Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Straw bibliography: A common error in student writing

Posted: Feb 08, 2015 17:02;
Last Modified: Feb 08, 2015 17:02

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This post describes a particular rhetorical technique that students often use in their essays that professional scholars never do: something I call the “straw bibliography.” If you learn to recognise these in your writing (and more importantly, learn how to handle them more professionally), the quality of your research will improve immensely.

Contents

What is a “straw bibliography”

“Straw bibliography” is the term I give to statements like the following, when they are unsupported by citations:

The question of the definition of medieval literature has long been a source of debate

Critics argue constantly about the role of women in literature

Ever since the Greeks, writers have debated the role of fate

I call these “straw bibliography” on analogy to “straw man” arguments: a straw man argument is an argument where you create non-existent opposing arguments that you can easily demolish in order to bolster your own case; a straw bibliography is a non-existent bibliographic claim that you make in order to bolster your own argument by suggesting it is widely studied.

Straw men arguments and straw bibliographies are both bad for the same reason: they prevent actual debate and discovery by substituting a false one instead. In a straw man argument, you create fake arguments that nobody would ever actually make in order to defeat them—ignoring actual counter arguments that it would be far more productive to engage with. In a straw man bibliography, you create a fake bibliographic record in order to support your argument—and ignore the almost certainly more interesting actual bibliography on a question that you could be dealing with.

How to avoid them

The solution to a straw bibliography is very simple: never make a bibliographic claim you cannot supply some examples for. I.e. if you say that critics have long discussed the lack of women in Huckleberry Finn, supply some examples in a citation immediately after you make the claim: since in this case I am claiming both that critics have discussed this and that they have done it for a long time, my list of references should include several works stretching back whatever you consider to represent a “a long time” (perhaps 50 years or so?).

This is in fact what professional scholars do. It is very common in professional research articles to have an early section that discusses previous bibliography on a question. Depending on the specific argument made, this will either include an actual discussion of the different views and positions or a lengthy footnote or parenthetical citation listing a number of people who have previously discussed this issue.

An example

By way of an example, here is a discussion of scholarly opinion about the errors in a famous manuscript of Bede’s Historia ecclesiatica from Notes and Queries 49.1 (2002), p. 4. The text in bold is the bibliographic claim; underlined text is the support that stops it being a straw bibliography:

IN the course of the last twenty years, a scholarly tradition has arisen concerning the remarkable accuracy with which the `St Petersburg Bede’ (St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Lat.Q.v.I.18 (referred to hereafter as P))1 reproduces the text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica. While the precise context in which this accuracy is claimed varies from scholar to scholar, its extent is described in almost identical terms in each case. As Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe puts it, `[P] is a particularly careful copy of the text. Excepting errors in the sources quoted by Bede (and thus, probably, in the originals), editors have reported only six errors in the text of Bede’s Historia, and these errors are minor.’2 Similar language is used by R.D.Fulk (`there appear to be just six errors in the text, so …the work [i.e. P] must be very close to the author’s autograph copy’)3 and M.B.Parkes (`there are only six errors in the text written by Bede himself. The high quality of the text in this copy [i.e. P] suggests that it cannot be very far removed from the author’s draft’).4

….

1 This is the manuscript formerly known as the `Leningrad Bede’. The shelf-mark was Leningrad, M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library, Lat.Q.v.I.18. The manuscript is often referred to by the siglum L in secondary discussions.

2 K.O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), 33.

3 R.D.Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia, 1992), 427.

4 M.B.Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982 (Jarrow, 1982), 5.

The text in bold is the piece that could easily be a straw bibliography, if I didn’t have the citations to back it up; the parts that stop it being a straw bibliography are underlined.

In this particular case, since the article is actually about what “accuracy” means, I go into detail about what some of these scholars say in particular, providing a sentence or two about each with an associated footnote. But if my article had been about something else this bibliographic tradition touches on, I could have done something like the following:

IN the course of the last twenty years, a scholarly tradition has arisen concerning the remarkable accuracy with which the `St Petersburg Bede’ (St Petersburg, National Library of Russia, Lat.Q.v.I.18 (referred to hereafter as P))1 reproduces the text of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica.”2

….

