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Let’s Lose the P Word

As the person who usually answers questions (both in-house and out) regarding documenting research reports, let me second Dave Kemper’s most recent post about breathing life into the research process. Dave summarized Ken Macrorie’s I-Search approach to research writing. I’d like to parallel that with a digital-era view of what research is really all about.

The first step is to back away from a fixation on whether our references are punctuated correctly. The second is to unlearn the word plagiarism.

I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that collective gasp of outrage and will forge ahead. If you can trust me for just a few more paragraphs, you will be happy with where we land, I believe.

So, first let’s consider that fixation on correct formatting. You don’t have to dig very deep into any documentation style—MLA, APA, CMS, or whatever—before learning that it is a strategy for crediting sources. None of these styles can cover every contingency, and they all leave it to the writer to decide the best approach in any iffy situation. As long as a reader can see what’s being credited and can find the source to learn more, that’s a job well done. Jot-and-tittle niceties are for professional editors of scholarly journals, not for middle school and high school classes—nor even undergrad work.

Now about the P word.

Years ago I owned an Australian terrier. Not a very bright dog, but good-natured. Unfortunately, she was nearly a year old when I got her, she had never been potty trained, and I was an ignorant owner. I tried the old adage of rubbing her nose in her errors, but that only made her trembly, and later snappy. She never did learn to go outdoors. More recently, I got a Chihuahua. This time, I consulted some books and a trainer. Turns out that praising the little guy every time he used the litter tray (and pretending any accidents never happened) have turned him into a perfect little gentleman. I never have a mess to clean up nowadays, and he’s happy—even proud.

Students today live in a sea of information, much of it unattributed. (When is the last time you saw source credits on a news story?) As denizens of the digital age, they assume that information belongs to everyone. A punitive admonition to “avoid plagiarism” means nothing to them: Not only is it confrontational, it seems downright silly.

But here’s a big “however”: These students are also hyperlink natives. They inherently understand that information is interconnected. Rather than cautioning them to avoid plagiarism, then, we should train them to recognize that crediting sources adds authority to their own work and helps their readers to learn more about the subject. Crediting is an appropriate social-networking thing to do. A parenthetical notation and bibliography is, in effect, a paper version of a hyperlink to a source.

(If you want to mention that documentation also gives credit where it is due, that’s fine. But don’t expect students to care much. The era of the individual ownership of ideas is nearly dead.)

I began this entry by noting that each documentation style is merely a strategy for pointing at a source. It’s equally important that we choose an effective strategy for getting students to care about documentation in the first place. The word plagiarism, with all its punitive connotations, just doesn’t work any longer (if it ever did). The thought of crediting as social networking, on the other hand, is one students of a digital era are well prepared to accept.

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