Whither the Research Paper?

I teach a 3-credit information literacy course at my college, and the research paper I assign is a large portion of students’ grade for the class. The assignment is divided into multiple scaffolds: a research proposal, an annotated bibliography, a first draft (which includes one class session spent peer reviewing), and the final paper. Students are encouraged to write on any topic relevant to the course content — information and media literacy — and they have generally had no trouble picking a topic that interests them. Paper topics have ranged from privacy issues on Facebook, to the copyright implications of sampling in popular music, to the changes in written English with the popularity of text messaging.

Despite the assignment scaffolds, their evident enthusiasm for their research topics, and their general success in finding appropriate sources (on which we spend lots of time in class), some students have real trouble completing the paper successfully. Certainly that’s due in part to prior experience — most students in the course are in their 1st or 2nd year at the college, and have not had the opportunity to write many research papers at the college level, if any. Many of them dislike writing and feel that it’s extremely difficult (in that I reassure them that they’re most certainly not alone). Some do fine in the literature review section of the paper, but most falter when it comes to synthesizing the information to present their own ideas or conclusions.

The research paper is also a challenge for me, as I know it is for other instructors. They’re very time-consuming to grade, especially taking the time to track down students’ sources to scan through alongside the papers. While completely plagiarized or purchased term papers are the most spectacular examples of academic dishonesty, in my experience the improperly paraphrased paper with few (if any) in-text citations is much more common. Casual conversations with faculty in other departments as well as this post from the University of Venus blog on Inside Higher Ed let me know that I’m not alone in these experiences.

I could ask students to present the results of their research and the conclusions they’ve drawn as a video, podcast, or some form of multimedia project. But the course is writing-intensive, so even without a research paper students are required to complete a fair amount of writing for the course. And there is an assignment in which students work together in groups and present their research projects to the class using a blog and a Powerpoint presentation that they’ve created.

It’s true that some of our students will go on to graduate school, and for them the process of writing a formal academic research paper is invaluable training for what’s to come. But what about those who don’t go to graduate school — what does writing a research paper accomplish for them?

I’m stuck on this question because in my gut I feel that yes, the research paper is a valuable assignment for all students. But the justifications that come to mind most readily have to do with the value of writing in general: writing helps us think through issues thoroughly, forces us to make choices about what’s important about the topic, and improves communication skills, which are critical to any career.

I’m not teaching the course this semester, but I’ve been thinking on ideas for next semester, strategies to use to help students work on their summarizing skills and ability to synthesize material from multiple sources. But I still find myself questioning the research paper assignment. Should all college students have the experience of writing a formal academic research paper? And, if so, why?

Digital Natives, Scholarly Immigrants?

While browsing through my table of contents alerts recently I came across an interesting article in the current issue of the Journal of Higher Education: “University Students’ Perceptions of Plagiarism,” by Lori G. Power (unfortunately behind the paywall at Project Muse). It’s a happy coincidence to come across this article now, as plagiarism has been much on my mind lately for a couple of reasons. A colleague is teaching our first student workshop on avoiding plagiarism this week. We’re also planning to offer a plagiarism workshop geared for faculty next semester, in collaboration with our college’s Writing Across the Curriculum program.

Power interviewed freshmen and sophomores at a small university in Maine both individually and in focus groups to try and unpack their knowledge about plagiarism. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly), they don’t know as much about plagiarism as we may think (or hope). Power acknowledges that this aligns well with the results of previous studies, but her work reveals students’ perceptions of plagiarism in their own words, with fascinating results.

Power found that student responses to her questions about plagiarism fell into two main categories: agency and externalization. Most students expressed only partial understanding about what exactly constitutes plagiarism, especially regarding paraphrasing. Yet they were dissatisfied that many of their professors warned them away from plagiarism by emphasizing the potentially harsh penalties rather than explaining the nuances of academic writing. Students also noticed that faculty responded in different ways to plagiarism, which further increased students’ confusion. Ultimately, many students that Power interviewed expressed frustration at being required to play by the rules of the scholarly communication game without having had these rules fully explained:

It seems apparent at the college level at least, students see plagiarism as a bit of a power trip. Professors and college administrators seem to often tell students not to plagiarize, and warn them of the consequences, but these students don’t believe they do as well at helping students understand why not to plagiarize, or how not to plagiarize.

The other major theme identified by Power in her student interviews was externalization. Power suggests that because undergraduates–novices in the academic world–are unfamiliar with intellectual property, they view the prohibition against plagiarism as somewhat arbitrary. They often don’t identify a moral component to plagiarism, and don’t believe that there are consequences for plagiarism in the real world. And when asked why they shouldn’t plagiarize, many students in Power’s study replied that their professors needed to know that students had learned the course material rather than copying it from someone else.

Power concludes with suggestions for addressing plagiarism with our students:

We can’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach will work in preventing plagiarism. We must open wide the dialogue about power, judgment, and student agency. We need to improve our strategies for helping our students to discover the importance of intellectual property and the sharing and ownership of ideas.

