Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Tao of referencing

I get concerned that we don't teach students enough about the reasons why referencing is necessary, apart from the fact that we din in their ear about plagiarism all the time. I also get concerned about the fact that we teach students rules of referencing that are not strictly logical, but we still get finicky about the students doing them "just so". I think we're in danger of teaching students to obey rules without thinking about the reason for the rules existing. I think our students deserve better than that; we should always be teaching them to look behind things, and to understand the reason for things - to be active in their learning. So here is my view of why we reference, with a note at the end about the game we play.

I think there are four reasons for referencing.

First and foremost is courtesy. You are a member of an academic community. If you use the work of a fellow member of that community, you owe it to them, and to yourself, to say thank you. As a member of this community you should take pride in observing the practice of courtesy.

Second is to enable your reader (me, in this case) to find the material you have used. I may wish to find out more about it. I may wish to check that the way you have used it is what the author intended.

Third, in assignments, it enables me, your tutor, to teach you better, because I can identify more clearly what is your own work and where you have used somebody else's. That means that I get to know your thought processes more accurately, and I can tailor my feedback better to your work. That means you learn more effectively.

Fourthly, and in my opinion least, it's to avoid any issues about plagiarism. Plagiarism is not an issue for most students. It's a big issue for universities because of the rotten few, and because universities are rightly concerned about protecting the quality of the qualifications they offer.

So that's why, as a student, you should reference your assignments. And be proud of doing so.

There is an unfortunate element of game playing to a degree, which is to do with getting the formatting of referencing precisely right, because there are markers who will condemn you to the outer reaches of hell if you get them wrong, even though it makes no difference to your reader's understanding. For instance, the general idea is that when you use somebody's work you put a brief reference to it in the text, and then a full reference in your list at the end of the assignment. In the Harvard system the text reference is supposed to take the form of (name, date)n e.g. (Smith, 2010). Then the end note reads Smith, J (2010) How To Keep Everyone Happy With Your Referencing, Unimportant Press: Nowheresville.

Now if you only refer to one Smith, it's obvious which end reference it applies to. but you still have to put the date. I know this from my own bitter experience (as a student on an OU course):

Tutor: "You must put the date in all text references."
Me: "But if I only have one text by Mr X, it doesn't need the date because it's obvious which reference it refers to."
Tutor: "But if you don't put the date, how do I know which one it refers to."
Me:  (goes and finds a nice comfy wall to bang my head against)

It happens. Sometimes you just have to play the game. Get over it. To know how it's "supposed" to be done in the OU, read the guide at (It's a Word document for download.)

 Now go back to the beginning and remind yourself what the real reasons for referencing are.


jjw said...

One more, perhaps vital, reason to reference - it adds weight to your argument. It's not just you on a soapbox, other, apparently rational people think the same as you do, or have provided evidence that can be construed in favour of your argument. Used in this fashion, an academic reference is a variant on the normal cross-reference to (say) an Appendix or data set.

Rob said...

Very good point,jjw - thank you.