Students read things. Students also write things. At the best of times, these activities are combined in the form of essays or theses, where the students draw upon a large number of sources (that they have read) and forge the ideas put forth by these sources into a coherent whole (that they have written). By doing so, the students demonstrate that they can navigate the world of the written word. More so, they demonstrate that they can use the vast riches of accumulated human knowledge in order to structure a well-reasoned account of something they have a non-trivial grasp of. By mobilizing the available knowledge in a given field, they become – metaphorical and literal – masters of a subject.
Of course, at the worst of times, they just copy a text that looks fancy and hand it in. Sometimes without even reading the text in question, thus performing neither the reading nor the writing aspects of student life.
There is a word for this worst case scenario, and that word is “plagiarism”.
Whether you are in academia or not, you are likely to have a vague notion that plagiarism is bad. Some instances of plagiarism need little explanation as to why they are wrong, such as the clear-cut example of turning in something that someone else wrote. Taking someone else’s idea and passing it off as your own – even if it is rewritten in your own words – is also understood to be on the wrong side of the fence. It is generally understood that you ought to do the work and give credit where it is due.
Given this, it might be surprising to find that Diane Pecorari’s book Teaching to avoid plagiarism (2013) has more than a hundred pages and touches on a wide range of topics, from literacy, to university management, to the sociology of knowledge. If the issue of plagiarism is as clear-cut as I made it out to be above, why would there be a need for any kind of lengthy discourse on the topic?
The reason for this goes back to the very first paragraph of this text, and the complex relation between reading and writing. Students are expected to read and write, and to write in such a way that it is clear to anyone who reads where their ideas and influences come from. This is a very specific way of writing, with a very specific set of rules and traditions, and it is not always clear from the students’ perspective how these rules and traditions work. The role of the university (and its teachers) is to introduce students to these rules and traditions. Hence, teaching to avoid plagiarism.
The requirement to produce a text on a deadline creates all manner of incentives for students to engage in a weaker sense of plagiarism – patchwriting. That is to say, to read the words in a given text, rephrase these words into slightly different words, and call it a day (with or without referencing a source). The students have fulfilled the goals the particular assignment set out for them – to produce a text – but not the more overall goal of engaging critically with the required reading and the ideas contained within. While patchwriting is not as severe as stealing a text outright, it does point to the heart of the matter: critical literacy and the ability to perform academic writing.
The goal of academic writing is to be as precise, clear and transparent as possible. A good academic text draws upon available sources and describes what these sources have to say accurately and succinctly. The purpose of this is to give a fair account of what others have to say on the topic, and to give readers the chance to navigate themselves to the ideas they need to understand in order to follow the line of reasoning from start to finish. (Whilst, hopefully, also avoiding the mistakes previous thinkers made while thinking on the same topic.) When readers are finished reading an academic text, they will have all the tools they need to understand what they just read. And where to look for more reading on the topic.
In order to produce such a text, students must have read the texts they refer to. Moreover, they must have understood them sufficiently to give an account of what was said, and in which context, and from which perspective. In short, they must do a non-insignificant amount of deep reading, and be able to show that they have done it. The means of showing that the work has been done is proper sourcing. That is to say, stating clearly and transparently which ideas come from which texts, and how these ideas are used in the context of the student’s own writing.
A common misconception is that you are not allowed to contribute anything of your own. Paradoxically, the point of building your own text through the texts of others is to give you the means to contribute something that is truly your own. When you have done the work of reading what others had to say, you can then compare and contrast your own thoughts – and contribute your own perspective to the discussion. When you have shown that you have thought through what others have to say, you have also shown that you have thought through what you have to say. You know who is who and what is what, and thus you have earned a seat at the table.
(The inverse of this is, of course, people who say things without doing any research whatsoever, and find their cases undermined by a simple Google search. While they might be ever so passionate about a given subject, their contribution is less than constructive and insightful.)
As you might imagine, this is a lot of work. It requires the application of many skills and competencies that are not obvious at first glance. Understanding the mechanical details of how to source ideas properly is hard in and of itself – especially since there are several ways of going about it (MLA, APA, etc). While these details can be learnt by spending enough time in the presence of these writing conventions, knowing them is not sufficient. Effort is required to attain a deeper understanding of how to use texts as (re)sources and tools for specific purposes. Even more so when it comes to understanding that different texts are appropriate for different tasks, and that there is a whole worldview associated with knowing what to invoke where. It begins with knowing that Wikipedia is of relative value as a source, and escalates from there.
When seen this way, proper source use is less about getting the formalities right and more about relating yourself as an independent subject towards the world (of texts and in general). Teaching to avoid plagiarism thus translates into easing students into such ways of thinking, and into assisting them in finding their own ways of being in relation. This is not an easy task, and Pecorari (2013) makes a point of repeating that it is the responsibility of the whole university to help students along in this regard. Not just once or twice, but through a sustained effort throughout the entire course of education.
This is slightly more involved than simply finding those students who turn in papers they neither wrote nor read. To be sure, there will always be a few who simply steal a text wholesale and turn it in as their own accomplishment, and those need to be dealt with somehow. But on a more general level, the purpose of higher education is to produce human being capable of critical literacy, and this end requires more sophisticated means than mere punishment.