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

Of honesty and integrity

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One of my favourite classroom and workshop activities is a “Do I need to cite this?” quiz. Those taking the test are presented with a number of situations and asked to choose between “Cite the source/s” and “No need to cite the source/s.” *

I like to do this using Survey Monkey – other polling applications will do just as well. It means that I can home in on any situation in which there is divided opinion, or which many respondents are getting wrong. There is no need to go through each situation one at a time if there are just two or three situations which need to be discussed.

Much of the time, the answers are clear: the situation is academic (a piece of work submitted for assessment) so should demand academic honesty, and most students and other participants get it right.

Some of the situations are less clear and lend themselves to discussion, considerations of common knowledge, learned expertise, copyright, credibility and reputation, honesty (as against academic honesty) and integrity.

One situation, for instance, presents 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

Zero credibility

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BBC News today carries the story of Mariam Malak, The star pupil who scored zero in all her exams.

It seems that Mariam expected to score highly in Egypt’s high-school graduation exams. She had such a good record that she, her family, her school expected her to be among the country’s top-scoring students. She expected, and was expected, to score well enough to make it to medical school.

Instead of which, she managed to score a zero in all seven exams. It is pretty difficult to score a zero in one exam, never mind seven. According to the BBC report, “To get the minimum possible score, a pupil must more or less leave the paper blank.”

First thoughts, evidently, were that she had been discriminated against because she is a Coptic Christian in a Muslim country. Then corruption was suspected; now it seems likely that Mariam’s papers were switched with someone else’s papers, someone who had written out the questions – but nothing else. This seemed especially likely when a handwriting test showed that Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Somewhere, over the spectrum …

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Shades of grey?

It is tempting to think of plagiarism in terms of black-and-white, either a writer has committed plagiarism – or s/he hasn’t.

There are plenty of grey areas, of course, especially when considering paraphrases or summaries, or the grey areas of common knowledge or of self-plagiarism (duplication of work). But by and large, plagiarism is clear-cut: a piece of work which appears to be the work of the present writer but which lack the indicators that show that this is the words, work or ideas of somebody else, that is plagiarism. Probably. Possibly.

Issues such as intent and extent might be of consideration when determining the consequences, but those are other issues, it is plagiarism or it isn’t. Cases in which plagiarism is suspected but cannot be proven will (usually, in education situations) be given the benefit of the doubt: it isn’t plagiarism. It is clear-cut, black-and-white.

Black-and-white. If the signals are not there, signals that indicate that these are someone else’s exact words, or the citation which indicates that these are someone else’s words or ideas, and it can be shown that the words or ideas originated elsewhere, it’s plagiarism.

Black-and-white (and shades of grey).  It is or it isn’t.

I often use Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” activity* in workshops (with permission, of course). Carroll gives us six situations, six descriptions of work starting with no attribution or signal or bibliographical reference, and then increasingly more information is included in each scenario. Example 1 is clearly plagiarism, example 6 is clearly good practice, and, as this is a continuum, we can draw a line: that example would be considered as plagiarism, the next example is not plagiarism. Where do we draw the line?

This is a useful activity. I have often found that, even though plagiarism is a matter of black and white, teachers often draw that line in different places. Some draw their line too low, and would accept work which other teachers would rate as plagiarism – and, sometimes, some draw the line too high, and would refuse work which most would rate as acceptable.  Students too. We all know what plagiarism is – except that we don’t all agree. More grey than black-and-white?

Definitions are not always clear either, and the terms used to describe plagiarism or to explain good practice are frequently confused and confusing. Examples are often inconsistent and advice given is frequently wrong. Worst might be those bodies which give examples and state, clearly, categorically and mistakenly, that this is the only way to cite and reference, and that anything else is unacceptable. The SQA muddle which I highlighted recently is a case in point.

The worst of that SQA mess was the guide for Advanced Higher Chemistry which states Continue reading

Not such a bad idea?

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It’s a convoluted story.

First, a memorandum was leaked (shortly before the recent UK general election) which was apparently an account of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon saying, in private conversation, that she would prefer that David Cameron won the election and stayed on as Prime Minister, rather than Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Opposition.

Given that SNP and Miliband’s Labour party have much in common – especially in their joint opposition to Cameron’s Conservative party – and they seemed to be natural allies, and given that there had been much scare-mongering about the stranglehold which the SNP would have if Labour won the election, this was a hugely damaging allegation. It was damaging for the SNP as well as for Miliband’s party.

Sturgeon denied making the comment.

Then it was announced that the leak had been authorised by Alistair Carmichael, a Lib-Dem member of Cameron’s coalition government.

Carmichael denied authorising the leak.

Since the election, which the Conservative party unexpectedly won handsomely, there has been a Cabinet inquiry into the leak of the memorandum. It seems that Carmichael did Continue reading

Not just honesty

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I am loathe to accuse anyone of plagiarism, especially a fellow-professional, but sometimes it is a close call.

In the case of the two sites I am looking at in this post, it is a very close call. In one case, it’s not a call, it’s a shriek.

I have mentioned my alert before, my Google alert for the phrase “every written assignment they complete” (see Thirty percent).

My alert came up with two hits today. One was a Prezi with the title “Effective Research and Avoiding Plagiarism” and the other is a blog, “How to avoid plagiarism…“.   If my suspicions are correct, Continue reading


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Last night I sat through two webcasts promoted as part of Plagiarism Education Week, promoted and hosted by Turnitin. One of the two webcasts was, I thought, spot-on, encouraging, helpful. The other was … disappointing.

In Tweets from the French Revolution? Using What Students Know to Promote Original Work and Critical Thinking, one of the speakers described a research study he had conducted.  For the first part of the study, 20 adult English learners were given an assignment : write an essay on a historical event or figure. After they had written their essays, the adults were asked two questions: (1) had they found the assignment difficult? and (2) had the assignment helped develop their critical thinking skills?

Most declared they had found the assignment easy, and most said that it had not required critical thinking.  Meanwhile, a check revealed that every single student had plagiarized. Let’s make that Continue reading

A Matter of Definition

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In my last post, I admitted to uncertainty with regard to Jane Goodall’s unattributed use of other people’s words and thoughts: is it fair to call this plagiarism, when the faulty passages were discovered and corrections made before the book was actually published?

The situation is more complicated in that Goodall’s poor note-making and attribution practices were uncovered by a reviewer for a national newspaper, not by Goodall, not by her co-author, not by her publishers. It is the fact of pre-publication that gives me pause. It doesn’t help, though it might, if we were told if the reviewer was reading a galley proof or a pre-publication copy, or if it was the final printed hardback that he was reading. The revelation was made 4 months before the expected publication date, so it may well have been a review/proof copy.

I am inclined to think that would make a difference.  I think of schools in which Continue reading