1 This is the manuscript formerly known as the `Leningrad Bede’. The shelf-mark was Leningrad, M.E.Saltykov-Schedrin Public Library, Lat.Q.v.I.18. The manuscript is often referred to by the siglum L in secondary discussions.

2 See for example, K.O’Brien O’Keeffe, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (Cambridge, 1990), 33; R.D.Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia, 1992), 427; M.B.Parkes, The Scriptorium of Wearmouth-Jarrow, Jarrow Lecture 1982 (Jarrow, 1982), 5.

(I’m using footnotes here, because that’s what Notes and Queries, the journal where this was published, requires. But most modern journals would prefer this in parenthetical form in the main text).

Why this isn’t pedantry

At first glance, this might seem like pedantry. Does it really matter that much that I can show specific examples of people talking about problems that I’m pretty sure have been discussed a lot?

The answer is that it really does matter. Especially in the Humanities, exactly who said what and exactly what they said are very often the source of extremely interesting analysis (this is why, in contrast to many other disciplines, humanists cite page numbers). Bibliographic patterns and histories, therefore, can reveal an awful lot about how people in the past understood things and about changes in this understanding through time.

Indeed, the article I am citing here is an example of that: I discovered this problem when I was collecting citations to avoid a straw bibliographic claim in a different article that scholars “have always recognised that the St. Petersburg Bede is among the more accurate of Bede manuscripts.” What I discovered when I checked the actual references I gathered to support this was that it had nowhere near “six” errors in it (that would be impossible in such a big manuscript)… and I ended up with this article explaining why people mistakenly thought it was.

So get in the habit of always supplying some examples when you make claims about how often some work or topic has been discussed. You’ll sometimes find that it actually hasn’t been discussed as much as you think it has, or that the debate goes off in a different direction than you suspect.

In my experience, the bibliography is never as straightforward as you think it is.

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Some quick notes on citation practice for undergraduates

Posted: Feb 04, 2015 18:02;
Last Modified: Feb 04, 2015 18:02

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Students seem always to get very nervous about citation… and, interestingly, perhaps through that nervousness, end up doing it in ways that professional scholars don’t.

Contents

Here are some tips that pros use for citation that undergraduates tend not to know:

Plagiarism is not a property crime.

Many students treat citations as, in essence, payment for ideas. Or perhaps better said, they seem to understand the absence of citations as a property crime: you “stole” somebody’s ideas or words.

But citation is not (primarily) an economic activity, but rather an evidentiary one. The point of citation is not to pay somebody for their ideas or words, but to show where your words and ideas came from. If you don’t cite things, then people don’t know what the basis for your evidence and claims is and they can’t refine or develop your arguments. Nobody is so original that nothing they say is based on what others said. You cite things so people can understand the context of your ideas.

You don’t need to quote things in order to cite them

Many students seem to think you need to quote something from somebody in order to cite them. You don’t and, unless they say something memorable the formulation of which is important to your argument, you probably shouldn’t.

There are three reasons why you might cite a work you are not quoting at some point in your paper:

  1. You are paraphrasing them: i.e. your point or evidence is very similar to theirs, but, since there was nothing important or memorable about how they said it, you are simply repeating what they said in your own words;
  2. You are synthesising or summarising information from them: i.e. you got your information from a source which you are now summarising in some way or extracting and reusing in a form that isn’t more or less exactly the way your source did it;
  3. You were influenced by the source (and perhaps others): i.e. you aren’t directly using their conclusions of evidence, but their conclusions or evidence had an influence on yours and agrees with yours or supports it.

In each of these cases, you would provide a citation to the work(s) in question; but you probably wouldn’t quote them.

Quotations should be in some way memorable

The only time you really need to quote somebody is if they say something you want to use in a memorable, non-obvious way and their particular formulation is important to you. You don’t have to quote formulations that are trivial or non-memorable. There must be 10,000 books about Jane Austen, for example, which contain the words “Austen writes…” somewhere in them. You don’t need to put “Austen writes” in quotation marks, however, because one of your source has this.

Citations can be retrofitted

An interesting exercise (and actually good for you as well), is to try and retrofit citations: i.e. add citations to your text after it is written.