Our students may be digital natives, but most are scholarly immigrants (at least as first- and second-year students). And as academic librarians, we have much to contribute to student learning about scholarly communication, intellectual property, and plagiarism.

Reuse, Remix, Regret

An article in the Washington Post today raises an issue that is bedeviling colleges and universities. Where do you draw the line on plagiarism?

In this case, a student was expelled from a summer program abroad because, when writing about a film, his professor thought he inappropriately paraphrased his summary of the film from a Wikipedia article. Without commenting on the merits of this case – with only a newspaper article to go on, it’s hard to know all the nuances – this issue is one that plays out daily on campuses, and librarians are often called to weigh in. In fact, the WaPo asked for a librarian to comment.

Professors and librarians talk about plagiarism and other issues of academic integrity a lot more than they used to, said Barbie Selby, a university librarian, because research is so much easier to do now. It takes just a couple of clicks to copy and paste a passage from an online source into a paper, rather than going to the library, finding the right books and copying something by hand. Even unintentional mistakes are easier.

Online research is by far the most common practice now, Selby said, and it can be confusing. “We want to be as clear as possible about what is and isn’t acceptable,” she said. With digital sources, things wind up in notes without credit, and people are left unsure what came from where.

Is it true that “research is easier” in a digital environment, or that copying is easier? Or that it’s easier to get caught?

Maybe the fact that students are asked to write more from sources than in the past plays a role. As an organization of writing program administrators has pointed out, what is labeled plagiarism might quite often be better described as misuse of sources.

I have often wondered whether our zeal to prosecute plagiarism hasn’t somehow been infected by the RIAA’s efforts to stamp out music file sharing and the feds’ desire to “protect” us through ubiquitous surveillance. Though technology is often invoked as the culprit (giving rise to Digital Natives who are in need of a civilizing mission) it is technology that provides the damning evidence of wrongdoing. Not too long ago, a student who formed a study group at a Canadian university was nearly expelled from college because his teacher didn’t want students to work on problems together. Set aside that they were engaging in what their own university recommended as good study habits – they were caught because they met on Facebook instead of in the library, where their offense would likely go undiscovered.

Libraries exist to share knowledge. We need to help faculty do more than catch offenders. We need to help them understand how confusing it is, from their students’ perspective, to be invited to partake in knowledge, to see inquiry as a fundamental form of experiential learning, and then have their hands slapped for stealing. The delicate dance of knowing what is common knowledge and what needs to be cited is not obvious to the uninitiated, but the message is clear: knowledge is not yours.

Maybe it’s all Sir Isaac Newton’s fault. He’s the one who said he saw further “by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, the scoundrel – he failed to acknowledge that he wasn’t the first to say it.

But I didn’t know I was plagiarizing…

I’ve recently been assigned the task of developing an open-to-all workshop on avoiding plagiarism. It got me thinking about when I first heard of the concept of plagiarism. I don’t remember it being discussed much, if at all, in high school, but citing sources must have been mentioned at some point, because I asked for the MLA Handbook for my birthday that year (you readers can relate, right?). At any rate, the subject came up more often as I got farther along in college, along with firm warnings of the dire consequences of plagiarism (failing courses, getting kicked out of school, being branded a “cheater” for life, etc.).

Since plagiarism detection software such as Turn-It-In have become more common, I figured kids in high school these days would at least be familiar with the idea that plagiarizing is wrong. Until, that is, a recent library instruction session for an English Comp class. I made up a brief quiz for the students, in which they had to find and list the citation of an article in a literature database that they would consider using for a paper. I was completely floored by the number of students that asked me “What is a citation?” and “Why do you need these?”

I don’t think my plagiarism workshop assignment could have come at a better time. It’s clear that many students are not being instructed about plagiarism and the necessity for citing sources in high school, and perhaps even in the beginning stages of their college careers. There seems to be a very important need to talk about plagiarism, its consequences, and how to avoid it. This is especially true when even university leaders are facing accusations of plagiarism. Despite SIU’s president’s plagiarism being deemed “inadvertent,” this can’t be setting a very good example for students.

The March 2007 issue of C&RL News had a good article about the role of librarians in teaching students about plagiarism. I’d love to hear of encounters the rest of you have had with plagiarism-ignorance, and how you inform students of the importance of citing their sources.

Definitely Not Fair Use

An interesting (and sad) story is developing around some piano recordings of Joyce Hatto. Although most copyright gurus today rightfully protest the sometimes absurd expansion of copyright and intellectual property laws, I don’t think anyone would support someone’s re-recording entire classic piano performances, putting their own name on them, and selling them, which is apparently what Hatto’s husband did.

It’s being called the biggest scandal ever in classical music. There are some interesting ironies, such as the fact that digital technology was used to in making and altering slightly some of the recordings, but ultimately it was through technology (iTunes) that the hoax was discovered.

David Hurwitz (classicstoday.com) contends that this is a victimless crime and that the original recording artists will actually benefit from the hoax because now people will go out and buy the original recordings.

Maybe. But isn’t truth the real victim here? Isn’t putting your name on a creative product that is not yours a clear example of where we don’t want to go in the new world of digital technology and copyright?