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.


  1. So glad to see you blogging again. I have always felt that an assignment given that allows a student to plagiarize is the fault of the teacher. I also believe in the process of remixing, which acknowledges the original source and recreates it in a different context. This is not plagiarism. This is meaning making that we should encourage of all of our students. Keep writing!

    1. Yes, I think it is common sense. If you come with no understanding of referencing or from a background of being taught in a different way, then you need to give those people time to learn the new methods... longer than they do at the moment, anyway. And I think when the student understands how to reference... not just the mechanics of where to cite in a sentence and whether to use exact words or paraphrase, but understanding that you can use others words to express your own personal view... it is at that point the teaching and learning of it becomes quite worthwhile as it moves from being a requirement under the rules, to something that is empowering.

      In regards to my blogging, I have another post about feminism in mind, but trying to write about that in a way that doesn't make me come across as some sort of Neanderthal is more difficult than I anticipated.

  2. Andy, I love your suggestions for allowing the teaching of good referencing habits to be embedded into the course. You are absolutely right! I think that it can be difficult to spend a lot of time on it in the fifth and sixth form curriculum as they are trying to cover so much ground and are under intense pressure during those years. However the idea of allowing the development of the knowledge and skill as student progress through first year of their degree courses is extremely sensible.

    1. Hi, thanks for commenting. I'm never sure about my thoughts so its nice to see someone who likes them.

      In regards to colleges I'm sure it is difficult and I accept they have a lot on their plate, but from my limited experience (I completed an Access course too before my degree) they could do more than they do at present. Especially if those courses are bridges into higher education.

  3. Hi Andy, and Cathleen, nice to hear your thoughts :) It has always amazed me how popular the topic of plagiarism became in the past decade and how many people are making a (f... boring) career out of talking about it... and how lacking the whole discourse is in any theory of language learning! I very agree that it should be about learning to recognise written text as conversation and that it's a matter of awareness and politeness to acknowledge sources... not a matter of crime and punishment. The whole culture has become so obsessed and fearful that first year students are expected to hand in publication quality assignments, it's absurd. But what irrits me the most is when academics don't actually teach what they demand of students - crazy. Me? I like to assign a bibliography building exercise in the first week as a small group activity, and have students post their search and document sources work online so that I can then put everyone's efforts on the big screen in the next class and peer review until correct... then we use that for work on summarising as we then annotate the bibliographies, and peer review again... every time students write is a good opportunity for peer review and reflection... which they do, because a learning journal / digital story thingy is an assignment, so the marks give incentive to pay close attention to this and every other aspect of what is stated as an ILO (I think that is pom terminology right? intended learning outcome?) Anyway, it works, and everyone learns about referencing by doing it and helping each other get it right, as we tend to see errors in others' work before we see it in our own!

    1. Hi Emily, we all seem to be in agreement over this, which is odd as that is contrasted by what I keep on reading. And it is so often written in a fashion that suggests a seriousness that I didn't experience as a student and often leaves an impression that students are not being taught properly before coming to Uni.

      Your way of teaching seems good and I like that it is peer reviewed. Is it left up to the individual teacher/lecturer or is there a broader strategy for teaching it?

      I took part in a lovely, fun and memorable way of teaching it last year which involved lego. The lecture begins with us sat with several pots of Lego on the tables around the room. Carina Buckley (Southampton Solent) then instructed us to build a Lego animal of our choice and construct it using only 7 pieces out of any pot we wished. After we had built our animals and showed off our creations to the rest of the class, Carina then asked us which pot the individual pieces were from, and if we did not know she would take away the piece. The moral of the story being if you can't reference you cannot use it. It was a lot of fun and one well worth using to introduce the topic of referencing. Her abstract is here, although it doesn't go into loads of detail:


  4. Hi Andy, great as always to hear/read your comments. And such passion!
    Yep I am also in agreement to a large extent. Recently I have been looking over the older RLO’s that were created and do agree that the technology has moved on – I also think there are different ways to address this issue. And lets not be fooled it is a large issue, its not just about students being punished, it can make the difference between pass and fail, and a credit/distinction.
    I am working on a project here with Robert Walsha, guess what? It is a plagiarism project… but its main focus is on referencing and ‘Why you need to reference’, as highlighted by you this is the main thing – when students understand the reason why they need to reference it almost always makes sense to them. What else would you do in the field of academia? The project is being developed in an interesting and fun way… I will send you the details and soon as it is starting to look like something, Robert has some great ideas here and I am very hopeful of its outcome.

    I have also decided to rework the RLO’s on this subject and create a site as a ‘One stop shop for referencing’ and again its focus will be on ‘why we need to reference’. I have also spoken to the library staff here who also have a very keen interest in developing such a project, and of course CELT. So we are all meeting up soon to discuss the various methods of approaching this. I guess we will all have our own ideas (I certainly have), but this is a start in the right direction…. Don’t you think?
    Again I will keep you posted about its progress – but this project may take just a little more time…

    So looking at what we hope to achieve – I would like to think the idea now is as you have stated – the focus should be on the referencing.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your thoughts... and great to learn about your project. It sounds good and I would love to be kept informed.

      One thing I want to pick up on, 'why we need to reference' is not the term I would use. It is the truth, but I'd want to express it in a way that makes a student feel enthusiastic about wanting to reference, not that they feel they have to do it (although they do).

      I don't have the exact words to hand but I remember something very clearly which may or may not help... Many of the students we spoke to during RLO-CETL days, including me to begin with, could not see how using references helped them to express THEIR opinions and THEIR ideas. Instead, they were frustrated that they had to use other peoples. Questions would often be along the lines of 'when do I get to include my own opinions in an assignment?'... so perhaps an idea would be for your project to address that sort of question. I think this is important because once it is understood that another's ideas can be used to express your own, the lightbulb switches on and it moves referencing from a chore to something more empowering.

    2. Hi Andy, yes spot on... use the references to support their argument... way to go...

  5. I agree. The emphasis most definitely should not be on plagiarism, and scare tactics. However, the question is how to approach this? I think that whilst the emphasis on plagiarism is the wrong approach, so is the emphasis on referencing. Referencing is just a tool to allow us to build on to the work of others. Surely we should be teaching students to be able to write a coherent argument, referring to, and critically analysing, and developing on the work of those who have gone before us?

    I've not taught a study skills class for over a year now but I used to try very much to make the class an environment for discussion and debate rather than a lecture on the correct place for the full stop.

    Unfortunately part of the problem is that where time is precious (and when have you ever heard a lecturer or student say that they had too much time to cover the fundamentals), teaching of “the subject” always takes priority over these type of skills.

    I absolutely agree with you that students should be given the opportunity to learn and make mistakes.

    I also agree that referencing shouldn't be something that is new when entering an HE environment. I spent 5 years working in a mixed economy college and I can see where steps are being made (usually with individuals) but a lot more work is needed.

    I agree with an earlier poster that we should be trying to create assessments where plagiarism just isn't an option.

    I also feel that if we're going to bang on about it so much, then we need to set good examples. A poorly put together reading list isn't setting the greatest example after all is it?

    As to how to go forward… I’m not convinced that it’s a difficult concept, we’re used to acknowledging the ‘work’ of others in everyday life. Every time you retweet something and add your own take. Or share a photo on Facebook and add your own comments. Perhaps this could be a starting point for sharing good practice?

    1. Thanks for your comment. On your last point, I've been saying the same about Social Media for years now, seemingly to deaf ears... I know it is used as an example by some , but you don't see it mentioned in much of the related resources. I think in part, because we still have many academics resisting to engage in Social Media and this new fangled interweb.


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