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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2008 [ Refereed papers ]
Writing from sources: Avoiding the P word

Jeanne Dawson, Grace Conti-Bekkers, David Packer and John Fielder
Student Learning Support Centre
Curtin University of Technology

Many students who technically plagiarise do so for reasons other than a premeditated desire to cheat. While a rigorous 'detect and punish' approach may effectively deter some plagiarism and enhance a university's reputation for high ethical standards, it does not address the underlying unresolved learning issues of which plagiarism is often a symptom. This paper describes a series of learning support interventions that address some of these unresolved issues. The objective of these interventions is to develop students' capacity to write in a scholarly voice that is informed by the literature in their discipline but that remains distinctly their own. In doing this, the interventions are also designed to facilitate, through experiential learning, students' engagement with academic discourse as empowered subjects.


Student plagiarism - and how to combat it - continues to exercise the minds of academics and university administrators alike. Addressing plagiarism as a fundamental breach of academic integrity, many universities have taken a 'detect and punish' approach, employing such plagiarism detecting technology as Turnitin and instituting heavy penalties for erring students. This approach is backed up by guidelines on citation and referencing conventions. For many students the approach is effective, but, as this paper will argue, the students most at risk of plagiarising are those least likely to have developed the level of scholarly writing competence and familiarity with academic discourse that a full comprehension of the issue demands.

While universities must maintain the highest ethical standards and take all possible steps to deter premeditated plagiarism, it is also important for educators to recognise the limitations of the detect and punish response, and to take a holistic approach that acknowledges the difficulties many students experience in engaging with academic discourse and its writing conventions. This paper discusses the interventions through which the Curtin Learning Centre (TLC) equips students to avoid plagiarism by developing their own scholarly voice and engaging appropriately with academic discourse.

Learning support interventions

The Learning Centre provides learning support interventions for all undergraduate and postgraduate Curtin students but with a focus on non-traditional (international, mature aged, TAFE articulant, and DEST equity) students. We offer both generic programs open to undergraduate and postgraduate students in all disciplines and customised programs for specific discipline areas, as requested by lecturers, supervisors, or course coordinators. In the area of academic integrity our interventions are designed to supplement with hands on seminars and workshops the information that students access online or through their coursework. Ideally students develop their competence as scholarly writers within the context of their own discipline (Latchem, Parker, and Weir, 1995), but clearly the reality often falls short of the ideal; hence the importance of timely learning support interventions.

Our approach is holistic in that it does not focus on 'avoiding plagiarism' but rather incorporates the principles and practice of academic integrity into all of our programs. The message we want students to take away is that academic integrity is not some kind of 'add on' but lies at the heart of academic discourse. Giving students rigorous rules and guidelines or drilling them in correct referencing techniques may result in superficial improvements, but it does not address more substantive issues, such as when, how, and how much to quote, paraphrase, or otherwise appropriate. Moreover, focusing on 'avoiding plagiarism' can give students a mechanistic and reductive perspective on academic integrity, as evidenced by the many students who approach Learning Centre lecturers to 'check my commas and brackets to see if they're in the right place or I'll lose marks' and similar requests. A more productive approach, we believe, is to offer supportive, student friendly pathways into academic discourse, along which students might explore and reflect upon both the discourse and themselves as learners. Under these learning conditions students are more likely to develop an authentic scholarly voice and, with it, habits of academic integrity.

The Learning Centre approach recognises that the desire to gain unfair advantage is not the only motivation - or indeed the most common motivation - for students to plagiarise. This recognition is supported by studies by Ashworth and Bannister (1997), Thomson (2002), and Macdonald and Freewood (2002) among others, and was further affirmed in the Learning Centre's 2004 qualitative study into students' attitudes towards plagiarism (Dawson, 2004). The objective of our study was primarily to gain insights into students' attitudes towards academic integrity and from these insights to develop appropriate learning support interventions. We surveyed two hundred undergraduate students (127 international and 73 local) on what they believed were motivations to plagiarise, and followed up the survey with focus group sessions and individual interviews. In the survey only 4% of respondents ranked 'deliberate cheating' as the principal motivation, with 'fear of failure' ranking highest at 25%, followed by 'ignorance/inadequate referencing skills' (20%), 'difficulty with the topic' (18%), 'poor time management' (18%), and language deficit' (15%). These responses confirmed our speculation that plagiarism is often a symptom of underlying unresolved learning issues and that any intervention must address these issues as well as ensuring that students understand what constitutes plagiarism, why it is unacceptable, and how to avoid it.

