Teaching about Academic Integrity by Making Citations Meaningful

Published on September 16, 2019

Mairi Cowan
Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga

Partway through a lecture a few weeks into HIS101, I show an image of a couple of pages from an academic history article.[1] It’s something that the students will soon be reading in the course, and almost half of each page is covered with footnotes. I say to the students, “Be honest. How many of you secretly rejoice when you see footnotes like these in your course readings, thinking ‘oh good! I can turn this page quickly because I don’t have to read all this little text at the bottom’?” A lot of hands go up. There is a bit of nervous laughter. I tell them that it’s ok, that I often skip over the footnotes too, especially if I’m simply trying to learn some content. But when I’m reading really good history, I can be surprised by what I read, and sometimes even skeptical. I don’t automatically accept everything that people tell me; I want the opportunity to look at evidence for myself. I, as a reasonable and thoughtful person, would like to evaluate the author’s claims.

“How can I do all this?”, I ask. “Footnotes?”, some brave student tentatively responds. A big blue arrow appears next to the voluminous footnotes, and then the words “This stuff is important too!” Some more laughter from the students. “Good historians provide us with evidence and tell us where to find their sources,” I say, “so that we can consult their sources for ourselves and see if what they say is true.”

This is how we begin our discussion of academic integrity. Eventually, we’ll get to the nuts and bolts of how to format a footnote and bibliographic entry, but that comes later – only after we’ve talked about what makes citations meaningful in our efforts to understand the world.

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If you are under the impression that students don’t take citation as seriously as you do, that they don’t  care as much for the precise placement of commas and parentheses, that they may not even have bothered to develop unreasonably strong opinions about the comparative merits of Chicago, MLA, and APA, you are probably onto something. In the postsecondary context, instructors and students don’t always perceive citations the same way. Instructors generally consider problems with citation, whether outright plagiarism or sloppy footnotes, as more serious than do students, who often have fairly lenient attitudes toward using ideas without citing the source or using a source’s exact words without adding quotation marks.[2]

Academic dishonesty is a problem, and not a simple one. It is caused by deliberate misrepresentation as well as negligence, and shaped by factors that are many and complex.[3] Instructors are left unsure how to encourage academic integrity, discourage plagiarism, or even teach some of the basic points of formatting without boring everyone to superscript tears.

Research on best practices for fostering academic integrity can provide some guidance for how to proceed: we should work together with others at our institution to build a culture of academic integrity, and clearly explain the ethical dimension of academic integrity to our students.[4] These recommendations are broad, but we can use them to develop specific ideas for teaching citation in a way that keeps the bigger issues in mind while insisting that the details matter too. 

Shift your point of departure from “how not to plagiarize” to “how to maintain academic integrity.”  Instead of starting with your institution’s rules about what constitutes an academic offence, begin with something that illustrates the importance of citations. Students may already feel anxious about breaking the rules inadvertently, or they may see citation as something basically cosmetic - like margin size and font choice. If you think that showing your evidence and acknowledging the work of others are fundamental to the research process, help students understand why by showing them, and make it clear that you are willing to presume good intentions on their part.
Encourage students to think of their readers and why citation might matter to them. Let the students know that you are interested in their ideas and eager to know more: you want to be able to consult the evidence they have consulted, and you want to follow their thought process through the trail of research by other scholars. Reassure the students that showing where they got their ideas does not diminish their scholarship; it increases the credibility of their work and points out more clearly where their original contribution is to be found. If you are moved by the humility in the notion of dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants, point out that even the most famous articulator of the idea, Isaac Newton, got it from earlier thinkers, going at least as far back as Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century.[5] Consider discussing why there are different ways of formatting references, and why Chicago – which is probably the most cumbersome for the writer, but the easiest for the reader – is a favourite among historians.
Have students make an analogy to the scientific method. Many students aren’t accustomed to thinking about history as an evidence-based discipline, but they probably know something about reproducibility in science. Ask them what a “methods” section should do in a scientific paper. Guide them to remembering that it should provide enough detail for readers to repeat the experiment as closely as possible.[6] Link this to history by explaining that good historical inference is based on a reasonable interpretation of evidence, and so good academic history should present readers with enough information (in the form of data collected from sources and citations directing readers to those sources) that the reader can find the evidence and interpret it for themselves. 
Provide your students with exercises that will help them apply these ideas in practice. To show how footnotes can be useful research tools, lead them through a “Footnote Treasure Hunt” that has them find examples of different types of sources (an unpublished manuscript, a primary source in the form of a book, a secondary source in the form of a journal article, etc.) among the footnotes of a piece of academic writing. To help them think about ethically murky situations, run through case studies either drawn from real life or in plausible but fictional form. If you would like students to internalize the details about formatting footnotes and bibliographies, provide samples that contain errors and get them to point out and correct the mistakes.

Citation connects us to other minds in other times. It acknowledges the work of those who have gone before us, and it shows those yet to come how we know what think we know. It honours our predecessors by giving them their due, and it respects our readers by providing them with what they need to evaluate our claims. When you think of it like this, citation is central to historical practice. Let’s help students understand the deeper meaning by teaching them not just where and how to write a citation, but why. 

Mairi Cowan is an Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, and the Program Director for History at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga

[1] Paul Freedman, “Spices and Late-Medieval European Ideas of Scarcity and Value,” Speculum 80, no. 4 (2005): 1209-1227.
[2] Chris Park, “In Other (People's) Words: Plagiarism by university students--literature and lessons,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 28, no. 5 (2003): 471-488; Jenny Wilkinson, “Staff and Student Perceptions of Plagiarism and Cheating,” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20 no. 2 (2009): 98-105; Rozzet Jurdi and Henry Chow, “What behaviours do students consider academically dishonest? Findings from a survey of Canadian undergraduate students,” Social Psychology of Education 15, no. 1 (2012): 1-23; Dan Childers and Sam Bruton, “‘Should It Be Considered Plagiarism?’ Student Perceptions of Complex Citation Issues,” Journal of Academic Ethics 14, no. 1 (2016): 1-17.
[3] For a review of research on academic integrity in Canada, see S. E. Eaton, K Crossman, and R. Edino, Academic Integrity in Canada: An Annotated Bibliography (Calgary: University of Calgary, 2019). For a review on research about the reasons behind academic misconduct, see Hongwei Yu, Perry L. Glanzer, Byron R. Johnson, Rishi Sriram, and Brandon Moore, “Why College Students Cheat: A Conceptual Model of Five Factors,” The Review of Higher Education 41, no. 4 (2018): 549-576.
[4] Donald L. McCabe, Kenneth D. Butterfield, and Linda K. Treviño, Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 164-196; Rozzet Jurdi, H. Sam Hage, Henry P. H. Chow, “Academic Dishonesty in the Canadian Classroom: Behaviours of a Sample of University Students,” Canadian Journal of Higher Education 41 no. 3 (2011): 1-35.
[5] Brian Stock, “Antiqui and Moderni as ‘Giants’ and ‘Dwarfs’: A Reflection of Popular Culture?”, Modern Philology 76, No. 4 (1979): 370-374.
[6] Thank you to science friends and colleagues Chris Meyer, Fiona Rawle, Christoph Richter, and Sanja Hinic-Frlog for their advice on what students should know about writing up methods.


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