finds Turnitin Software Misses 39 Percent Of Plagiarized Sources, and EducationDive posts a similar take on the story, this by  Tara García Mathewson, Plagiarism detection software often ineffective.

There is not a lot new here, not for regular readers of this blog. Turnitin is ineffective.

Both articles are based on a post in InsideHigherEd by Carl Straumsheim, What Is Detected? worth reading, for its content and for the comments it has generated. Again, not a lot new, not for regular readers of this blog. Turnitin is ineffective (as are other so-called plagiarism detectors, it is not just Turnitin which is problematic).

Straumsheim goes further (than Guaglione and Mathewson), pointing to Turnitin’s propensity to assign false negatives Continue reading

Nothing to fear

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A colleague recently told me of a teacher in her school who seems paranoid about students making mistakes in their referencing. He hounds them. Commas, UPPER and lower case, shape of brackets and parentheses, order of elements, everything – everything must be as per style guide, lest they be accused of academic dishonesty. Tortuous exercises, harangues, endless tests, mini-style guides, all coupled with careful, minute checking of every piece of work and submission to Turnitin to boot … for fear of plagiarism.

The students, it seems, are so scared of making mistakes that their writing is sometimes forced, their thinking is blunted. Many of them spend more time on getting the references right than they spend reading and writing. A few, it seems, prefer not to read or to use other people’s work at all – it saves the bother of referencing (and limits their awarenesses in other ways?).

It’s a shame and a disservice. It is wrong. It is wrong, not least because Continue reading

Somewhere, over the spectrum …

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Shades of grey?

It is tempting to think of plagiarism in terms of black-and-white, either a writer has committed plagiarism – or s/he hasn’t.

There are plenty of grey areas, of course, especially when considering paraphrases or summaries, or the grey areas of common knowledge or of self-plagiarism (duplication of work). But by and large, plagiarism is clear-cut: a piece of work which appears to be the work of the present writer but which lack the indicators that show that this is the words, work or ideas of somebody else, that is plagiarism. Probably. Possibly.

Issues such as intent and extent might be of consideration when determining the consequences, but those are other issues, it is plagiarism or it isn’t. Cases in which plagiarism is suspected but cannot be proven will (usually, in education situations) be given the benefit of the doubt: it isn’t plagiarism. It is clear-cut, black-and-white.

Black-and-white. If the signals are not there, signals that indicate that these are someone else’s exact words, or the citation which indicates that these are someone else’s words or ideas, and it can be shown that the words or ideas originated elsewhere, it’s plagiarism.

Black-and-white (and shades of grey).  It is or it isn’t.

I often use Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” activity* in workshops (with permission, of course). Carroll gives us six situations, six descriptions of work starting with no attribution or signal or bibliographical reference, and then increasingly more information is included in each scenario. Example 1 is clearly plagiarism, example 6 is clearly good practice, and, as this is a continuum, we can draw a line: that example would be considered as plagiarism, the next example is not plagiarism. Where do we draw the line?

This is a useful activity. I have often found that, even though plagiarism is a matter of black and white, teachers often draw that line in different places. Some draw their line too low, and would accept work which other teachers would rate as plagiarism – and, sometimes, some draw the line too high, and would refuse work which most would rate as acceptable.  Students too. We all know what plagiarism is – except that we don’t all agree. More grey than black-and-white?

Definitions are not always clear either, and the terms used to describe plagiarism or to explain good practice are frequently confused and confusing. Examples are often inconsistent and advice given is frequently wrong. Worst might be those bodies which give examples and state, clearly, categorically and mistakenly, that this is the only way to cite and reference, and that anything else is unacceptable. The SQA muddle which I highlighted recently is a case in point.

The worst of that SQA mess was the guide for Advanced Higher Chemistry which states Continue reading

Not such a bad idea?

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It’s a convoluted story.

First, a memorandum was leaked (shortly before the recent UK general election) which was apparently an account of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon saying, in private conversation, that she would prefer that David Cameron won the election and stayed on as Prime Minister, rather than Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Opposition.

Given that SNP and Miliband’s Labour party have much in common – especially in their joint opposition to Cameron’s Conservative party – and they seemed to be natural allies, and given that there had been much scare-mongering about the stranglehold which the SNP would have if Labour won the election, this was a hugely damaging allegation. It was damaging for the SNP as well as for Miliband’s party.

Sturgeon denied making the comment.

Then it was announced that the leak had been authorised by Alistair Carmichael, a Lib-Dem member of Cameron’s coalition government.

Carmichael denied authorising the leak.

Since the election, which the Conservative party unexpectedly won handsomely, there has been a Cabinet inquiry into the leak of the memorandum. It seems that Carmichael did Continue reading