Straw bibliography: A common error in student writing

This post describes a particular rhetorical technique that students often use in their essays that professional scholars never do: something I call the “straw bibliography.” If you learn to recognise these in your writing (and more importantly, learn how to handle them more professionally), the quality of your research will improve immensely.

What is a “straw bibliography”

“Straw bibliography” is the term I give to statements like the following, when they are unsupported by citations:

The question of the definition of medieval literature has long been a source of debate

Critics argue constantly about the role of women in literature

Read the rest of this entry »

Some quick notes on citation practice for undergraduates

Students seem always to get very nervous about citation… and, interestingly, perhaps through that nervousness, end up doing it in ways that professional scholars don’t.

Here are some tips that pros use for citation that undergraduates tend not to know:

Plagiarism is not a property crime.

Many students treat citations as, in essence, payment for ideas. Read the rest of this entry »

A subtle form of plagiarism you may not know about

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for the National Post on how technology was changing the way students worked–and how the generational gap between faculty and students might prevent faculty from recognising some types of plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty.

One type of academic dishonesty that I certainly had never heard of until quite recently involves how students acquire the quotations they use in their essay. In past years, I always assumed that students were acquiring their quotations semi-honestly–by reading the book or, at worst, reading something about the book from which they could crib passages to cite.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered students acquiring quotations from sites that only provide quotations from books. In my last batch of essays on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for example, I had an essay from a student that purported to discuss seven life lessons that had been learned from a reading of the book. It looked like quite a witty piece, though strangely unconnected to the actual events of the book, until I discovered that all seven quotations had been copied straight from this post at In previous years, I have seen quotation lists derived from chatroom requests for “Quotes I can use from ‘We are seven’.”

I suspect the assumption is that if you have attended class and have a list of quotations from a given book, you probably know enough to fake a C or B understanding for a first year paper.

Digital Plagiarism

I have recently started using plagiarism detection software. Not so much for the ability to detect plagiarism as for the essay submission- and grading- management capabilities it offered. But the system was, of course, originally designed to detect plagiarism—which means that I too can use it to check my students’ originality. To the extent that one semesters’ data is a sufficient sample, my preliminary conclusions are that the problem of plagiarism, at least in my classes, seems to be more-or-less as insignificant as I thought it was when I graded by hand, and that my old method of discovering plagiarism (looking into things when a paper didn’t seem quite “right”) seemed to work.1 This past semester, I caught two people plagiarising. But neither of them had particularly high unoriginality scores: in both cases, I discovered the plagiarism after something in their essays seemed strange to me and caused me to go through originality reports turnitin provides on each essay more carefully. I then went through the reports for every essay submitted by that class (a total of almost 200), to see if I had missed any essays that turnitin’s reports suggested might be plagiarised. None of the others showed the same kind of suspicious content that had led me to suspect the two I caught. So for me, at least, the “sniff test” remains apparently reliable. Read the rest of this entry »

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