Less is more (in this case)

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An interesting post in the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) Projects discussion forum on the OCC just recently: “if a student uses both MLA and APA throughout the report” would this be regarded as demonstrating “substantial research skills” (for middling marks) or “excellent research skills” (for top marks)?

My two penn’orth was that this was and is not good practice. While I could not comment on interpretation and application of criteria in an MYP assessment (since my experience is mainly with Diploma Programme (DP) students, several years older, and in any case I am not an examiner), good practice is the use of one recognised referencing style, not a mixture of two or more different styles. After some thought, I added that a DP examiner might look more closely at an essay which used two or more referencing styles, as this could be an indicator of plagiarism.

It is that afterthought which earned me a personal message – is it plagiarism to use a mix of citation or referencing styles?

My answer: No. It is not plagiarism to use several different styles, just as it is not plagiarism to make formatting mistakes in citation and referencing. If the writer signals that “this” is not her/his own and indicates direct quotation if direct quotation has been used, then it is not plagiarism. Formatting mistakes, including the use of different citation styles, are not plagiarism.

It’s the use of two different styles which might indicate less than original thought and suggest that further investigation might be necessary.  It might indicate poor use of secondary sources. It sometimes happens that a writer sees a neat quotation – and instead of citing the source (book, magazine, web page, whatever) on which the quotation is actually found, instead cites the source as given in the book (magazine, web page, whatever).  It’s often done, too often done, and too often there is no check that the quotation itself and the source as cited are accurate.

Normally, a reader would not be alarmed or alerted. Usually one cannot tell if the writer found the quotation in the original source as cited, or has found the quotation elsewhere but still cited the original source. Usually one takes it on trust that the writer found the quotation in the source as cited.

Sometimes, red flags are raised.  In several earlier posts, in particular Not just honesty and Thirty percent, I have explained how one particular and often-repeated-without-checking factoid always raises red flags for me. In this particular instance, it is because I know that the oft-quoted sentence is factually wrong, and I know that the company which made the claim (the source which is usually given without checking) deleted the page about 8 years ago. Writers who use the quotation today have lazily accepted other lazy writers’ claims, have not checked the facts, have not gone to or found the original, mistaken, source.

When writers use two different citation styles or two different referencing styles, it might signal similar and careless use of secondary sources. Use of different styles should raise red warning flags.  On several occasions, the use of different citation styles has made me look at an essay more carefully; sometimes writers copy-paste not just the quotation and the citation they find in a secondary source, sometimes they copy complete paragraphs. There was something of this in the Foreign Policy Journal papers I discussed in the Nice like you, Ivi… series I wrote on earlier this year.  Using the quotations, citations and references found in another source might not be plagiarism in itself (if done and signalled correctly) but it might lead to other discovery of inappropriate use of other people’s material.

In the case of the MYP student, it is worth a quiet discussion with the student as to her working methods. Where did she find those quotations, why did she use the two different styles?  All might be well.  There might be a need for careful explanation of the proper way to use quotations of quotations and the proper way to use other people’s reference lists (and to make sure that the lesson is understood, learned, and practiced).  It might be even more problematic.

But of itself, it is not plagiarism to use two different citation styles. It’s just not good scholarship.




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