Finding my voice

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A few years ago, I wrote (in Somewhere, over the spectrum …) of an AHA! moment, a realisation that understanding of academic citation practices may best be imaged, not just by a straight-line continuum from black to white with shades of grey between, but by a spectrum, all shades of the rainbow and anywhere in between.

It was Teddi Fishman, then director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, who gave me this insight.  In a plagiarism case in which she was asked for her opinion, had a published piece of work had been plagiarised, Fishman said

With regard to citation errors and plagiarism, there is a wide spectrum and certainly not all are created equal. The main defining characteristic in cases that we’d classify as citation errors is that there is an attempt to identify the source of the information rather than to make it appear as if the words or ideas are those of the person using them in the document.

(The full article from which this quotation is taken is no longer available on the Cambridge Chronicle site.  Fortunately, it can still be found in the Internet Archive;  the quotation of Fishman’s response as reported by journalist Sara Feijo is on page 3 of this article.)

Fig. 1 – Black and white and shades of grey

In the continuum imagery, the white end comprises writers who know the rules, know what is right, what is expected, what is needed – and do them!  Ideally they will observe the conventions of citation and referrencing because they have integrity, they wouldn’t – couldn’t – do otherwise.

At the black end we have the writers who know the rules, who know what is right, what is expected, what is needed – and they knowingly break the rules! They copy, they paraphrase without acknowledgement, they use other people’s work and claim it as their own, they use their own work over and over and claim each time that it is new…  they know it is wrong but they do it, presumably hoping to get away with it.

But it’s those in-between areas, the grey areas, the shades and the tints, the hues and the nuances and the shifting light, which are so tricky – and this is why the notion of “spectrum” is illuminating. It’s not a straight continuum. It is multi-dimensional.

Fig. 2 – colour wheel/ spectrum

Those in-between areas include:

  • writers who do not know the rules
  • writers who know the rules but (wrongly) think they do not apply in this particular case
  • writers who know the rules and think they are doing everything required, including students who have been misled as to what the expectations are
  • writers who know the rules, but are confused, because sometimes what they do seems to be accepted, but sometimes it is not.

There are other shades and grades of confusion in between too. For instance,

  • just think “common knowledge” and the minefields in wait there, what is common knowledge to you might not be common knowledge to me – and vice versa;
  • just think of the different conventions for acknowledgement in popular non-fiction, where there may be no indication of attribution in the text even if there are pages of endnotes which provide full acknowledgement (or not);
  • or student textbooks, which too often provide information unsupported by anything other than a “For Further Reading” list;
  • or writers whose paraphrases are too close to the original?
  • or writers who have misread or misunderstood an original source and so misrepresent them?
  • and writers who conflate several different sources in one paragraph, to the extent that one cannot tell who contributed what, nor even what is the writer’s own?

Outright plagiarism, citation errors, careless or unhelpful writing and scholarship, and somewhere in the spectrum, good practice.

Extent, intent, non-intent, accident.

It’s a multi-dimensional understanding, far more nuanced than a simple black-grey-white continuum suggests.

We tell them – but do they understand?

Jonathan Bailey tells a cautionary tale. In a blog post on Plagiarism Today, How Schools Are Hurting the Fight Against Plagiarism, he relates an occasion when, while a student at college, his instructor had entered the room and told the class that someone had plagiarised in their last assignment – and she wanted the culprit to own up.  Bailey continues:

The students, all 30 of us, wondered who it was but were more worried that it was us. Many of us began to talk openly about that fear saying things like “I didn’t plagiarize but… I hope it wasn’t me.”

They had not plagiarised – they had not intended to plagiarise – but so uncertain were they about what plagiarism is that they could not be sure that they had not fallen foul of the sometimes-arcane rules.

There is much evidence, anecdotal and research-based, which demonstrates that students (and instructors) often think they know but don’t.  As instance, Kate Chanock and Kim Shahubudian, who in separate studies point to university students who may think they know the rules and so may turn off when they hear yet another lecture on academic honesty or Phil Newton, whose study talks of “misplaced confidence” that they know the rules.

