Referencing and plagiarism: a rant in place

glasses-272401_1920Every now and then a topic comes along that just makes my blood boil. In a recent edition of Campus Review, I read an article based on some research by bibliographic management software company RefME. You can’t access the article on Campus Review because paywall but you can read a detailed and interesting post on the topic on RefME’s blog, including much more data than is in the CR article anyway.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, RefME surveyed more than 4,000 students on issues relating to referencing and plagiarism. You can read the results for yourself but in response to the question “have you ever lost marks for incorrect referencing” over half the respondents had at one time or another. More than 60% of those responses were because of incorrectly formatted references and another 35% said they had used an incorrect referencing style (the numbers don’t add up as students could select more than one reason). To quote just a few lines:

The most prevalent mistakes made by those students surveyed who have lost marks for referencing incorrectly were:

Formatting references incorrectly 59%
Using the wrong referencing style 35%
Not submitting a full reference list / bibliography 19%
Failing to reference a quote or idea that was not yours 11%
Referencing the wrong source 9%
Paraphrasing another author’s work 8%
Self-Plagiarism (recycling your own work) 2%
Other 2%

As a not-so-far-in-the-past-former student and parent of a current university student this is one of my greatest bugbears (and I’m sure I’m not alone). Why on earth do we waste time marking students down for having a dot in the wrong place, or () instead of {}, or pp. instead of p. when I would argue that these errors have very little do to with plagiarism and everything to do with nitpicking? For my money, the single biggest reason for referencing is to ensure that the person reading the academic work in question can find and check any material that has been cited and to guard against plagiarism – not as an easy way to take marks from a student who (quite rightly IMHO) really doesn’t give 2 pins for the actual formatting of the reference.

We could make this so much simpler for our students. Pick one (style). It’s kind of like metadata schemas – there’s heaps out there, choose one that works for your subject area. Be consistent throughout the assignment, for style’s sake if nothing else. Provide a full reference list and stick to the academic integrity principles of acknowledging the work of others and putting original thought into the work – these are surely the crucial things here.

Right, /endrant. As you were.