A common theme emerging from the focus groups and interviews was students' lack of engagement - at one or more points - with academic discourse. This lack of engagement does not seem to equate with a lack of interest or of effort, but it does correspond with students' expressions of uncertainty and lack of confidence. Since expectation of success is a crucial component of motivation leading to actual success (Feather, 1982; Biggs & Moore, 1993), we consider it essential that our learning support interventions affirm students' belief in themselves as potentially successful learners. Teaching students the necessary skills is obviously important here, but just as important is giving them the confidence that, with a reasonable amount of effort, they can succeed as scholarly writers without resorting to plagiarism.

Some focus group and interview responses in our study suggested that many of the difficulties experienced by students in negotiating academic integrity are in fact symptomatic of their failure to negotiate the process of 'learning how to learn' (Marton and Saljo, 1976; Entwhistle, 1998) in higher education. Typically, these students are extrinsically motivated learners (Entwhistle, 1998), influenced by such external rewards and pressures as conforming to parental expectations or, as a number of respondents suggested, 'just getting through', with little deep engagement in the learning process. Any successful learning support intervention must therefore incorporate those deep learning practices (Pintrick 1988; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier & Ryan, 1991) enacted by intrinsically motivated learners. The process of developing an authentic scholarly voice - that is, a writing voice that is informed by existing texts yet remains distinctly the writer's own - requires a deep learning approach. Involved in this process are a number of transactions: understanding the conventions and mastering techniques of critical reading and note making; judicially selecting and acknowledging the words and ideas of others; synthesising the appropriated material with other information and perspectives; and integrating it within a new original text. Especially for new students, these transactions are not simple.

In any discipline, becoming a scholarly writer with a competent grasp of iterative conventions is gradual and cumulative, involving familiarity with a wide range of texts, practices, and perspectives that inform the discipline - in other words, a discursive understanding. Learning support interventions need to acknowledge the complexity of scholarly writing by not only carefully scaffolding students' learning of the required skills and techniques but also incorporating within this learning a sense of engagement. In this way students develop an awareness of themselves as empowered subjects within an academic discourse and as legitimate members of the scholarly community.

Learning support intervention 1: critical reading

When they first come to the Learning Centre for assistance, many students, especially those from non-Western cultures, tend to regard the knowledge articulated in source texts as conclusive and discrete; as one survey respondent put it,
The writer [of the source text] is an expert, so how can students criticise?
In supporting students to develop an authentic scholarly voice, we first need to bring them to the recognition that within an academic discourse all knowledge demands to be contested, interrogated, and evaluated in terms of an ongoing dialogue in which students themselves are legitimate speakers. This requires them to make an epistemological shift that many find difficult and sometimes psychologically threatening (APA, 1997). The Learning Centre facilitates the shift by carefully scaffolding tasks within the critical reading process and actively engaging students in doing what successful scholarly writers do when they read. Here, as in all of our interventions, we do not mention 'plagiarism' (the P word) because the desired outcome for students is that they are able to read and write with integrity within an academic discourse; our emphasis is on success, not on avoiding failure.

We suggest that, as they read, students should pay attention to how as well as what scholarly authors write, because this is the model for how they themselves need to write within their discipline. We encourage them to look up any unfamiliar words, expressions, and terminology and to develop their own glossary, reminding them that understanding and using the language of their disciplinary discourse helps to make the discourse their own. In going through the techniques of active reading, we give examples of the kinds of critical questions successful scholarly writers ask of texts. We pose such standard critical questions as

Students try out these questions on sample one page articles or textbook sections, reading them independently then discussing their responses with colleagues. We select the sample texts carefully, balancing accessibility, intellectual challenge, and academic relevance; where possible, we select texts that invite diverse interpretations. For our customised programs, we use texts from the students' discipline, both from academic and professional journals; for our generic programs, we use texts from current education, management, or popular science sources.