Do we ourselves understand the “rules”?  In my workshops, Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” exercise (which I discuss more fully in Somewhere, over the spectrum…) consistently shows disagreement among workshop participants as to what constitutes plagiarism – so what chance do students have?  And there’s Doug Brent‘s study which suggests that

learning to write from sources, like learning any of the practices of the academy, is at least a four-year process of gradual acculturation, a process that continues through graduate school if a student takes that direction, and arguably can continue over the span of an entire career (p. 336)

Chanock’s review of the literature includes half-a-dozen papers whose authors report that university entrants often include other people’s work, including direct quotations and paraphrases, without attribution in the text  (or quotation marks if quotation indicators were needed) but happily include the materials in the reference list.  Those writers conclude that these students are not happily pointing the way for plagiarism detectors; they are just doing what they were told to do at school, include a list of sources at the end of the paper – and nothing more is needed. (And that’s what I learned at school too, just the list at the end.)

Plagiarism is not black and white.

The wrong end of the stick – beating Turnitin

Nor is “plagiarism avoidance.” I have long held that it is not enough to teach students how to cite and reference without helping them understand WHY we cite and reference – and the WHY is NOT simply about avoiding plagiarism.  Avoiding plagiarism might be a small part of the WHYs, but it is a very small part.  Of far greater importance is establishing our credibility as writers who know something about the topic, and helping our readers in many different ways (more details, if you need them, in Lighten the load).  Without the WHYs, our lessons are empty and citation and referencing is seen by many as a hoop through which students must jump if they are to succeed – and if they fail, they are guilty of plagiarism.

Plagiarism.  The fear of committing it when it is not understood can lead students to use other people’s work excessively, albeit as properly-attributed quotations, using those quotations to say what they want to say rather than as support for their own ideas. They are frightened to have or express their own ideas –  their voice is not heard when they simply report what others have said (Neville, Elander, Pittam (et al) and other studies on authorial identity).  This is the opposite to Newton’s notion of “misplaced confidence” – but it is just as problematic.

And we make students even more defensive in our use of Turnitin and other text-matching services to catch them out and make them even more fearful.

John Schrock‘s story is telling. He relates how a Chinese student once approached him and asked, ‘“Can you help me plagiarize my thesis?”’  He thought this strange request was because her English was, perhaps, not perfect. He checked his understanding:

“You want me to help you a-v-o-i-d plagiarism, right?” I emphasized.
“No,” she repeated back to me, in slow English so I would clearly understand. “I need help plagiarizing my paper” …
“Tell me what plagiarism means to you,” I directed.
“I need to change enough words so it won’t be detected by the computer.”

What this student had learned about academic writing was that the aim is to parrot back the ideas of others but in her own words; the goal is to avoid getting “caught” by Turnitin.

It is not uncommon, this (mis-) understanding, and it is not confined to international students.  It’s a problem when students do not or have yet to appreciate that academic writing is not about telling us what is already known and what others have already said,. It’s about presenting one’s own thoughts, reacting to or supported by what is already known (or what we think we know).

This is a foreign idea for many “international students,”  especially those from countries in which rote-learning is the norm; in such cultures,  students learn to memorise and regurgitate the words of their teachers, and this earns them approval and high marks. They are not expected to think for themselves nor expected to question what they are taught. They learn that they cannot think for themselves until they know much more than they do now.

This too is illustrated in Schrock’s article:

To avoid plagiarism, some believe that all you have to do is change enough words so there are never seven or more in a row that match other work.
“Why not put quotes around all the sentences that are from other people, and then put their names in parentheses at the end of the sentence?” I asked.
“Oh, I know all about that,” she said. “My whole thesis will be in quotes.”
“Didn’t you add some ideas yourself?” (I really wanted to help.)
“No. We are just students. How can we come up with new ideas? Those people get Nobel Prizes. Everything in here I got from the books and articles I read.”

So it is that the student is unheard. The aim of the game, for many, is not about reading, reacting, thinking, learning, writing, growing – it’s all about beating Turnitin.

Finding your voice

It is always fraught, writing about cultures other than one’s own; it may not be politically correct.  So I am delighted to be pointed to Bygrave and Aṣık’s “Global perspectives on academic integrity” (thank you, D.A.). This paper is chapter 1 of a very new book (publication date: 2019) and available I think in full in Google Books: Strategies for fostering inclusive classrooms in higher education.

The paper relates attempts over a number of years to change attitudes towards and awarenesses of international students with regard to the development and understanding of writing and of academic integrity at one North American University campus.  Changes in approach were made each semester – mirroring strategies commonly used in schools and universities around the world – and their effects were monitored and recorded. This is a long-term action-research study.

