Code-Switching and Citation

New York Times LogoIn August 2010, the New York Times published a piece entitled “Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age“.

The article, written by Trip Gabriel, looked at how internet use, in particular social media, has changed perceptions around intellectual property and attribution in students.

This led to an extensive conversation about how to teach “Generation Plagiarism” about citation and what teachers can do about this perceived problem.

Eight years later and not a great deal has changed. Schools are still hand-wringing about students failing to understand citation. Whether it’s international students with English as a second language, students learning bad habits online or just a lack of proper education, there’s a lot of concern that students simply don’t understand citation in the classroom.

However, as the dialogue begins for another school year, there’s an important point to remember: There is no right or wrong way to cite something, just a right or wrong way for the environment you’re in.

As such, it may be time to not just teach how academic citation works, but also to teach the concept of citation code-switching, the idea that we need to adjust what we cite and how we cite it for the environment we’re writing within.

The Basics of Code-Switching

In sociolinguistics, code-switching can be defined as, “The use of one dialect, register, accent, or language variety over another, depending on social or cultural context, to project a specific identity.”

In short, it’s how people change the way they speak or write for different audiences. Code-switching often has cultural or racial connotations, especially since one of the more prominent forms is members of one cultural or racial group code-switching to be more accepted or understood by another they are around.

However, everyone code-switches fairly regularly in their lives. You probably don’t write text messages the same way you write a cover letter for your résumé, you don’t greet a romantic partner the same way you greet your boss and so on.

These often-subtle code-switches play an integral part in how we communicate. They ensure understanding and acceptance by the group and/or environment we are operating in.

However, this doesn’t mean that one way of communicating is wrong. When you use text speak and emojis when communicating via phone, you’re not wrong, you’re simply following the rules of the medium and the audience.

Increasingly, teaching code-switching has become an important conversation topic in writing classes where teachers are focusing less on trying to discourage code-switching, but explaining to students why they need to do it and how to do it well.

To that end, if we view citation as another writing skill, one akin to grammar and spelling, then it makes sense to teach citation code-switching. That’s because one of the big differences between different spaces for writing is the rules about when and how to cite outside sources that you use.

The Basics of Citation Code-Switching

The basics of citation code-switching are the same as the broader definition of code-switching, namely that we don’t communicate with every group of people the same way.

For example, on social media, citation is rarely used or required. The reason is that, in general, there’s a presumption that content posted on social media is not original to the poster.

While this isn’t universal, compare photos posted to Flickr versus those posted on Facebook, most works posted on social media sites are presumed to be shares, not original creations. This is the opposite of an academic essay where the work is presumed to be original unless specified otherwise in the format of a citation.

Social media isn’t necessarily wrong in using this standard (even though many artists certainly wish their work was more regularly attributed on social media). Since there’s no presumption of originality, it’s important to take credit, either directly or intrinsically, for what is yours than to attribute everything you use.

Does this still deprive the original creator of credit? Yes. But it doesn’t amount to plagiarism unless the person directly attempts to take credit.

Similarly, blogs usually don’t use full in-text citations and footnotes. Such notations are burdensome and offer little information that can’t be conveyed in a link. Links are better for the medium and have become the norm.

Instead of looking at these citation standards as “wrong” or “evil”, it’s important to look at them as right for the medium (at least as far as the relationship between the author and their audience). That makes it crucial to look at why academic writing is different and why it needs a new citation standard.

Teaching Citation Code-Switching

Once you understand this, teaching citation becomes a more nuanced process. The goal isn’t simply to show students the “correct” way to cite their work, but to help them understand citation more holistically.

To that end, there are five steps to teaching students to think about citation in this light:

  1. Teach WHY Citation is Important: Tell students why citation is necessary. Focus in particular on how taking credit for the work of another is a lie.
  2. Discuss Audience Expectation: Explain that audiences have different expectations in different media and in different environments. For example, when no originality is presumed, no citation may be necessary at all to avoid plagiarism, such as with social media and ghostwriting.
  3. Discuss How Citation Standards Form: Explain how that audience expectation combines with the format and medium to develop a citation standard for it. Compare, for example, how movies use end credits, blog posts use in-line links and academic works use footnotes.
  4. Study How Citation Standards Formed in Academia: Explain the development of the citation standards in academia including both how and why they came about.
  5. Teach the Current Standards and How to Follow Them: Teach the relevant citation standard you’re using (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.) and how to follow it. This also has to include guides on what to cite, where to cite it and how. This is, the extent of citation education most students get today.

The goal isn’t just to teach students HOW to cite academic works, by WHY they are doing it and how this standard connects to other standards they already understand.

In short, while academic citation standards might seem like they have little to do with citation on Facebook or elsewhere online, they’re both examples of citation standards that evolved over time.

Explaining that may help some students code-switch between the citation standards they know and the ones they have to use in the classroom.

Bottom Line

In the end, this idea isn’t very new. If we accept that citation is a writing skill the same as grammar or spelling, then citation code-switching is really just a part of the code-switching students already do when they write for a teacher.

But, for students to see that and understand that, their teachers must do so first.

Thinking of citation as part of the process of code-switching may make it easier for students to understand and help them understand not just how to cite, by why citation is important.

After all, even among students, there’s little dispute over the ethics of lying. Instead, the issue is what constitutes taking credit for a work.

Explaining that may be the first step to helping students really understand citation and attribution, something that too few students seem to truly grok.