Writing Centers, Ethics, and Excessive Research

Elizabeth Kleinfeld, Metropolitan State College of Denver



When I talk to people about the idea of writing centers intervening in students’ research processes, most people agree it’s a fine idea, but they wonder how writing centers can possibly shoehorn one more thing into already jam-packed tutorials.

In this section, I will address the practice and the practicalities of how we do this in the Metro State Writing Center. First, I must acknowledge that we don’t do it in every session. Harris (1996) rightly observed that “theory exists in the cleanliness of the mind; practices are another thing” (p. 24). As with everything else writing centers help students with, the tutor and student need to negotiate an agenda and prioritize the items on the agenda. There may be issues of more seriousness than source selection and comprehension in a research draft that need attention: a student’s topic or position may not be articulated clearly, for example. But once a student’s research processes are considered part of Higher Order Concerns, they can be evaluated and prioritized along with other HOCs.

At our writing center, we ask students when they make appointments to specify whether they are working on a project that involves research or not. If they say they are, and if the tutor deems it appropriate, the tutor may ask the student some questions to engage her in a discussion about her source selection and understanding. To assist in this, I developed the following set of questions that all tutors have a copy of:

When working with students who are writing from sources:

Ask them about their source selection:

  • “Why did you choose this source?”
  •  “Were there other sources you considered but opted not to use? Why?”
  • “What do you know about this author’s qualifications to write about this subject?”
  • “What do you know about the publisher of this source?” Note: the publisher could be a traditional publishing house, a website, a non-profit or government organization, a commercial firm, a journal, etc.
  • “How are these sources in conversation with each other?”

Talk to them about their sources:

  • “How does the information in this source align with or contradict other sources?”
  • “What argument does this source make?”
  • “How does this source support that argument?”
  • “Where is this source most convincing to you?”
  • “Where is this source least convincing to you?”
  • “What is the author’s perspective on this topic?”
  • “What kinds of sources does this source use?”

Talk to them about how they use sources in their draft:

  • “Why did you choose to summarize/paraphrase/quote here?”
  • Use citation context analysis to help them identify where and how they’ve used sources

If you notice any of the following red flags, discuss them with the student:

  • Over-reliance on one source or a limited number of sources
  • Reference to a source’s abstract rather than the source itself
  • Using source references in lieu of developing points
  • The student has trouble connecting a fact, anecdote, etc. to a particular source


(To download a pdf of these questions, click here.)

These questions are designed to help students understand the types of considerations they should have in mind as they find, evaluate, and read sources. Often when students rely on Google to find sources, they assume Google has evaluated the sources; these questions are designed to lead to conversations between tutors and students about how Google doesn’t, in fact, vet sources and that using Google to find sources does not absolve students of that responsibility.

Another strategy used in the Metro State Writing Center is citation analysis. In fall 2010, I trained my tutors in the citation analysis strategy used by Citation Project researchers. As implemented in the Citation Project, citation analysis involves identifying source citations and coding them as copying, either with or without quotation marks, patchwriting, paraphrasing, or summarizing. For the Citation Project, researchers use highlighters to color code each citation, with blue for copying, yellow for patchwriting, green for paraphrase, and pink for summary. Tutors use citation analysis in different ways in their sessions. Researchers then record which source the citation is from and which page of the source is being cited. Some tutors have students locate their citations within a draft and color code them; then the tutor and student discuss what the patterns of color might say about the draft. For example, a draft that is a rainbow of highlighted passages with very little text left unhighlighted indicates that the student’s authorial voice doesn’t come through in the paper. A draft that is largely blue could indicate an overreliance on quotation. Other tutors work with students to identify which page of each source citations are from; this often leads students to realize that they are citing abstracts or summary material within a source, and tutors can then discuss with the student how to use their sources more effectively.

Additional strategies are described by Van Horne (2009), who gives useful, specific suggestions of strategies tutors can use to help students develop information literacy, from using freewritings to generate a list of keywords to be used in searches to discussing with students how different search engines prioritize search results.

I’m happy to report that there have been a few trickle-out effects of the proactive role the Metro State Writing Center is adopting with regard to student source use. By trickle-out effects, I mean the consequences of writing center work for the faculty whose students go to the writing center. (Although the term is my own, the inspiration is from Howard and Carrick’s (2006) “Activist Strategies in Textual Multiplicity: Writing Center Leadership in Plagiarism and Authorship.”) One of my tutors who is also an affiliate composition instructor at Metro State developed a classroom activity based on her experiences using citation analysis in tutorials. The term “patchwriting” is being used more across the College, too, and in the English department, we’re starting to use the terms paraphrase, summary, and patchwrite more consistently. I believe these small developments will lead over time to more deliberate practice among tutors, instructors, and students alike.