May the source be with you

When I worked as a lecturer in EAP, I taught my students how to structure essays in English, how to do referencing, etc. At that time, I also read a lot of excellent scholarship around related topics such as paraphrasing and plagiarism, yet I noticed that my students’ written work did not always reflect the types of issues discussed in this body of research. Or rather, it did, but not to the extent I expected.

I did see problems like patchwriting or failure to cite when required, but these issues were relatively minor compared to what I saw as bigger concerns in their writing. Specifically, they often seemed to give too much prominence to their sources’ views, marginalising their own. Sometimes it was not clear why they were citing, since the evidence they used did not seem to advance their argument. However, the literature had less to say on these issues, and seemed rather fixated on the avoidance of plagiarism. The problem with this is that avoidance of plagiarism does not necessarily lead to effective deployment of source material. Rather, it may mean that, as I did, markers have the feeling that something is not right about the way source material has been used, but that this was hard to address since referencing was done correctly on the whole and students had implemented what they were taught (which mainly focused on referencing conventions).

For my doctoyodaral research, I decided to investigate the way student writers used source material, but rather than looking only at the surface manifestation of source use in writing, I also investigated the ways in which they engaged with their source material as they read it in preparation for writing. After all, “using” source material begins when one reads and responds to it, not when one decides to reference it.

I observed and interviewed three postgraduate students over the 18-week period during which they wrote their Masters dissertation. They completed a series of “think alouds” while they worked on their dissertations, and I collected their completed assignments at the end. I also collected the feedback they received from their markers in order to see which aspects of source use attracted the markers’ comments.

The results of the study indicated that the students did indeed do most of their analysing and evaluating of source material as they read, and began formulating a position in relation to their sources early in the reading-to-write process. Differences emerged in the ways the students engaged with their sources. For example, some took a more instrumental approach to the dissertation-writing task, making efforts to perform the role of a “good student” by citing frequently in order to display their knowledge. Others engaged on an emotional as well as cognitive level with their material, often making evaluative comments and elaborating on what source authors said.

One of the most interesting findings was that the markers barely commented on the mechanics of citation, and instead praised students when they made meaningful comparisons between their own and their sources’ views. This suggests that the way students demonstrate engagement with the content of their source material might be seen as more important in determining the success of a piece of writing than the extent to which referencing conventions have been followed or information has been paraphrased. Of course, it may be that problems with what might be called “transgressive intertextuality” (Abasi & Akbari, 2008) distract the reader and make it more difficult to evaluate content. It is important, however, that researchers do not also become distracted by the low-hanging fruit of plagiarism at the expense of arguably more substantive issues relating to conceptual engagement with sources.

Sharon McCulloch, Lancaster University

Abasi, A. & Akbari, N. (2008). Are we encouraging patchwriting? Reconsidering the role of the pedagogical context in ESL student writers’ transgressive intertextuality. Journal of English for Specific Purposes 27(3), 267-284.

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