There are two ways of doing this. The first is to write your paper the normal way, citing things as you use them, and then, when you are finished, go back through your paper and see how many additional sentences could reasonably contain a citation to the works you have already used. The second is to write a paper and then go through it trying to find evidence and sources for the things you’ve already said, or examples of other people who have said the same thing.

The point is to try and be extra generous with your citations, including them whenever they are related to your work, rather than just when they are the source of your work. Students often seem intent on including the minimum number of citations possible in their work; professional researchers, on the other hand, generally try to err on the side of the maximum possible number of references.

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Digital Plagiarism

Posted: Dec 15, 2008 13:12;
Last Modified: Mar 04, 2015 05:03

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Essay and test management software

I have recently started using plagiarism detection software. Not so much for the ability to detect plagiarism as for the essay submission- and grading- management capabilities it offered. Years ago I moved all my examinations and tests from paper to course management software (WebCT originally, now Blackboard, and soon Moodle). I discovered in my first year using that software that simply delivering and correcting my tests on-line—i.e. without making any attempt to automate any aspect of the grading—reduced the time I spent marking exams by an immediate 50%: it turned out that I had been spending as much time handling tests (sorting, adding, copying grades, etc.) as I had marking them—more, in fact, if you included the in-class time lost to proctoring and returning corrected work to students.

I long wondered whether I could capture the same kind of efficiencies by automating my essay administration. Here too, I thought that I spent a lot of time handling paper rather than engaging with content. In this case, however, I was not sure I would be able to gain the same kind of time-saving. While I was sure that I could streamline my workflow, I was afraid that marking on screen might prove much less efficient than pen and paper—to the point perhaps of actually hurting the quality and speed of my essay-grading.

My experience this semester has been that my fears about lack of efficiency in the intellectual aspects of my correction were largely unfounded. And that my hopes for improving my administrative efficiency closely reflected the actual possibilities. The amount of time I spend handling a given set of essays has now dropped by approximately the expected 50%. While marking on screen is slower than marking with a pencil (a paper that used to take me 20 minutes to mark now will take 24 to 25 minutes), the difference is both smaller than I originally feared and more than compensated by the administrative time-savings, again including the class time freed up from the need to collect and redistribute papers.

Detecting plagiarism

Although I use it primarily for essay management, plagiarism dedection software such as turnitin, the system I use, was, of course, originally designed to detect plagiarism—which means that I too can use it to check my students’ originality. The developers remind users that a lack of originality is not the same thing as plagiarism: plagiarism is a specific type of lack of originality and even good pieces of work will have numerous passages in common with other texts in the software’s database. Obvious examples of this include quotations from works under discussion and bibliographic entries. It is also quite common to see the occasional short phrase or clause flagged in otherwise original work, especially at the beginning of paragraphs or in passages introducing or linking quotations. Presumably there are only so many ways of saying “In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen writes…”. In shorter papers, in fact, it is not unusual to see non-plagiarised student papers with as much as 30%-40% of their content flagged initially as being as “non-original.”

Some students, however, actually do plagiarise—which I understand to mean the use of arguments, examples, or words of another as if they were one’s own. When marking by hand, I’ve generally considered this to be a relatively small problem. In twelve years at the University of Lethbridge, I’ve caught probably less than ten students whose work was significantly plagiarised. Obviously I’ve never been able to say whether this was because my methods for discovering such work were missing essays by more successful plagiarists or because the problem really wasn’t that significant. Using plagiarism detection software gave me the opportunity of checking how well I had been doing catching plagiarists the old fashioned way, when I was marking by hand.

To the extent that one semesters’ data is a sufficient sample, my preliminary conclusions are that the problem of plagiarism, at least in my classes, seems to be more-or-less as insignificant as I thought it was when I graded by hand, and that my old method of discovering plagiarism (looking into things when a paper didn’t seem quite “right”) seemed to work.1 This past semester, I caught two people plagiarising. But neither of them had particularly high unoriginality scores: in both cases, I discovered the plagiarism after something in their essays seemed strange to me and caused me to go through originality reports turnitin provides on each essay more carefully. I then went through the reports for every essay submitted by that class (a total of almost 200), to see if I had missed any essays that turnitin’s reports suggested might be plagiarised. None of the others showed the same kind of suspicious content that had led me to suspect the two I caught. So for me, at least, the “sniff test” remains apparently reliable.

