Empty citations?

This article was originally posted at the beginning of 2012, but its content remains relevant. This is perhaps a good time to run the article again given that many university staff are now busy marking exactly the sort of assessment this post discusses.

By Sam Graham

Last week, I had lots of students coming in about their reflective writing essay. The essay had students evaluate whether self-directed teams increased productivity by having them link their experiences from four group meetings with literature about SDTs, while simultaneously considering the groups strengths and weaknesses and getting them to articulate what they had learned through the process. It was quite a beast of an essay in terms of possible complexity, and, from the essays I saw, students had generally done well at linking all of these together.

The most common question they had – at least early in the week – was how to find sources. The questions weren’t so much about how to research the topic well as they were about finding good sources that would let them tick off their minimum five sources requirement. I explained the research process below and tried to explain that the purpose of reading other sources was to refine their thinking, not just to fulfil the assignment criteria of five sources or give (faux) credibility to their writing.

Queue this morning, reading about The Citation Project.

Sandra Jamieson (Drew University) and Rebecca Moore Howard (Syracuse University) are leading an analysis of students’ citations in order to understand how they use source material. So far, they have looked at 1,911 citations from 174 student papers from 16 colleges or universities around the US. An interview by Project Information Literacy summarises things nicely.

Below is a summary of the facts that they found with a combination of their and my interpretation:

  • Citations are usually from within the first two pages of the source. This seems to indicate that students are hunting for a supporting quotation rather than reading and interpreting the entire text.
  • Of the citations analysed,
    • 42% were direct quotations,
    • 16% were patchwritten,
    • 32% were paraphrased,
    • 6% are summarized.

While it might be encouraging that 74% of citations were direct quotations or paraphrased, the authors argue that it is the summaries that demonstrate an understanding of the larger arguments in the text. In their shorter analysis of 18 papers, Howard, Serviss and Rodrique (2010) concluded that “these students are not writing from sources; they are writing from sentences selected from sources.” (The definitions of study weren’t particularly difficult to attain in this study; it required taking a paragraph or more and rewriting it in 50% of less words.)

  • Most sources were cited just once. This seems to indicate that students were taking supporting details rather than engaging with entire reports/arguments. It might also indicate that students are putting in citations to satisfy a requirement for a minimum number of sources.
  • Of the citations analysed,
    • 24.4% were to journal articles (mostly academic),
    • 17.9% were to books (though including non-academic books)
    • 24.5% came from web-based sources,


    • 26% come from sources that are two pages or less in length
    • 44% of the citations are to sources that are no longer than four pages.

This seems to indicate that students have only a partial understanding of what constitutes an academically appropriate source.

One interpretation of the above findings is that students are not following the research process in the diagram above to formulate an informed thesis, and are instead finding sources to back-up their pre-conceived ideas. This process might look something like this:

Another interpretation is that students are unable to summarise long arguments, as described by Howard, Serviss, Rodrigue (2010). Instead of bringing together various elements from a report or argument into a short summary, they instead choose what they think is the single most important element and repeat that in different words. (I’m not sure if this is a co-interpretation or an alternative interpretation.) This might explain why students were using sources at a sentence-level rather than at a wider-level. It might also explain why they are citing each source just once; if they are looking for the most important part, they might identify it in one place and cite only that part.

To me, this also fits into the idea of a zombie academy. If students are required to cite a certain number of sources, we shouldn’t blame them for picking out a sentence from the first page to tick this off the requirement list. If they’re sent the message that grades should come first, we shouldn’t blame them for putting these ahead of real understanding and learning, even if their efforts are counter-productive. Where the focus of good citation is to not plagiarise, we should understand when students aim for a 0% Turnitin score but don’t think to aim for good citation practices.

This is, I understand, a bit of a leap. For the moment I’m just trying to fit things together.

Rebecca Moore Howard, Tricia C. Serviss, and Tanya K. Rodrigue. “Writing from Sources, Writing from Sentences,” Writing and Pedagogy, 2.2 (Fall 2010): 177-192

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One response to “Empty citations?”

  1. englishteacherjoel says :

    Sam, thanks for sharing these incredibly important insights. Such valuable info for teachers of academic research practices. Research is much, much more than the ability to look up articles that are related to a particular topic area; it’s a complex, recursive interaction between texts and mind that cannot be easily reduced to simple acts of locating and transferring.

    My favorite English composition educator, David Bartholomae, has called the student practice you’ve described here as the ‘strip-mining’ of the text. A big goal in my academic literacies instruction is to help students get beyond these very superficial and crudely instrumental appropriations of other texts. But it can be difficult when assignments actually encourage them to ‘tick’ their references to other texts — as if this were just a superficial requirement and not at the very core of academic inquiry. I hadn’t heard the term ‘zombie academy’ before, but that phrase really sums it up.

    Again, great read. Thanks!

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