Dear students: Citing your sources incorrectly is not plagiarism

There’s a unit in the course I teach where I present students with a set of what I call(1) “information creation scenarios.” These are hypothetical situations, many adapted from real life incidents that have made the news, in which I ask the student to imagine themselves in the shoes of an information creator for whom something has gone terribly wrong: a social media post that’s gone viral in a bad way/for bad reasons, an original piece of art that they created and shared online that’s become associated with a hate group, etc. For each scenario, they have to explain what they could have done differently to prevent the situation from happening in the first place and what strategies they would use to try to fix the situation after it happened. It can be a fun challenge.

One of the scenarios I give my students relates to plagiarism. It goes like this:

Imagine that you write a research essay for a course in your major in which you are expected to cite a certain number of sources. Though the required citation style is one you are familiar with, you are still learning about the proper format and placement of citations in a research essay. Knowing this, you do your best to follow the rules for citing your sources. You refer to trustworthy websites like Purdue OWL(2) for help and also visit the Writing Center and the library for advice and helpful resources. You use all of this information to create your reference list and you are careful to include all of the sources from which you pulled information. You hand in your paper confident that you have done your best to properly cite your research.

 A few weeks later, your professor hands back your essay and you are devastated to learn you failed the assignment due to plagiarism. Your professor highlights several passages in your paper with quotation marks but no in-text citations to indicate where the quoted information came from. There is another passage with no quotation marks and no citation which the professor feels is too close to the wording from one of your sources to be considered your own original work. This is why you failed the assignment on the basis of plagiarism.

In my experience teaching students about plagiarism, what this scenario describes is, for them, a huge fear. Nobody cares about intentional plagiarism because intentional plagiarism is, by definition, committed only by those who know that they are cheating and are presumably prepared to face the consequences if they’re caught. Getting a failing grade due to unintentional plagiarism even when you’ve tried your hardest to do the right thing—to many students, that’s a much bigger reason to worry.

Except.

Is the professor in the scenario right to accuse the student of plagiarism?

Personally, I think not.

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Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Lectures on Literature

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.

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Reflecting on un-research

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

As I’m working on some new and exciting research projects, I’ve found myself going back to a few of my earlier works and reflecting on how my thinking has changed in the time since I wrote them. I thought I would share some of this here partly because I still get asked about some of these articles from time to time and partly because I think it’s valuable to show how things can change as you grow as a scholar.

So today I’m taking a look at “Teaching Information Literacy Through Un-Research,” which was published in Communications in Information Literacy in 2015.

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Gone fishing

I’m off for the holidays and won’t be posting any new content until January but I thought I’d pin a thing here highlighting some favorite posts from this past year, organized by general topic, in case you missed them.

Thanks for reading and see you in the new year!

Research in fiction writing

It’s significant that popular books on creative writing don’t talk about research

Research is a process, writing is a craft (except when it’s a process)

The true as the enemy of the good: Creative license and the ethical use of information

Research in fiction writing: What I learned from Five Things posts on Terrible Minds

Why I want to learn about the role of research in fiction writing

What I learned about creative research at the Writer’s Digest Conference

Research as a subject of study

They just keep moving the line: Peer review and the follow-up to “Research is an Activity and a Subject of Study”

Information literacy, teaching, and librarianship

In defense of “finding and evaluating information”

The annotated bibliography as establishing shot Part 1 | Part 2

The role of excitement in teaching

Title policing in libraries

Information literacy skills: Wherefore art thou?

Neil Gaiman’s famous quote about libraries: A critique

That time I participated in a Banned Books Read-Out and what I learned

Information literacy and identity negotiations

Libraries, information literacy, and pop culture

Libraries in pop culture: The Station Agent

The Circle and information literacy

Video games and failing better

What I’m reading: December 2020

Now that I’m officially on sabbatical, I’ve been doing a lot more reading than usual. Rather than devote an entire post to reflections on each of these items, I thought I’d share some thoughts on them in smaller, bite-sized pieces.

Today I’m taking a quick look at a news story about a Hollywood research library, a podcast about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, and doing some follow-up on Hannibal and Mr. Robot.

Note: The following post contains spoilers for the Morally Indefensible podcast, which is a companion podcast to the docuseries A Wilderness of Error, which is based on a book of the same name by Errol Morris (long way of saying: assume spoilers for all three). There are also spoilers for Hannibal and Mr. Robot. And I guess the British TV series Vicious. 

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Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Negotiating with the Dead

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood.

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On spoilers

Okay, so this doesn’t have anything to do with what I normally write about but the year is winding down and I’m in the mood to write about something a little more fun than usual. In a recent post on what I’m currently reading, I mentioned that I happened to know a bunch of spoilers for the TV series The 100 before I actually started watching it and how that’s been helping me manage my expectations for the show in the long term. Later this month, I’ll be talking a little about how knowing the ending for Mr. Robot was what got me to go back and watch the show after giving up on it early on (and I’m glad it did).

So let’s talk spoilers and why I like them so much.

Note: The following post contains mostly vague spoilers for Harry Potter, Avengers Infinity War, Avengers Endgame, Broadchurch, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and The Haunting of Hill House. It also contains some specific spoilers for Game of Thrones (the books and the TV series) and The Stand (the book and the old miniseries but probably also the upcoming TV series unless they’ve changed the story drastically).

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Information literacy in evolving situations like COVID

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

As an information literacy instructor, I spend a lot of time talking to students and library patrons about authority. As the ACRL Framework tells us, authority is both constructed and contextual. So someone who’s considered an authority in one area or situation might not be one in others. And who we bestow authority on also depends on a number of indicators, both emotional and objective. Like, not only what credentials this person has but also whether or not we feel like we can trust what they say.

Authority has become a complicated thing the last few years as mistrust in expertise keeps rising but I think this year has been especially challenging because the COVID situation has been one where a big reason people stopped trusting the experts is because what the experts were saying kept changing. Like with the mask thing. First we didn’t need them, then they became important and now they’re thought of as essential.

Of course, there are political reasons behind at least some of this inconsistency. It doesn’t help that the person in the United States who is supposed to be viewed as most authoritative of all is…well, we know who he is and what he’s like.

But there’s also the fact that the reason authorities and experts changed their advice over time is because our understanding of COVID changed over time. The whole reason COVID was such a threat at first was because we didn’t know how it worked or how to treat it. But the experts had to tell people something. So they worked with the information they had and gave what recommendations they could: wash your hands, sanitize surfaces, etc.

And I don’t know about you, but having some information about what steps I could take to help protect myself made me feel a little less anxious at the time, even though the advice we’re being given has changed a lot over time.

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Research in fiction writing: The Art of Subtext

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter.

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