How software improves on previous methods of detecting plagiarism

Even though it turns out that I apparently can still rely on my ability to discover plagiarism intuitively, there are two things about plagiarism detection software that do mark an improvement over previous methods of identifying such problems by hand. The first is how quickly such software lets instructors test their hunches. In the two cases I caught this semester, confirming my hunch took less than a minute: I simply clicked on the originality report and compared the highlighted passages until I discovered a couple that were clearly copied by the students without ackowledgement in ways that went beyond reasonable use, unconscious error, or unrealised intellectual debt. Working by hand would have required me to Googling specific phrases from the paper one after the other and/or go to the library and to find a print source for the offending passages. In the past it has often taken me hours to make a reasonable case against even quite obvious examples of plagiarism.

The second improvement brought on by plagiarism detection software lies in the type of misuse of sources it uncovers. Although I became suspicious about the originality of the two papers I caught this semester on my own rather than through the software’s originality report, the plagiarism I uncovered from the originality report was in both cases quite different from anything I have seen in the past. Instead of the wholesale copying from one or two sources I used to see occasionally when I marked by hand, the plagiarism I found this year with turnitin involved the much more subtle use of unacknowledged passages, quotations, and argument and at key moments in the students’ papers. In the old days, my students used to plagiarise with a shovel; these students were plagiarising with a scalpel. I’m not completely sure I would have been able to find the sources for at least some of this unacknowledged debt if I had been looking by hand.

A new kind of plagiarism

This is where my title comes in. It is of course entirely possible that students always have plagiarised in this way and that I (and many of my colleagues) simply have missed it because it is so hard to spot by hand. But I think that the plagiarism turnitin caught in these two essays this semester actually may represent a new kind of problem involving the misappropriation of sources in student work—a problem that has different origins, and may even involve more examples of honest mistake, than we used to see when students had to go to the library to steal their material. Having interviewed a number of students in the course of the semester, I am in fact fairly firmly convinced that what turnitin found is a symptom of new problems in genre and research methodology that are particularly to the current generation of students—students who are undergoing their intellectual maturation as young adults in a digital culture that is quite different from that of even five years ago. What they were doing was still culpable—the great majority of my students were able to avoid misappropriating other peoples’ ideas in their essays. But new technologies, genres, and student approaches to note-taking are making it easier for members of the current generation to “fall into” plagiarism without meaning to in ways that previous generations of students would not. In the old days, you had to positively decide to plagiarise an essay by buying one off a friend or going to the library and actually typing text out that you were planning to present as your own. Nowadays, I suspect, students who plagiarise the way my two students did this semester do so because they haven’t taken steps to prevent it from happening.

Digital students, the essay, and the blog

This first thing to realise about how our students approach our assignments has to do with genre. For most (pre-digital) university instructors, the essay is self-evidently the way one engages with humanistic intellectual problems. It is what we were taught in school and practiced at university. But more importantly, it was almost exclusively how argument and debate were conducted in the larger society. The important issues of the day were discussed in magazines and newspapers by journalists whose opinion pieces were also more-or-less similar to the type of work students were asked to do at the university: reasoned, original, and polished pieces of writing in which a single author demonstrated his or her competence by the focussed selection of argument and supporting evidence. The value of a good essay—at the university or in the newspaper—lay in the author’s ability to digest arguments and evidence and make it his or her own: find and assimilate the most important material into an original argument that taught the reader a new way of understanding the information and opinions of others.

For most contemporary students, however, the essay is neither the only nor the most obviously appropriate way of engaging with the world of ideas, politics, and culture. Far more common, certainly numerically and, increasingly, in influence, is the blog—and making a good blog can often involve skills that are anathemetic to the traditional essay. While it is possible to publish essays using blog software, the point of blogs, increasingly, is less to digest facts and arguments than to accumulate and react to them. Political blogs—like the Ed Morrisey’s Captain’s Quarters (now at Hot Air, or Dan Froomkin’s (Whitehouse Watch)—tend to consist of collections of material from other on-line sources interspaced with opinion. The skill an accomplished blogger brings to this type of material lies in the ability to select and organise these quotations. A good blog, unlike a good essay, builds its argument and topic through the artful arrangement and excerpting of usually verbatim material passages from other people’s work—in much the same way that some types of music are based on the original use and combination of digitised sound samples from earlier recordings.

