With the return to school I’ve been focusing heavily on academic plagiarism. We’ve looked at the accidental plagiarism excuse, discussed how to use a writing cleanroom, learned how to create citations in almost any word processor and took a look at research about student understanding of plagiarism.
But this impromptu and unplanned series hasn’t discussed one thing that schools and instructors need to know: What to teach students about plagiarism.
Even if teachers begin teaching students at a much younger age about citation, something that was recommended in my most recent post, it won’t help if students aren’t taught how to cite effectively.
The problem is simple. Even when students are taught about citation the conversation often focuses heavily on citation formats (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.), footnotes, bibliographies and in-text citations. While all of that is important, they’re all things that word processors can largely take care of.
The student no longer urgently needs to know what’s underlined and what’s not in MLA style citations. They need to learn how to use the tools they are given and the fundamentals of good citation.
Students, in general, are pretty good about embracing and using new technology. But without a foundation of citation, they can’t apply that tech to their work.
In short, it’s time to stop focusing on the formatting and start focusing on the basics. Something too few students seem to have learned.
To that end, here are some focus areas for plagiarism education that can give students the tools they need to become better at citation and academic work in general.
1: When to Cite
When to cite a work sounds like a fundamental thing that everyone should easily understand, but it’s something that’s often overlooked when teaching citation.
Most schools tell students that there is no need to cite facts that are “common knowledge”. But determining what is “common” in common knowledge can be difficult, especially for a student.
University of Princeton touched on this in their “When to Cite” guide, which includes this passage:
Deciding which facts or pieces of information require citation and which are common knowledge, and thus do not require citation, isn’t always easy. For example, finding the same fact or piece of information in multiple sources doesn’t necessarily mean that it counts as common knowledge.
Students often don’t fully understand what makes a fact common knowledge versus one they have to cite and they aren’t helped by the fact that the line is often blurry. Though Princeton does a good job providing examples and admitting the gray area, many students don’t even get that.
This leads many students to either cite nearly everything out fear or just simply take unnecessary risks.
Practical examples and guidance here is crucial. It’s not enough to simply say it’s unnecessary to cite common knowledge, it’s important to show what is common knowledge both in general and within the field. After all, what’s common knowledge in a physics class is often different than a literature class.
It’s important to note that this also becomes more difficult as the students advances in their academic career. What feels like common knowledge to a PhD candidate is often different than what feels like common knowledge to a high schooler.
Paraphrasing is one of the most difficult topics to discuss when dealing with plagiarism and citation issues. As we discussed in my post about writing in a cleanroom, many students erroneously think that paraphrasing is simply a matter of changing X number of words or rearranging sentences.
Many students go through their entire academic career without having a writing exercise truly dedicated to paraphrasing. They may rewrite sentences or passages but it’s never put into the context of citation and paraphrasing. Instead, it’s a regular grammar or writing exercise.
Paraphrasing is a writing skill like any other and students need a chance to practice it. The only way to practice it is to do it. Repeatedly.
For students, this is a writing skill that will serve them well, even outside of academia. Students who can paraphrase well can put other people’s thoughts into their own words and drastically improve their writing.
Of all of the citation skills a student can learn, paraphrasing is probably one of the most important and one of the most useful, especially when you consider of often it’s necessary outside of the classroom.
3: How to Use the Technology
Finally, while it’s important that students do know the basics of the various citation styles, it’s also important that they are aware of the technology that can help them and that they know how to use it.
The truth is simple. Between MLA, APA and Chicago and the dozens of different types of citations in each, almost no student is going to remember every detail of every citation style.
Fortunately though, it’s not really necessary given that modern word processor and various online tools can do most of the legwork for someone who needs full citations.
Typically, I’m loathe to teach students to rely on technology rather than their minds but this is an area where it doesn’t make much sense. There’s no practical way to remember all citation styles and the technology to add them automatically are being built into to the word processors they are already using for writing the papers.
While it’s important to teach a basic understanding and provide information on where to obtain the details to do citations manually if needed, there’s little reason to not encourage and teach students how to use the tools that are already out there.
Simply put, the easier citations are for students, the more likely they’re going to do them and do them correctly.
While it’s important that students are taught about plagiarism and citation from an early age, it’s equally important that they be taught practical and useful information about citation as a process.
Unfortunately, too many instructors get lost in the minutiae of citation and focus too little on the basic skills and how to make citation easier on the students.
After all, making citation more difficult doesn’t encourage students to do better research, it just creates more obstacles and challenges. Instead, the key is to give a good understanding of the basics and then provide the tools that make citation as simple and accurate as possible.
While that approach doesn’t mean that every student will suddenly become great at citation and avoid plagiarism-related issues, it does give them the best chance to both learn the basics and to fill in their own gaps as needed.
Simply put, plagiarism education doesn’t have to be about teaching students how to do everything, but it does have to provide a foundation and the tools to build on that understanding.
Students can usually fill in the gaps of their education, but they need a solid foundation in order to do that.