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

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

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

Isn’t it ironic?*

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Congratulations, the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad.  According to The News International (27 March 2015), the university has won a Turnitin Academic Integrity Award.


It is the third paragraph which catches the eye. It reads:



Turnitin claims to be the global leader in evaluating and improving student writing. The company’s cloud-based service for originality checking, online grading and peer review saves instructors time and provides rich feedback to students. One of the most widely distributed educational applications in the world, Turnitin and Ephorus is used  by more than 15,000 institutions in 140 countries to manage the submission, tracking and evaluation of scholarly work online.

Now, this seems so very similar to Turnitin’s description Continue reading

How much plagiarism? (revisited)

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The Bangalore Mirror today publishes a report:  Ctrl-C-Ctrl-V, but only up to 25%, VTU tells its PhD students, with the sub-heading

After installing new anti-plagiarism software to sniff out borrowed material, the technology varsity has realistically left some room for ‘permissible lifting’.”

It seems that students have been turning in their PhD theses with more than 50% “borrowed” material.

A VTU official said the new plagiarism software aims to inculcate in students respect for academic integrity and discipline, even as it identifies acts of dishonesty.

To restore credibility to the University’s degrees, and (as stated in the article) “to inculcate in students respect for academic integrity and discipline, even as it identifies acts of dishonesty,” the amount of allowable plagiarism is to be capped at Continue reading

WriteCheck gets it wrong (again)

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The latest entry on the WriteCheck blog, 3 Ways to Avoid Plagiarism – Summary, Paraphrase and Quote includes a teaching video and the transcript of the spoken text.

It’s an interesting piece; I’m not sure how useful the video would be as a teaching tool or as a learning tool. There are too many holes in it.

Again and again, in the video and in the text, we are told:

Avoiding plagiarism is pretty simple because there are only 3 ways to borrow information, so you only need to know the requirements for these three techniques, and you should have it.  The three ways to save yourself from plagiarizing are summary, paraphrase and quote.

And that’s just plain wrong. Continue reading