In other forums this method of “argument by quotation” is the norm: every video worth anything on YouTube has at least one response—a companion video where somebody else picks up on what the original contributor has done and answers back, usually with generous visual or verbal quotation. Professional examples include the various Barack Obama tributes that were a defining feature of the 2008 Democratic Primary in the U.S. (examples include the work of Obama Girl= and will.i.am= ). But amateur examples are also extremely common—as was the case with the heavy amateur response to the question of whether the “(lonelyGirl15)” series of 2005 was actually a professional production.

The real evidence of the evolving distinction between the essay and the blog as methods of argumentation and literary engagement, however, can be seen in the blogs that newspapers are increasingly asking their traditional opinion columnists to write. It is no longer enough to write essays about the news, though the continued existence and popularity of the (on-line and paper) newspaper column shows that there is still an important role for this kind of work. Newspapers (and presumably their readers) also now want columnists to document the process by which they gather the material they write about—creating a second channel in which they accumulate and react to facts and opinions alongside their more traditional essays. Among the older journalists, an example of this is Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times, who supplements his column with a blog and other interactive material about the subjects he feels most passionate about. In his column he digests evidence and makes arguments; in his blog he accumulates the raw material he uses to write his columns and presents it to others as part of a process of sharing his outrage.

In the case of our students, the problem this generic difference between the blog and the essay causes is magnified by the way they conduct their research. On the basis of my interviews, it appears to me that most of my first year students now conduct their research and compile their notes primarily by searching the Internet, and, when they find an interesting site, copying and pasting large sections of verbatim quotation into their word processor. Often they include the URL of this material with the quotations; but because you can always find the source of a passage you are quoting from the Internet, it is easy for them to get sloppy. Once this accumulation of material is complete, they then start to add their own contribution to the collection, moving the passages they have collected around and interspacing them with their opinions, arguments, and transitions.

This is, of course, how bloggers, not essayists, work. Unfortunately, since we are asking them to write essays, the result if they are not careful is something that belongs to neither genre: it is not a good blog, because it is not spontaneous, dynamic, or interactive enough; and it is not a good traditional essay, because it is more pastiche than an original piece of writing that takes its reader in an new direction. The best students working this way do in the end manage to overcome the generic mismatch between their method of research and their ultimate output, producing something that is more controlled and intellectually original than a blog. But less good students, or good students working under mid- or end-of-term pressure, are almost unavoidably leaving themselves open to producing work that is, in a traditional sense at least, plagiarised—by forgetting to distinguish, perhaps even losing track of the distinction, between their own comments and opinions and those of others, or by collecting and responding exclusively to passages mentioned in the work of others rather than finding new and original passages that support their particular arguments.

This is still plagiarism: it is no more acceptable to misrepresent the words and ideas of others as your own in the blogging world as it is in the world of the traditional essay. And in fact it is more invidious that the older style of plagiarism that involved copying large chunks out of other people’s work: in the new, digital plagiarism, the unackowledged debt tends to come in the few places that really matter in a good essay: the interesting thesis, the bold transition, the surprising piece of evidence that make the work worth reading. Because it is so closely tied to new genres and research methods, however, this type of plagiarism may also have as much a cultural as a “criminal” motivation. In preventing it, instructors will need to take into account the now quite different ways of working and understanding intellectual argument that the current generation of students bring with them into the classroom.

Advice to the Digital Essayist

So how can the contemporary student avoid becoming a Digital Plagiarist?

The first thing to do is realise the difference between the essay and the blog. When you write an essay, your reader is interested in your ability to digest facts and arguments and set your own argumentative agenda. A blog that did not allow itself to be driven by current events, incidents, and arguments in its field of endeavour—whether this is an event in the blogger’s personal life or the ebb and flow of an election campaign—would not be much of a blog. Essays are not bound by this constraint, however: they can be about things nobody is talking about and make arguments that don’t respond to anybody. Even when, as is more normal and probably better, essays do engage with previous arguments and topics that are of some debate, the expectation is that the essayist will digest this evidence and these opinions and shape the result in ways that point the reader in new directions—not primarily to new sources, but rather to new claims and ideas that are not yet part of the current discourse.

