By Susan Carter

My institution’s guidelines state that “Those who use material which is not produced by them have a responsibility to make its status and origins quite clear to those to whom it is presented (5.2).” Well, sure. That sounds nice and straightforward. We have also built an on-line academic integrity module that students are required to complete. This is in line with practice elsewhere aimed to prevent plagiarism.

However, those who work with doctoral writing know that citation is not always straightforward and tidy. There’s a grey zone between what must and needn’t be cited—and it can seem to grow foggier as the writer advances into being a fully blown researcher.

Like others, our official sites make it clear that even if you are genuinely unaware that you separated an author’s work from the citation details, this doesn’t let you off the hook. But unaware separation can happen as doctoral students cut and paste through seemingly infinite iterations. When you first write some idea based on someone else’s, you are aware of the authorial boundaries. As years pass between this iteration and the final one, it’s possible to lose track of where ideas came from: you’ve read those words outside of the direct quotation markers so often that they seem your own. Students are rightly nervous about plagiarising unintentionally.

And, how do you decide what is ‘common knowledge’ and what belongs to a thinker? Some facts are clear cut; others, much less so. With theoretical terms, must one still give a reference with a page number for terms that have now become common coinage? Can I just say ‘citation works as a model of the Foucaultian panopticon’ and call it quits at that, or would I need to trundle back to ascertain Foucault’s early date and page number?

It tends to be that as time passes, increasingly some disciplines feel that a theoretical term is simply part of the shared language. Occasionally a diligent doctoral student points out that the same term is treated differently in current publications–there seems not to be a clear system in play. The decision as to whether a term has reached that ripeness of being detachable from its author seems to be subjective: it depends partly on the discipline, the supervisor and, most scarily, the examiner—or maybe on the journal and editor when publication is at stake. The decision has a social context.

Some thesis writers have difficulty with the joinery that separates out another author’s thoughts from their own. You need meticulous care with sign-posts on all corners when an author’s ideas are enfolded by your own. It gets worse when you engage with more than one piece of literature, as is often the case in a doctoral thesis.

So in the doctoral session on citing and avoiding plagiarism that I put together with Frances Kelly, we use examples and exercises to work with that let us all talk round how to do it. We look at discipline preferences for citation and summary. We make use of literature on citation—I’ve listed some below. We have a quiz and a court-case example.  We practice summarising and then talk about our various strategies. The talk is helpful.

Nonetheless, we recommend that supervisors/advisors should be consulted with specific examples till the student feels they have got the hang of how their discipline does it, and how it’s done in English language, in Western culture. Learning advisors are not fully savvy in all disciplines, this seems an area where their instincts can’t be relied upon.

There’s another invitingly itchy rub from a pedagogical perspective. Lisa Samuels (2002) picks this up in ‘Relinquish Intellectual Property’, a manifesto worth reading for its sheer stylishness alone.

She pushes me to reflect that ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ doesn’t capture the numerous generations of thinkers and all those people you have discussed points with who contribute to how you think and, yes, maybe scrupulous guarding of intellectual property misses the main point.

Note, though, that I am carefully referencing Samuels, because this is one of those situations where authorship–ownership of idea–is hers not mine. Her manifesto is a personal point of view. It won’t work as a defence against plagiarism.

The cynic in me suspects institutions flatten this issue out to avoid culpability should students miss the mark. This is one of the many areas where supervisors and learning advisors need to pick up the slack. Any suggestions on how?

Samuels, L. (2002). New Literary History 33.2: 357-374