Perplexed by Plagiarism – What Students May Not Know About Referencing Conventions

Students, when asked what the purpose of referencing is in papers, are likely to respond “to avoid plagiarism.”  Slightly less rule-bound and more educationally enlightened, some might say “to show where the ideas in my paper came from.”  Now, while these interpretations may be accurate, they are incomplete and indicate a rather narrow view that may explain why students often report being perplexed by the notions plagiarism, originality, and authorship.

Looking back, it wasn’t until I was a grad student that I started to recognize and value the information that referencing conventions provide.  As an undergraduate student, I recall believing there was a “quota” of references to be filled in the few papers that I did write and that I needed to be sure I quoted those references according to some format that I was to mimic.  By the time I was writing my graduate level papers and my master’s thesis, I had started to think of the referencing system I was now learning (APA in my case) as a short hand for conveniently identifying the research and points of view that had informed my own written work.   During my doctoral studies, I began to see referencing as a way of mapping knowledge and building arguments that even symbolized the pervasive epistemologies and ontologies of my field.  Now, I often quickly flip to the last page of an interesting article or book, looking for those new or old gems in the field that I have yet to encounter.

I recognize that our present day undergrads likely need and deserve some specific instruction about how and why to reference.   In my teaching practice, I offer explanation about the referencing system and why it suits our subject, how it supports the development of arguments in our field, how it differentiates the writer’s original ideas from the ideas of others, and how it directly benefits the reader as a type of map to the ideas contained in the paper.  To make it relevant to students’ needs, I emphasize that being able to identify and track meaningful resources in their writing is a key skill for professional writing and may distinguish them to future supervisors and employers aswell as protect them from claims of plagiarism and intellectual property breaches that do occur in workplaces.

The U of S library provides a comprehensive listing of citation guides, a web page worth sharing with students to demonstrate the varying protocols by discipline and the resources available to assist them in learning the protocols.

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