When students have finished their critiques of the sample articles, we give them a hypothetical assignment topic and a further set of questions designed to relate critical reading to scholarly writing tasks. Among these questions are:

In formulated answers to these latter questions, students become aware that answers cannot be found in the text but must be constructed by relating the text to their own learning, their assignment brief, and most importantly their own responses. In this way they begin to develop a more sophisticated sense of themselves as scholarly readers taking an active role in constructing the text's meanings and thus moving towards a more dialogic relationship with the text.

Group discussion at this stage is particularly valuable for demonstrating to students that most texts - apart from the narrowly technical or scientific - are open to a range of responses and interpretations that are neither right nor wrong but only more or less valid or interesting. Many students find this indeterminacy of meaning difficult to come to terms with and are at first reluctant to take the intellectual risk of offering their interpretation to the group. The facilitator's role here, as in all Learning Centre learning support interventions, is to create a 'warm' classroom climate (Biggs, 1999) to reduce students' anxiety levels and to validate all interpretations as worthy of consideration but also open to scholarly critique.

Evaluating online sources

Because the proliferation of electronic information is seen (rightly or wrongly) as a contributor to the increase in plagiarism, another small group exercise that students find useful involves reading a carefully chosen selection of short internet articles on a particular topic and then evaluating them as scholarly texts. Again, students are equipped with a series of questions: In asking these questions, students are actively engaging in scholarly practice because the questions themselves are inscribed by academic discourse, focusing as they do on the importance of verification, reliability, accuracy, truthfulness, authorial status, originality, integrity, context, and scholarly ethics. Most students, especially in collaboration with their colleagues and with occasional prompts from the facilitator, perform this exercise very successfully. When they have discussed their evaluations of the texts, each group is asked to reflect on the questions provided and to construct their own scholarly question, which is further discussed and evaluated in discursive terms.

Learning support intervention 2: note making

As with critical reading, the Learning Centre approach to note making encourages students to see themselves as active and autonomous participants - the term 'note making' itself implies a more active role than 'note taking'. Note making is a transaction that mediates reading and writing; the note maker interprets, critically evaluates, selects, and appropriates information carried by the source text and expresses it through their own perspective in a way that can be incorporated into their own original piece of work.

Figure 1

To help students understand that the process of appropriation (taking from the source text) and incorporation (integrating within a new, original text) is dynamic, we have developed the diagram in Figure 1 (Dawson 2007, 43). We emphasise that there is no direct link between source texts and the student's assignment text, but what is appropriated from source texts must be thoroughly processed through an intermediary step; note making is part of the process through which material appropriated from the source text is transformed into material which can then be incorporated into the student's new, original text. In discussing the diagram, we point out the importance of recording all bibliographical details of source texts at the note making stage, because these details are the basis of in text and end of text referencing, which should be regarded not as last minute additions but as integral to scholarly writing.

Students practise various techniques for making and for organising notes by working on two single page pieces of text on a common topic. First we require them to make notes on the first article, leaving spaces between notes for further entries. The group then compare and discuss with one another their notes and approaches to note making, picking up useful tips from one another to use in their own note making practice. They then read the second text and, instead of making a new set of notes, fill in the spaces between the notes from the first text, rethinking, cross-referencing, commenting, and making connections. Our objective here is to demonstrate the process of integrating notes from several source texts into an original synthesis.

Among the organisational techniques we model for students, concept mapping is perhaps the most successful in facilitating students' understanding of what is involved in synthesising material from source texts to construct their own new, original texts. Many students' comments suggest that the axial, thematic, and 'fishbone' mapping they practise liberates them from the linearity imposed on their reading by the source texts and allows them to see visually potential connections and patterns they could not 'see' conceptually. Certainly the element of free play in concept mapping helps students recognise themselves as agents of textual construction, and not simply transcribers.

Learning support intervention 3: paraphrasing

In this learning support intervention, students are encouraged to think of scholarly writing as a dialogue between themselves and the source text's author: the words (through quotations) and ideas (through paraphrases) of the source text inform the new text, which in turn affirms the source text's words and ideas.

