WHYs before the event

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I have long suggested that students will more readily understand the conventions of citing and referencing if they understand WHY we do it, WHY they are asked, expected and required to do it.  HOW to do it is necessary, but knowing WHY we do it gives purpose, can even make it fun.

When I “crowd-source” the reasons WHY we cite and reference, in classrooms and in workshops, the group usually comes up with the main reasons between them. That is good. But there is no guarantee that any one individual in the room appreciates all of those reasons – as evidenced perhaps by my questioner in Qatar, a story I relate in Lighten the load, “Is referencing taken as seriously at university as it is in this school?”

Trouble is, for many students, the notions of building on what has gone before, showing the trail which has led to our present thinking or contributing to an academic conversation are just too abstract to appreciate. This is so, even at university level, as suggested by David Brent’s paper (see It takes time) on 4th year students’ understanding of the purposes of academic writing and research.

Now, Susan Merrick has pointed me to a paper Teaching information literacy through “un-research” by Allison Hosier which makes me rethink my approach (thank you, Susan).  Hosier describes a unit she used with a group of first-year university students.  Faculty felt that, in their research projects, many students often seemed to treat all information as equal; the quality or credibility of the source was not a factor in deciding whether or not to use information or ideas found.

This came across in an annotated bibliography exercise,  where “Essentially meaningless comments such as, “This source is good for my research because it relates to my topic,” and “This is a good source because it comes from the library,” were common” (127). These students seemed to have little appreciation of how the information or ideas affected the student’s own thinking or might be used in furthering arguments or conversation.

Hosier’s approach was to ask students to undertake an un-research project.  Students were first asked to write a short essay on any subject but

  • They were not to do any research, checking, looking up;
  • They were not to cite any sources (because they were not using sources);
  • They were not to quote anything (again because they were not using sources);
  • They were not to worry about or check for accuracy (130).

They had to use what they already knew, and were permitted to throw in ideas they were only half-sure of, or even to make up information if they needed to.

Then came an annotated bibliography exercise, but with a difference. They had to

  • Select a source supporting a point made in the un-research essay and explain how that source supported the point;
  • Select a source adding something new, again explaining how this information affected the essay;
  • Select a source which contradicted information or which offered a different opinion, this time explaining how this source could be brought into the essay;
  • Select a quotation from any of the sources which would add further support to the point/s being made (130-131).

This transformed the exercise. No longer were students just looking for information, they were looking for information with intent, looking for relevant information.  They were beginning to appreciate how to build on what was already known or thought and that they might need to engage in conversation (or argument) in support of their own thoughts.  They appreciated that, without citations, the information and ideas given in their original essays was of little value because the accuracy of the content could not be directly trusted or verified.

Hosier’s project was small-scale, only 7 students took part, but it was useful. For me, it was illuminating.  It is starting where many students are, it has point, and it gets beyond the wisdom of the crowd and gives each individual students added opportunity to understand.

It is worth noting that there is not a single use of the P-word in the whole paper, no mention of academic honesty.  It is all about academic writing and scholarship, about the purpose of academic writing.  Academic writing is not about showing off what we know. It’s about contributing to the conversation.

I would like to try this activity in the classroom or in an academic writing workshop. It could lead into a discussion of “Scholarship as Conversation” and make the notion less abstract, more meaningful.

I am tempted to get students to read each other’s essays, get them asking each other the “How do you know this?” and “Do you have evidence for that?” type-questions. Would this detract from their self-reflection?  Possibly. I’ll ponder this, and discuss with other teachers too. (If you, gentle reader, have opinions, please voice them as comment at the end of this piece.)

One other activity I’d like to try, perhaps after doing this activity and as another form of reflection: I would ask students to draw a picture to illustrate the notion “standing on the shoulders of giants.”  I think this too could lead to fruitful discussion and again make the concept less abstract.

As I write this, I become more and more aware of my own education. Essays were expected of us and we were expected to read beyond the textbook. The only requirement by way of attribution was to include, at the end, a list of all the sources we had used. There was no expectation to cite, in the text at point-of-use, what bit of information came from where.  When I tell this to workshop participants, teachers much younger than me, many will nod in recognition, this is how they too were taught. Some will say that this is still the practice in their own schools, at least until grade 11 and the IB years.  And this, alas, is not academic writing. It is not preparation for academic writing either, is it?

Understanding WHY – it’s a springboard to learning HOW.


Hosier, A, (2015). Teaching information literacy through “un-research,”  Communications in Information Literacy 9 (2), 126-135. Downloaded from http://www.comminfolit.org/index.php?journal=cil&page=article&op=view&path%5B%5D=v9i2p126

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


APA mythtakes

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We don’t take note of non-coincidences, do we? It’s different when two similar events happen close to each other. Wow! we say, what are the chances of that happening twice in the same day? Coincidences stick in the mind, single events do not stick so readily. (This one stuck so solidly that it pushed me into blogging again.)

A recent EasyBib blog post was one half of such a coincidence. Michele Kirschenbaum’s blog post Video Lesson: In-Text Citations had upset me on two counts. Although published on 29 September 2017, my Google Alert did not pick it up until last week.

Count #1: the video gives the impression that in-text citations and parenthetical citations are one and the same

This impression is confirmed in the text of the blog where we read “We think this video, which provides an introduction to in-text, or parenthetical citations, is a great addition to your classroom resources.”

Me, I don’t think it such a great addition, not least because parenthetical citations are one kind of in-text citation, but not the only kind.

Other kinds are available, not least when the citation starts the sentence Continue reading

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 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

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

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. Amazon.com, 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.” Amazon.co.uk, 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

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