The chapter opens with a discussion of international students and the cultural challenges they may face understanding the nature of academic writing and academic honesty as an aspect of writing.

The strategies used in succeeding semesters were

  1. advising students of the Academic Integrity Policy and making them aware of the consequences if breach of the policy was discovered;
  2. advising students of the AI policy, submitting work to SafeAssign (text-matching software) with the requirement that they redraft work with 30% or more matched text;
  3. requiring all students to participate in workshops which taught how to cite and reference;
  4. when advising students of the AIP, instructors discussed academic honesty and respect for authors’ work; a writing center was introduced in which students could seek advice;
  5. introducing a writing course for students whose English was below university level designed to inculcate values and an understanding of writing, with special consideration of authorial voice;
  6. extending the writing course to all students regardless of their English proficiency scores.

The first three of these are described as “consequence-based” with an emphasis on detection and punishment, aiming to decrease negative behaviour.  The second set of three are “virtue-based” with an emphasis on providing understand and encouraging positive behaviour.

The authors report that steps 2 and 3 appeared to be counter-productive, the rate of plagiarism and other academic misconduct actually rose. Instead of practicing academic techniques, students relied on the software and the opportunity to rewrite to pass muster. Some students are reported to have been surprised that they were still guilty of plagiarism, despite clean reports from SafeAssign.  Others were found to have used Spinbot and other text rewriting applications, often submitting nonsense. (Students whose English is poor may not recognise when others, including applications, use poor English.) These students were not learning to write, they were learning to beat the text-matching software.

The positive approaches of the later set of strategies, understanding authorship and getting students to realise that they are authors in their own right, were far more successful. As I said earlier, when students understand the WHYs, they better understand HOW citing and referencing and the other conventions of academic writing support their own writing.  They do have something to say in their own right – and they appreciate the opportunity to say it. They value the contributions of others and are better able to use them in their own work.

One last thought: to promote the notion of authorial voice and help students appreciate that what they say does add to the conversation: students in this study were encouraged to write in the first person. This device immediately makes the work personal, encourages their own thoughts, helps them understand how writing works.

Wow!  It’s another AHA! moment, and something I intend to explore further. Watch this space!


(Poor as they are, the two graphics are my own, created using Keynote.)

Bailey, J. (2010, May 10). How Schools Are Hurting the Fight Against Plagiarism. Plagiarism Today. Retrieved from

Brent, D. (2017). Senior Students’ Perceptions of Entering a Research Community.  Written Communication, 34(3) 333–355. Retrieved from’%20Perceptions%20published%20version.pdf

Bygrave, C., & Aṣık, Ö. (2019). Global perspectives on academic integrity. In J. Hoffman, P. Blessinger & M. Makhanya (eds.). Strategies for fostering inclusive classrooms in higher education : International perspectives on equity and inclusion. Emerald, 19-33.  doi:10.1108/S2055-364120190000016003

Chanock, K. (2008). When students reference plagiarised material – what can we learn (and what can we do) about their understanding of attribution? International Journal of Academic Integrity, 4 (1), 3-16. Retrieved from

Elander, J. (2015, May). In search of an authorial identity. The Psychologist, 28, 384-387. Retrieved from

Feijo, S. (2015, May 20). Top Cambridge school administrator under fire for miscitation. Cambridge Chronicle and Tab (3). Retrieved from

Newton, P.M. (2015, March). Academic integrity: A quantitative study of confidence and understanding in students at the start of their higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 1-16.  Retrieved from

Pittam, G., Elander, J., Lusher, J., Fox, P., & Payne, N. (2009). Student beliefs and attitudes about authorial identity in academic writing. Studies in Higher Education, 34 (2), 153-170. doi:10.1080/03075070802528270

Schrock, J. R. (2014, June 18). Odd request from student: Help me plagiarize! Hays Post. Retrieved from

Shahabudin, K. (2009). Reaping the fruits of collaboration: Learning development research in the LearnHigher CETL network. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 1. Retrieved from

One thought on “Finding my voice

  1. Dear Mr.John
    Just read the article and found that the whole essence of Academic Honesty is being shared in this post.
    Will definitely,ask my students to read and review the similar for their better understanding of the concept.

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