Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Lets talk about referencing... No! I want to tell you about PLAGIARISM!

I am getting frustrated about all this talk and all these resources on plagiarism.

I don't profess to have any expertise on the subject of referencing, but I am an interested party.  I know about using the Harvard system and I know that students find it hard to grasp at first.  Like anything, if it is new it needs to be learnt and mistakes will be made.  

Soon after the end of my first semester at University I heard about a course friend who had been accused of plagiarising.  I never saw him again in lectures as he left soon after, his confidence having been taken away by the experience.  His 'crime' was simply that he had been educated in a different country that looks upon these things in a different way, and he had not fully understood the consequences of not properly referencing.  To me though, the real crime was that education had lost a bright and inquisitive mind. 

Throughout my first year as an undergraduate, the subject of referencing was raised a few times, but we were never really taught why it was important and how to do it correctly.  Instead we were given a tired old handout, originating from an American University, and there was some further information on the University VLE. Part of the problem was also that there is so much for a new student to take in, that it is sometimes hard to know what is important.

A few years later I was given the opportunity to join a team creating reusable learning objects (yes, I know, the name simply rolls off the tongue and is as clear as mud). We immediately jumped on the subject of referencing and what resulted was these resources that try to make it a little bit easier for students to understand what they need to do.  Unfortunately, with the fast pace of technology, coupled with our changing expectations, these look quite dated now.

Referencing Books

Referencing your work using Harvard

Soon after these were created I started to see many others, and now almost every university has their own version to some degree.  However, in the past few years I am seeing less resources about referencing and more about plagiarism.  Instead of teaching good technique, we start by warning about the consequences of not referencing.  This is the wrong way to teach.  

Each time a journalist writes an article about plagiarism, the ears of Senior Management Teams prick up and they worry that the negative press will impact on their income and reputations.  Soon after, a new plagiarism resource is born, with willing academics touring the conferences, using all manner of sesquipedalian terminology to persuade the audience of the value of their new tool. 

Technology also plays its part with software that can almost replace the academic, knowing to the nth degree what you have cut and paste and where it all originated from.  We now hear of cases of students who, god forbid, reuse their own work and end up being punished for it. That's not something a real academic would ever do in order to meet targets, is it??...

But, to my mind there is a solution.  We need to chill out. First year students should be given time and freedom to learn.  During this time plagiarism should not result in punishment for the student, but should be seen as a weakness of the teaching.  Students should be free to make mistakes, and every university should be teaching referencing positively with the same rigour you would expect for any subject. After all, if it is that important, then we should be willing to give students time to learn how to reference correctly.  

There is also a role to be played in Further Education and Sixth Forms, who could teach about referencing much better than they do now.  I recently did a short course on Psychology, six weeks learning about Piaget, Binet and Vygotzsky. At the end of the course we were asked to write a 1500 word essay on what we had learnt.  We were asked to show our work to the teacher before handing it in for marking.  It was only after that point, once we had completed our drafts and been given feedback, that we were asked to add a Bibliography on the end of it.  No real explanation given to why, just it was required and we would be marked down for not doing it.

Like so many of my posts, I do not have an ending.  I am frustrated at this trend of teaching that seems to be conducted in such a negative manner and it annoys me that we should place the responsibility for plagiarism on the individual from day one.  But I would like to think that there is a lot of good practice going on, despite what I have read.  So perhaps the best ending to a post like this would be if people reading this share their own thoughts and experiences, as that would end up being the best conclusion.

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