Processing, interpreting, quoting and referencing source material

Just a quick reflection on a recent session.

Jenny (not her real name) is an overseas mature student in the School of Social Sciences, having started her degree course only a few weeks ago. She approached the Study Skills Centre for a mentoring appointment because she lacks confidence with the “technicalities” (her word) of academic writing.

The introduction to the session went well. We had time to briefly discuss the services of the Centre and Jenny’s background, country of origin and experience at Bangor so far. She seems to be a very diligent student, having comprehensive, beautifully hand-written lecture notes for all her modules, and is generally confident when talking about her subject. She very quickly presented her main concern to me: avoiding plagiarism, knowing when and when not to reference, and the Harvard system of referencing in particular.

The source of this concern seems to be a lack of instruction during her ‘access to university’ course on how to process information and incorporate it into her own writing, where (it seems) students were permitted to quote large sections of source texts as long as they referenced the author. She instinctively feels that this is wrong but doesn’t know why or what to do about it.

This is a problem I have encountered with other early university learners. They are conscious that they need to engage with the substantive information and discussion of experts in the field but can’t see a way of processing and re-presenting the material other than to quote it in full: “How on earth can I express this any better than the original author did? Particularly as I don’t really understand it anyway!” Rather than compromise on the intellectual tone of the essay and leave out complicated (and perhaps important) details/ideas, they end up quoting large sections of the source text verbatim.

Of course, this isn’t a ‘writing’ problem per se, it’s more of a general study skills issue about how to engage with your reading material, how to understand it and reflect upon it, how to extract the most important details, how to express your understanding of it, how to rephrase it into your own language and present it back to a new audience.

I don’t have the answer to this problem! But I would like to reflect on the approach I’ve taken with Jenny and others before.

Essentially, I separate out the two tasks: i) summarising the ideas/theories of another writer, and ii) deciding what needs to be quoted or referenced, and how. First I ask the writer to put all their notes and quotes aside and just freely (and orally) summarise what the author is saying in the given text. They usually do an excellent and eloquent job of this, often to their great surprise. I then ask them to write down what they have just said. This passage/paragraph is normally suitable for inclusion in their essay somehow, depending on how they tie it in with the rest of the discussion. I then turn to Colin Neville’s guidelines in his book The Complete Guide to Referencing and Avoiding Plagiarism (copy available in the Peer Mentors’ room) and assess the passage based on these guidelines. I’m not going to go through them all here, but ideas like controversy, pithiness, exceptionally good phrasing, etc., may incline the writer to quote a particular section of the original text verbatim in their summary. This can normally be done quite easily retrospectively. Further to that, ideas such as differentiating between new/specific/unique vs. ‘common’ knowledge help the writer decide what aspects of his/her summary need to be attributed directly to the original author or left as their own authorial comment. We might also discuss how those references to the original author might be made, whether in the text or in footnotes, etc..

 

I find separating out these two tasks makes the process a lot easier. The task of mentally ‘processing’ the source text and summarising it into your own words is fundamental and cannot be avoided. Whether you MUST or CHOOSE to then quote or reference the original author and text are secondary and can be assessed in the light of guidance and good practice, and there is plenty of published material out there to help. First ‘own’ and communicate the information, then decide what needs to be attributed to others and how.

That is how I have dealt with this rather common problem anyway. But I’d be grateful for any thoughts…

Phil Davies