Monday, September 13, 2010

Only Be Sure Always To Call It Please "Research"

With the school year starting back up, the media is unsurprisingly spinning its stories about how cheating is endemic and plagiarism rampant within the system. A recent article in the Toronto Star reported that three out of four students committed an "academic dishonesty" offense at some point during their career, which first off makes me wonder why I'm such a mutant. I never lowered myself to cheating when I had report cards to justify.

Though, to be fair, I didn't have the same temptations. I may have heard of Wikipedia before I got my BA, but given the technological resources now in place my university and high school career might as well have been in a different century. Technically, considering that I started Grade 9 in 1996, much of it was. It was a time before the ubiquitous communication methods available to students today, before Wikipedia provided a wealth of information to be copy-pasted at will. That's one of the key factors of plagiarism now; I've seen reports that some students today don't even consider copy-pasting unsourced text from the Internet to be cheating.

Just the prospect of being accused of cheating was something I tended to worry about during my own academic career - so I did what I could to protect myself from it, to ensure that the words I put on the page were my own. I have no idea if my method of note-taking was officially taught or if I figured it out on my own; it's been considerably more than ten years. Perhaps if additional emphasis was placed on this sort of education in the classrooms, cheating might not be so endemic.

A page of notes that went toward last year's HisT.O.ry: Long Branch, Sea Breezes. This is the standard note-taking format I used through late high school and university.

To protect yourself from the prospect of plagiarism, you need to insulate yourself from the original material; that's why research always consumed 95% of the time required for any assignment I worked on. All my notes were in longhand like what you see above, all of it slightly rewritten from what appeared in the original source. When it came time to write the final paper I would use only my handwritten notes as a guide, the idea being that I would not inadvertently replicate the original author's words. If ever an accusation did come down, I would - so the hope went - only have to hand over the notes I'd taken.

Is this taught in schools now, though? I don't know. Considering the ubiquity of computers and smartphones in classrooms and lecture halls, I don't even know how many students use pen and paper to take notes anymore - I tried using a laptop once, at the tail end of my university career, but it didn't have the same impact. Physically writing down the words let them stick in my brain more easily than typing them into Notepad. Besides, with electronic notes there's always the possibility that they could get corrupted, lost in a computer malfunction, or just not trusted. Physical media has a certain cachet, I think, that electronic alternatives can't replace.

Even though this is a standard refrain for the news media around this time - after all, it's a subject that can be revisited again and again to generate the "in my day" sentiments that keep long-term newspaper subscribers coming back, and generally the articles can be cut-and-pasted year after year with just dates, names, and figures changed - it's still something to be concerned about. Dishonesty in early life doesn't just go away: what works out early tends to be rewarded. Degrees come with some expectation of knowledge; we can't afford to continue building a world where a degree might just as well mean that the holder knew who to copy from and how to not get caught.

1 comment:

  1. I teach this in my basic research skills class. Some of the kids I teach have a hard time adjusting. None of them give me the impression that they've done this in high school. I catch about 1 in 15 students for some sort of cheating or plagiarism each year. With programs like, I really don't understand how they think they can get away with a straight up copy-and-paste job.