The second thing to realise is just how dangerous the approach many students take to note-taking is in terms of inviting charges of plagiarism. In a world of Google, where text is data that can be found, aggregated, copied, and reworked with the greatest of ease, it is of course very tempting to take notes by quotation. When people worked with paper, pens, and typewriters, quotation was more difficult and time-consuming: when you had to type out quotations by hand, writing summaries and notes was far quicker. Nowadays, it is much easier and less time-consuming to quote something than it is to take notes: when you find an interesting point in an on-line source, it uses far fewer keystrokes (and less intellectual effort) to highlight, copy, and paste the actual verbatim text of the source in a file than it does to turn to the keyboard and compose a summary statement or not. And if you are used to reading blogs, you know that this method can be used to summarise even quote long and complex arguments.

There are two problems, however. The first is that this method encourages you to write like a blogger rather than an essayist: your notes are set up in a way that makes it easier to write around your quotations (linking, organising, and responding to them) than to digest what they are saying and produce a new argument that takes your reader in unexpected directions.

The second problem is that it is almost inevitable that you will end up accidentally incorporating the words and ideas of your sources in your essay without acknowledgement. It is easy, in reworking your material, to drop a set of quotation marks, or to start paraphrasing something and then end up editing it back into an almost verbatim quotation—without realising what you’ve done. And it is even easier to get sloppy in your initial note-taking—forgetting to put quotation marks around passages you’ve copied or losing the source URL. Once you add your own material to this collection of quotations in the file that will eventually become your essay, you will discover that it is almost impossible to remember or distinguish between what you have added and what you got from somebody else.

One way of solving this is to change the way you take notes, doing less quoting and more summarising. Doing this might even help you improve the originality of your essays by forcing you to internalise your evidence and arguments. But cutting and pasting from digital sources is so easy that you are unlikely ever to stop doing it completely—and even if your do, you are very likely to run into trouble again the moment you face the pressure of multiple competing deadlines.

A better approach is to develop protocols and practices that help you reduce the chances that your research method will cause you to commit unintentional plagiarism. In other words to find a way of working that allows you to keep doing the most important part of what you currently do (and are going to continue to do no matter what your instructors say), but in a fashion that won’t lead you almost unavoidably into plagiarising from your sources at some point in your career.

Perhaps the single most important thing you can do in this regard is to establish a barrier between your research and your essay. In a blog, building your argument around long passages of text that you have cut and pasted into your own document is normal and accepted; in essay writing it isn’t. So when you come to write an essay, create two (or more) files: one for the copying and pasting you do as part of your research (or even better, one file for each source from which you copy and paste or make notes), and, most importantly, a separate file for writing your essay. In maintaining this separate file for you essays, you should establish a rule that nothing in this file is to be copied directly from an outside source. If you find something interesting in your research, you should copy this material into a research file; only if you decide to use it in your essay should should you copy it from your research file into your essay file.In other words, your essay file is focussed on your work: in that file, the words and ideas of others appear only when you need them to support your already existing arguments.

An even stricter way of doing this is to establish a rule that nothing is ever pasted into your essay file: if you want to quote a passage in your text, you can decide that you will only type it out by hand. This has the advantage of discouraging you from over-quoting or building your essay around the words of others—something that is fine in a blog, but bad in an essay. If this rule sounds too austere and difficult to enforce, at least make it a rule that you paste nothing into you essay before you have composed the surrounding material—i.e. the paragraph in which the passage is to appear and the sentence that is supposed to introduce it. Many professional essayists, especially those who learned to write before there were word-processors, actually leave examples and supporting quotations out of their earliest drafts—using place holders like “{{put long quotation from p35 here}}” to represent the material they are planning to quote until they have their basic argument down.

