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 academic honesty has little if anything to do with correctly formatted references. Citation, yes, the signals and indications in the text which say, this is not mine, I got these words, thoughts, figures, ideas from somebody else, and I am showing when these are the exact words through my use of quotation marks/indentation/whatever. That is where the honesty lies and, in most style guides, “formatting” these citations is relatively straightforward.

Nor does it matter, in terms of (academic) honesty, if the formatting is wrong, as long as the signal and the intention is clear, and the source cited is the source used. (For more on this, see my previous post, Somewhere over the spectrum).

Referencing, the list of sources cited with all the details which allow readers to find the exact source used, that has little connection with honesty. Referencing is academics. “Correct” formatting demonstrates scholarship, worthiness of joining the academic conversation. Incorrectly formatted references are the equivalent of mistakes in grammar or spelling; not good, not scholarly – but not plagiarism either.

Correctly formatted citations? Easy – relatively easy! There is not a lot which has to be remembered. At its simplest, the author’s name (in parentheses at the end of the sentence) is enough (along with any necessary quotation marker/s).

Slightly more difficult, author’s name, date and page if and as appropriate for the style guide being used.

The most important rule is to signal quotations (simple copy-and-paste, word-for-word use of someone else’s exact words) with quotation marks, or any other recognised signal or marker which indicates a quotation. The signal most commonly used (after quotation marks) is a block quotation or indented paragraph. A change of font is sometimes used. There are conventions for indicating when words have been left out from a word-for-word quotation, or for indicating when the writer has changed or added words to the original, usually for grammatical sense or for explanation. These are more advanced uses of quotations. When introducing the notion of quotations and quotation markers, best advice is not to over-complicate. Introduce the advanced options at an appropriate time.

The second most important rule is to indicate that the words, the quotations, the ideas, the data, the thoughts, the images, the whatever, originate elsewhere, not with the present writer. Ideally, the source will be known and can be indicated and identified. Even more ideally, the source can be indicated according to the style guide in use. Less ideally, less scholarly, any indication that the words, ideas, thoughts, whatever originate with someone other than the writer demonstrate honesty. It is not scholarly to write, “I once read that …” but it is honest. The writer cannot be charged with plagiarism.

My favourite illustration of this point is Jamie McKenzie who, in an article Scoring Power Points published in 2000 wrote

PowerPointlessness (a term I first encountered on a trip to Australia) is a problem that reaches beyond schools into the business world.

McKenzie does not know who coined the word. He probably wishes he had. He is honest: he is saying, as it were, “This is not my word, it’s a new word and somebody deserves the credit; it expresses just what I want to say.”

Two rules, just two rules. Quotation markers, and indication that the source is other than the present writer. Nothing too difficult, nothing to be afraid of.

One thought on “Nothing to fear

  1. Pingback: Lighten the load | Honesty, honestly…

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