Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Reference correctly or it's the Star Chamber

A well-entrenched role at universities is that of the 'Academic Integrity Officer' (AIO).  At UniSA (and other institutions would have their equivalent), the role of the AIO is one of assisting students to understand the philosophies and mechanics of attributing another's work.  Often students are referred to the AIO after their lecturer has found significant plagiarism in their work.

'Attribution' is regarded as a 'moral right'. Sounds about right? It seems only 'fair' to reference the ideas and hard work of other people, and not pass these off as your own. That would be cheating, right?  Why should you get credit for using work that you haven't done yourself?  That's a no-brainer.  However, the answers to these questions might not be a clear-cut as they seem.

Firstly, citation and referencing traditions are not the same across cultures. In Chinese culture, for example, knowledge has collective ownership and it is expected a student and their teacher will know where information has come from (and therefore not be expected to explicitly cite it).

Secondly, the traditions have also changed over time.

It used to be the case that if you produced and disseminated information, you would find your printing presses smashed to smithereens.  Worse still, you might find yourself in the Star Chamber, wishing you hadn't insulted the King about his new hat in your pamphlet or tract.  The private ownership of information did not feature very strongly in an age where literacy among the populous was low and the Monarch was 'in charge' of people's thoughts and ideas.  (In fact, right up until the late 1800s, people read out-loud in communal groups as private reading meant you were a shifty character with something to hide.)

We love your hat, Your Majesty.  Really we do!  (Wikipedia, 2011)

Eventually, as the spread of information became unstoppable, censorship by the State became increasingly unfashionable.  John Milton in his seminal work Areopagitica (he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God...) espoused the values of free speech.   Freedom of speech principles were enshrined in the cafes of Paris, in the Bill of Rights in the US and eventually in the media.  The railways and eventually telegraph saw an unstoppable proliferation of information and ideas.

However, those who came up with the 'ideas' did not have a right to earn an income from these.   Indeed,   the printers owned any income from the sale of books once they were distributed.

Copyright law (through the Act of Anne, 1709) recognised people's right to the ownership of information for income purposes.  The 'moral right' of attribution was intermingled with this.  Thus grew the Western ethos related to attribution and 'ownership' of information.

Various amendments to Copyright Acts have tried to keep a-pace with the changes in technology and dissemination and the Act can now be viewed as performing at least two functions. The first of these is to protect a person's right to make money.  The second of these is to protect the 'Moral Rights' of the person who produced the information.  The Act also covers things such as treatment of another's work for satirical purposes and 'fair use' for academic purposes.

But what about the challenges posed by the Internet? Photographs, fragments and chunks of information can be recycled thousands - possibly millions - of times so that the original source becomes anything from obscure to invisible.  Photos can be broken up, mashed up and mixed with bits and bytes of sound and imagery so that the original source is barely recognisable.   Do we have time to track back to original sources of information?  (Smith in FlickR in Google in Wikipedia in PhotoBucket in YouTube adapted from Alice-in-Wonderland, 1865.)

Clearly, the implications for established scholarly traditions may be challenged by the Internet, but there are still some very good reasons to practice attribution.

Firstly (unlike a blog, which is meant to be subjective and opinionated writing), attribution adds weight to your argument - thereby attracting marks.  Secondly, reference to scholarly sources and studies makes your paper look professional.   Thirdly, we still hold dear the traditions of 'fair play' in the Western tradition.  Palming off another person's hard work as your own just doesn't seem fair.  It doesn't feel right.

Familiarise yourself with the rules and remember that correct referencing, paraphrasing and other academic skills do take time to develop.   Learning and Teaching Units, the Purdue Writing Lab (and, indeed, your local Academic Integrity Officer) can help you with the skill.

Good luck