Another thing you could try is finding digital tools that will make your current copy-and-paste approach to note-taking more valuable and less dangerous. In the pre-digital era, students often took notes on note cards or in small notebooks. They would read a source in the library with a note card or notebook in front of them. They would begin by writing basic bibliographic information on this card or notebook. Then, when they read something interesting, they would write a note on the card or in the notebook, quoting the source if they thought the wording was particularly noteworthy or apt. By the time they came to write their essays, they would have stacks of cards or a series of notebooks, one dedicated to each work or idea.

There are several ways of replicating (and improving on) this method digitally. One way is to use new word-processor files for each source: every time you discover a new source, start a new file in your word-processor, recording the basic information you need to find the source again (URL, title, author, etc.). Then start pasting in your quotations and making your notes in this file. When you are finished you give your file a descriptive name that will help you remember where it came from and save it.

Using your word-processor for this method will be cumbersome (you’ll spend a lot of time opening and closing files), difficult to use when you come to write (in a major essay you might end up with tens of files open on your desktop alongside the new file for your essay), and difficult to oversee (unless you have an excellent naming system, you will end up with a collection of research files with cryptic sounding names of which you have forgotten the significance). And if you can’t remember the specific source of a given quotation or fact, it will be hard to find later without special tools or opening and closing each file.

But other tools exist that allow you to implement this basic method more easily. Citation managers such as Endnote or Refworks, for example, tie notes to bibliographic entries. If you decide to try one of these, you start your entry for a new source (i.e. the equivalent of your paper notebook or note card) by entering it in the bibliographic software (This will also allow you to produce correctly formatted bibliographies and work cited lists quickly and automatically later on when you are ready to hand in your paper in). You then use the “notes” section as the place for pasting quotations and adding comments and notes that you might want to reuse in your paper. There is no problem with naming files (your notes are all stored under the relevant bibliographic entry in a single database), with moving between sources (you call up the each source by the bibliographic reference), and in most cases you will be able to use a built in search function to find passages in your notes if you forget which particular work you read them in.

Bibliographic databases and citation managers are great if all your notes revolve around material from text-based sources. But what if you also need to record observations, evidence, interviews, and the like that cannot easily be tied to specific references? In this case, the best tool may be a private wiki—for example at PbWiki (or if you are computer literate, and have access to a server, a private installation of MediaWiki, the software that runs the Wikipedia).

We tend to think of wikis as being primarily media for the new type of writing that characterises collaborative web applications like the Wikipedia or Facebook. In actual fact, however, wikis have a surprising amount in common with the notebooks or stacks of note cards students used to bring with them to the library. Unlike an entry in citation management software, wiki entry pages are largely free-form space on which you can record arbitrary types of information—a recipe, an image (more accurately a link to an image rather than the image itself), pasted text, bibliographic information, tables of numerical data, and your own annotations and comments on any of the above. As with an index card, you can return to your entry whenever you want in order to add or erase things (though a wiki entry, unlike an index card preserves all your original material as well), or let others comment on. And as with note cards you can shuffle and arrange them in various different ways depending on your needs—using the category feature, you can create groupings that collect all the pages you want to use in a given essay, or that refer to a specific source, or involve a particular topic. Of course unlike notes cards which had to be sorted physically, wiki entries can simultaneously belong to more than one grouping; and because they are stored in a database, you can search your wiki automatically, looking for passages and ideas even if you don’t remember where you saw them.

However you decide to solve this problem, the most important thing is to avoid the habit which is most likely to lead you into (unintentionally) plagiarising from your sources: starting an essay by copying and pasting large passages of direct quotation into the file that you ultimately intend to submit to your instructor. In an essay, unlike a blog, the point is to hear what you have to say.


1 I now take back the claim that this is as insignificant as I thought. In the year-end papers, I found a surprisingly large number of papers with plagiarised passaged in them (five or six out of sixty with perhaps one or two doubtful cases). At the same time, a paper-by-paper review of the originality reports still seems to confirm that one can rely on one’s hunches—I’ve not yet found plagiarism in a paper that didn’t seem right as I was reading it. The larger number of hits is coming from the ability turnitin is giving me to check my hunches more easily and quickly, The pattern I describe above of writing between large quotations and paraphrases still seems to be holding true, however—as is the age or generational difference: my senior students are not nearly as likely to write essays like this.

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