We familiarise students with the conventions of quotation, noting that direct quotations should add to and not be a substitute for the student writer's own ideas, and that they should be used sparingly. Students are given examples of quoted passages, sentences, and phrases, and quotations with non-standard spelling, authorial intrusions, omitted words, or changed words, and these examples are discussed. However, the main focus of this intervention is paraphrasing.

The importance of paraphrasing is presented to students in pragmatic terms. We remind them that the lecturer who marks their assignments wants to hear in their writing a scholarly voice that is informed by the authority of the source texts they have read on the topic but that expresses the student's own interpretation, perspective, and opinions. Essentially the lecturer wants to know not only that the student has read the source texts but also that they have understood and transformed the information from the source text into their own knowledge - in other words, the lecturer wants to know that learning has taken place. If the student communicates information from the source text without transforming it, the lecturer cannot tell whether or not the student has understood and learned. Figure 2 shows the parallel between the learning process and transformation of material from the source text.

Figure 2

Faulty paraphrasing is the source of many cases identified by lecturers as 'plagiarism'. The problem is usually that the raw material of the source text is not sufficiently processed but is only superficially tinkered with. It is essential that students understand that paraphrasing is primarily a cognitive process; playing with language - changing words and phrases in the original text - is not paraphrasing. As Figure 1 implies, the paraphrase in the student's new original text is drawn not from the source text but, rather, from 'notes, summaries, concept maps, etc.'

To reinforce the message that paraphrasing primarily communicates the source text's meaning rather than its words and to demonstrate to students that they have the capacity to paraphrase without being dependent on the source text's wording, we conduct the following activity. Students get into pairs and each student is given a different one page piece of text. They are given five minutes to read their text and are allowed to write down just three key words before the facilitator removes the text. Using the key words as memory joggers, each student gives their partner an oral account of what they have just read. The source texts are then returned to the pairs so that they can compare their account with the text itself. Invariably, students are surprised to discover that they were able to communicate the main points of their text so competently. We suggest to students that they keep this activity in mind every time they paraphrase. They can go back to the source text to check on precise details, but they must remember that it is their understanding of the source text's words that needs to be communicated, not the words themselves.

For students whose first language is other than English, this insight is of particular value, because many cases of plagiarism are the result of students feeling that their own English expression is inadequate to do justice to the source text. As one Polish research student told us, 'When I read the journal article, I see a beautiful garden in my mind, but when I write the ideas in English, it is like weeds and thistles.' Supporting such students to develop and gain confidence in their language skills and giving them corrective feedback until they are able to paraphrase competently is clearly a more effective approach than constantly warning them about the consequences of plagiarism.


As this paper has suggested, writing with integrity has to be learnt. Articulating complex information and abstract concepts requires a level of sophistication that takes time to develop and finding expression in an appropriate scholarly tone requires familiarity with academic discourse and the assumptions, values, ideological positioning, and so on that underpin and inform the language of this discourse. This is why students' negotiation of the conventions of writing from sources needs to be scaffolded and discursively contextualised. The learning support interventions discussed here are clearly time consuming; however, feedback suggests that students who participate in them gain much more than the capacity to avoid plagiarism. So, while universities do need mechanisms to detect and punish plagiarism, they also need to engage with the issue ethically and equitably through authentically educative strategies.


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Authors: Associate Professor Jeanne Dawson directs Curtin University's Student Learning Support Centre. She has taught and directed programs in cultural studies, management, ethics, and communication in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and the Republic of the Maldives as well as in Australia. Grace Conti-Bekkers, David Packer, and Dr John Fielder lecture in the Student Learning Support Centre. They have many years experience teaching students from around the world in English, communication, cultural studies and indigenous studies.

Author for correspondence: Associate Professor Jeanne Dawson, Student Learning Support Centre, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845, Australia. Email: j.s.dawson@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Dawson, J., Conti-Bekkers, G., Packer, D. & Fielder, J. (2008). Writing from sources: Avoiding the P word. In Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2008/refereed/dawson.html

Copyright 2008 Jeanne Dawson, Grace Conti-Bekkers, David Packer and John Fielder. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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