As I think about Fair Use this week, I find myself reflecting on a conversation that I had several years ago with a writing instructor friend. We are at The University of Alabama, and a student of hers wanted to know if he needed to find a source to support a statement that he considered common knowledge– Bear Bryant coached alabama football and won several national championships. This anecdote brings up a more complex question for many students: what is “public knowledge” and what needs to be cited? How do I know the difference?
The Citation Project has given us a lot of information about the patterns of student writing that are typically classified as “plagiarism. ” Through the data they have collected, we gain insight into how students are engaging with sources, and we can examine plagiarism cases through a more complex lens. The exciting thing about the Citation Project’s work is that it helps educators take advantage of the teaching moment. It helps us examine these wayward “plagiarism” cases as formative assessments, allowing us to adjust our pedagogy to reflect the confusion that a student has about fair use of sources, and the ethics of writing. The Citation Project’s usefulness is not limited to the writing instructor. Librarians can use the information provided in the data gathered to help support the ethical use of information through conversations about the iterative nature of research (coaching them away from what Bartholomae calls “dogmatic writing”). By convincing students to write about what they learn while researching rather than researching for a preconceived idea, we can perhaps help them gain a better understanding of what needs to be cited, and we further them along the road to informed citizenship.