While academics are clearly aware of the need to give appropriate credit when using sources, many of our students are much less aware of the rules regarding when and how to cite. Certainly, the Internet has blurred the perception of “intellectual property” to the point that many students may think of anything on the web as “public property” that anyone can use.
Donald McCabe’s 3-year survey of undergraduate and graduate students in the US from 2002 to 2005 revealed that over 1/3 of undergraduate students acknowledged that they copied sentences from written and internet sources without providing citations (as cited in “Facts and Stats,” 2014). Therefore, one of the most critical skills faculty can teach students is that whenever they borrow someone else’s ideas, whether taken from a textbook, blog post, or academic journal, they need to give that person credit using the citation style required by their institution or department and represent that writer’s ideas fairly and coherently.
Many universities, including Purdue Global, use plagiarism detection services like Turnitin.com to find the most egregious cases of intellectual property theft, such as the use of “paper mill” essays or large cut-and-paste passages from websites. Some companies are now even using plagiarism detection services for their websites, hoping to avoid theft of content they have created (Wilson, 2016).
However, educators need to teach students that why we cite sources goes beyond the avoidance of plagiarism. If writers can demonstrate that they have done solid research, that enhances their credibility with readers. Providing proper citations ensures our readers can find the sources and do further research, if desired. Finally, the citations link our work to a larger conversation that we are contributing to by researching and writing on a particular subject, whether for a class or a business project. Perhaps most importantly, students cannot learn to write well if all they do is cobble together the words of other writers.
While students may understand they need to cite sources, many struggle with paraphrasing the ideas of those sources into their own words. Like many aspects of writing, effective paraphrasing is a habit. It’s also a higher-order skill, and it is a mistake not to teach it this way. When we provide instructions like “don’t keep the original language,” it is an important detail but not the actual goal of paraphrasing. The goal of paraphrasing is to translate the meaning of the original in a writer’s own wording and structure. When educators begin at the sentence level, we do a disservice to students. Not only are we setting them up for plagiarism problems, we are also failing to teach them this higher-order thinking.
Anyone can tell you what something says. A student could read you a physics textbook out loud and maybe even pronounce all of the words correctly. He or she might even end up memorizing some of it to say back to you without looking back at the text. However, this doesn’t mean that the student has any idea what he or she is saying.
Now imagine the student tries to paraphrase it with a focus on meaning first. He or she is forced to interact with the purpose and content of the text. When a student understands this material, he or she can then explain it to someone else. Through this understanding, students create effective paraphrases. Discovering the meaning is the most difficult task. Thereafter, the restructuring and language changes are much more manageable. In fact, many students note this is the easy part now. By working outward from meaning, students also see that writing is much more than reporting and repeating.
When a student can explain something to themselves, it is a less difficult leap to explain it to someone else. This also emphasizes voice since students see that their own contributions to the research are worthwhile. It’s important to reinforce that while the paraphrase requires a citation, their follow-up analysis and discussion points belong to them. Essentially, thorough paraphrasing not only prevents plagiarism; it also reaffirms critical-thinking skills and reminds students that writing is far more often a discussion than a report.