It takes time

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One of the basic tenets of this blog is that we do students a disservice when we give them the impression that the main purpose of citing and referencing is to “avoid plagiarism.”

The way I see it, “avoiding plagiarism” is at best a by-product of citation and referencing. It is a long way from being the main or the only reason for the practice. It makes for angst (“what if I get it wrong?”) and it leads to confusion. Because of the nit-picking demands of getting one’s references absolutely perfect, it can lead to boredom. It leads to taking short-cuts, to avoidance of using other people’s work in support of one’s own ideas and statements, to a loss of the writer’s own voice and ideas.

At the same time, as demonstrated by repeated uses of Jude Carroll’s Where do you draw the line? exercise, there are wide differences between what different teachers class as plagiarism. This serves further to confuse, as when a student who has had work long accepted finds her standard practice is suddenly condemned by a new teacher. Or, worse still, by an examiner. (More on Carroll’s exercise in Somewhere, over the spectrum …).

Being honest, saying when you are using someone else’s words or ideas or information, that should be our practice. The by-products of this, adding credibility and support and boosting us as thinking researchers who know the subject and have read widely, adding trustworthiness and appreciation that we know the conventions used by scholars in the subject, a demonstration that we are worthy of joining the “academic conversation.” these are by-products to be treasured. So too helping the reader appreciate our knowledge, helping the reader follow our trail, helping the reader find the sources we have used, these too are by-products and again, to be treasured.

“Avoiding plagiarism” is a minor by-product when measured against these.

Even better when we so inculcate these notions of honesty that they become embedded in the individual. Honesty then becomes a matter of integrity, doing things because they are the right things to do (even when no-one is watching, even when nobody will know or find out) without even having to think about it.

It takes time to learn those conventions, of course, the conventions of citation and referencing.

Citation (in the text) is easy; in the major citation styles it is just a matter of saying (something like), “According to Hoyle, ….” or “My uncle told me that ….” You are saying, “This is not mine, this is whose it is” – plagiarism avoided.  Some citation styles require a date, and most require a page number or other location indicator, to help readers find the exact place where words or information can be found – but it is not plagiarism to omit these, even when they are expected, as long as it clear that the words or information have been taken from somewhere else.

Referencing, the list at the end of an essay or paper, can be more difficult. It needs more time and attention if the references are to be complete and consistent and correct per the referencing style in use. But again, incomplete references, inconsistently formatted references, mistakes in the formatting of the references, these are not cases of plagiarism. Get them right and you show your worthiness to join the conversation. Get them wrong and they show you may not be quite ready, you are a junior scholar, perhaps on the way to scholarship. Getting them wrong is not an indicator of plagiarism.

I have also long held that the earlier we start teaching, the younger that children start learning and practising – and the more practice they get – the more they will understand what they have to do and why they do it. They come to understand how it makes them better writers. They see how other writers use citation and references, and often try to imitate the academic style. The more used they are to citing and referencing, the easier it is to learn different patterns of referencing,

Practice of itself is not enough. As with any skill, those practising need feedback and guidance. Are they doing it right? Are they doing it wrong? Are they doing it right, but doing it a different way may make it even “righter”? It takes time and practice and feedback and more practice.

It also takes purpose and understanding. We do not cite and reference just because we are asked to and we don’t do it just, or mainly, to “avoid plagiarism.”.  More advanced or confident users of reference and citation can be guided towards asking themselves how valid or authoritative their sources are, could they find more respected sources? Students can be led towards understanding how other writers cite and reference, and how we can use their citations and references to improve our own work, as when using someone else’s citation of another source and follow the path to find the original writer/s.

Citations and references are there to help readers and help writers and to establish credibility. “Avoiding plagiarism” is but a small reason for citing and referencing.

It takes time to learn and time to understand. It does not come instantly. Students starting an IB Diploma Programme course with no previous experience of inquiry research and writing are greatly disadvantaged.

Brent’s study

These views I have long held.. I feel very much supported by David Brent’s recent paper Senior students’ perceptions of entering a research community.  Brent’s qualitative study is small-scale; his sample is small and limited to students in one faculty of his university taking a wide range of courses. The investigation was carried out through “semi-structured interviews” which yielded more than 500 hours-worth of transcripts. The small sample and use of interview, says Brent, make for deeper analysis of the responses than might be afforded by, for instance, a survey.

Most research into students’ awareness of academic writing and of research is based on studies of first-year university students, often a study into what they already know or do. Brent’s study looks into the perceptions of fourth-year university students with regard to academic research and their place in the world of academia.

The results are interesting. They show a continuum of awareness, “of understanding of and engagement in the research community” (341).

At one extreme is Laura, who saw her time at university as learning how to put together a research report or paper, and being honest when using other people’s work.

Laura couldn’t articulate a reason for the university to ask her to write papers based on sources other than that it “makes you a more well-rounded person” and helps you create a sound argument (343)

She had not learned to use references to help deepen her own research or see the paper in hand as a part of a larger academic conversation.

At the other extreme was Estelle, who after four years had better appreciation of the purpose of research, and of learning the principles of academic writing. She declared

(R)esearch is kind of a way to constantly be advancing our knowledge and, especially with conferences and things like that, sharing with other people. . . . That way, it just contributes to a way bigger knowledge base, I guess (344).

For her, citations indicated intellectual honesty, but she also saw them as “markers of earlier turns in the conversation” (344). It is worth noting that Estelle remarks on her enjoyment of research, often following her nose out of interest, and surprising herself. Research, not for assignment but out of interest and intellectual curiosity.

The other students interviewed had views between these two extremes, some with wider awareness, some with narrow awareness.

Brent is of the opinion that “learning to write from sources … is at least a four-year process of gradual acculturation … and arguably can continue over the span of an entire career” (336).   (I’ll vouch for that; I am still learning. Are you?)

Brent notes that 11 of the 13 students in his survey had had no prior experience in research or academic writing at their high schools. Tellingly, Brent declares:

With the exception of two students who had attended International Baccalaureate programs, the students unanimously declared that what had passed for research in high school was more or less a joke (349).

One up for the rigors of the IB programmes, especially the Diploma Programme, though sadly Brent does not tell us if Estelle was a DP graduate.

In short

Citation and referencing can be exciting and fun, a demonstration of our skill as writers.  It takes time and practice, explicit teaching and coaching and practice, feedback and practice and encouragement. The rewards are there, intrinsic and extrinsic.  Whether in an IB programme or not, we can serve our students better, we can help make them better thinkers and better writers, better able to argue a case and support our arguments. We can help make for more critical thinking – and for more critical thinkers.  It is not just about avoiding plagiarism.



Brent, D.(2017). Senior students’ perceptions of entering a research community. Written Communication, 34 (3), 333-35. doi:10.1177/0741088317710925


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  1. Pingback: WHYs before the event | Honesty, honestly…

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