Writing Centers, Ethics, and Excessive Research

Elizabeth Kleinfeld, Metropolitan State College of Denver


Students and Digital Sources

Several important research studies have been done in the last few years that illuminate how students use sources.

In their study of how students select and use library and internet sources, Burton and Chadwick (2000) asked students how they evaluated sources. The top three priorities for student researchers looking at online sources were first, “source is easy to understand”; second, “source is easy to find”; and third, “source is available.” Two criteria that professors likely hope students will use in their evaluation of online sources came much further down on the list of students’ priorities: “peer-reviewed” came in thirteenth and “has been cited by others” came in last of all criteria, at twenty-third.

Nine years later, building on the research of Burton and Chadwick, McClure and Clink (2009) interviewed students to find out what they considered when deciding on sources and how to use them. They found that students often select sources based less on the source’s authority on the subject than on the source’s pithiness. One student interviewed by McClure and Clink explained, “I did have some [sources] that didn’t have authors, they just had the title, but they had some really good quotes, so I just took them. I really didn’t care about the author because they were good quotes” (p. 127). This student prioritizes the usefulness of the quotations to make a point over the level of authority or credibility of the source.

Another finding of McClure and Clink is that authorial bias was not a significant concern for student researchers, quoting one student as saying, “Mostly, I just picked whatever interested me. If they had a bias, I didn’t really care. I just picked out the stuff I wanted, and that’s how I found most of my sources” (p. 128). Again, we see a student prioritizing usefulness of a source to make a point over an aspect of the source that should be given more attention.

In 2010, Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue shared the results of a study of source use in 18 First Year Composition students’ papers. Their research showed students “cit[ing] sentences rather than sources,” and raised the concern that students were not understanding their sources, or worse, possibly not even reading their sources (p. 186). To illustrate these concerns, they analyzed a student’s use of Small Pieces Loosely Joined, David Weinberger’s book about how the internet has changed human perceptions of several important concepts. Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue describe the book as a “240-page complex theoretical text.” Their analysis of the student’s “uneven representation of the Weinberger text suggests the possibility that [the two pages cited] may be the only two pages that the student read” (p. 185). In other words, the student, quite possibly, selected two pages to cite based on the usefulness of those two pages to the student’s point rather than on a careful reading of the entire work and a deliberate decision to focus on those two pages with an understanding of how they fit into the context of the 240-page text.

Most recently, Jamieson and Howard (2011) have shared findings of the Citation Project. Because the Citation Project drew on student papers from 16 different institutions across the country, representing a wide variety of institution types, I believe the results are most generalizable. Additionally, because Metro State was one of the institutions that contributed student papers to the data pool and no single institution’s papers significantly skewed the data, the results of the Citation Project are almost certainly indicative of how students that come into the Metro State Writing Center use sources.

Jamieson and Howard’s findings are in line with the concerns raised by the study of 18 student papers conducted by Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue: indeed, “a total of 96% [of citations] worked with two or fewer sentences from the source rather than engaging with a sustained passage in the source.” Many of the citations Jamieson and Howard studied were to reference works, abstracts, and other source material that is itself a summary.

Another Citation Project finding is that sources students used were extremely short, with 49% being five pages in length or shorter. Only 20% of sources were longer than 20 pages, and Jamieson and Howard point out that “this includes anthologies of poetry, novels, and textbooks.” Most concerning, I think, is that the most frequently cited page of a source is page one, accounting for 46% of all citations. Again, this is consistent with Howard, Serviss, and Rodrigue’s concerns that students are not reading entire sources and then using information from those sources with knowledge of the entire context. Jamieson and Howard find that “while students are including longer sources in their works cited list, they are not citing from very far into those sources; only 9% of the citations are to page 8 or beyond.”

I doubt the findings of these studies will shock anyone who has taught first year composition, but it is useful to have what many of us suspected to be true captured in systematic ways. It’s also oddly comforting—for me, anyway—to realize it’s not just my students who struggle with source use.

What do these studies tell us about the types of sources students turn to?

Forty-eight per cent of all sources students used in McClure and Clink’s study were websites and another 16% were articles, which included those retrieved from online databases, bringing to at least half the proportion of sources students used that they found on the internet. Jamieson and Howard found that 26% of sources students cited were websites; other sources, such as journal articles, which accounted for 23% of all sources cited, specialized news sources, which accounted for 11% of all sources cited, and general news sources, which accounted for almost 15% of all sources cited, could have been found on the Internet but weren’t necessarily. In other words, 26% of the sources cited in the Citation Project were certainly from the internet and a portion of another 49% of sources were likely from the internet.

The heavy reliance on digital sources by students should make the findings of these studies particularly concerning to those of us invested in digital literacy. McClure and Clink declare that

the [first year composition] curriculum stands not only on the front lines of written and academic literacy in this age of a rapidly evolving computerization of culture but also on the front lines of information and critical literacy, with its rapidly growing set of skills and practices for the digital age. Colleges and universities simply rely on [first year composition] courses and, where available, concurrent library sessions to introduce students to effective critical thinking skills for analyzing information resources. (p. 116)

Writing centers, too, are part of the “front lines.” We work not only with students in first year composition classes, but students from all disciplines who are struggling with aspects of writing. At the Metro State Writing Center, about half of our tutorials are with students writing from sources.

McClure and Clink emphasize that

with access to the Internet so easy and routine for most college students, it is critical that they learn to understand the nuanced nature of information from the entirely biased to the intentionally objective, and this literacy need is critical to future work in library and [first year composition] instruction. (p. 119-120)
While some may choose to panic or become reactionary by outlawing the use of digital sources in their classes, others take a more realistic and level-headed approach. Howard and Carrick (2006) urge us in writing centers not to panic and to instead take a leadership role on our campuses, “guiding teachers and students alike toward productive, reasoned pedagogical and textual practices” (p. 250). In refocusing campus energy away from catching and punishing plagiarizers and toward compassionate and productive pedagogies, we can reduce students’ fear of “being caught,” which keeps students from visiting writing centers and their professors to ask for help with sources and instead help our campuses see writing centers as sites for students to learn about how to work with complex source materials.