Yale Center for Teaching and Learning

Source Used Without Attribution

In the example below, Turnitin has flagged a passage in a student paper as nearly identical to a passage in a published article. The student does not cite the source parenthetically, nor does it appear in his list of works cited. This creates the impression that the ideas in the passage originated with the student rather than with the source.

A screenshot from a Turnitin report with 50% of the text highlighted in red

Here the student has—through sloppiness or deceit—effectively taken credit for another scholar’s ideas. This a serious violation of scholarly ethics, but one that is most constructively addressed by considering what the student has to learn.

The student’s instinct to present a source’s ideas as his own shows a misunderstanding about the how scholars use sources. More specifically, the student fails to understand the value scholars place on situating their ideas in a larger academic discourse—indeed that the value of one’s own ideas is created by this discourse. Were the student to understand that the value of his own ideas comes from how they engage the ideas of other scholars, he would likely be more motivated to cite them (or simply more careful).

How to Respond to the Student

The most important part of your response is to be clear about the issue and its severity: “You have used another scholar’s ideas without citation. This makes it seem like you’re taking credit for another person’s work, which is a serious breach of the ethics of scholarship.”

Once you’ve made clear what the student has done wrong, explain that incorporating sources isn’t a threat to the originality of one’s argument, but rather an opportunity to show how that argument is interesting or important. When employed properly, sources help scholars demonstrate the impact of their arguments by situating them among the ideas of others. When engaging the student one-on-one—either in person or in your comments on their paper—you might also reinforce the importance of careful note taking.

What to Do in Class

Here are three activities you can do with your students to prepare them to cite their sources scrupulously while writing their papers.

  1. Paying special attention to the conventions of your discipline, talk in class about the relationship between a writer’s ideas and the ideas of his sources. Reinforce that careful citation of sources is an issue you take seriously. Explain how the impact of a scholar’s ideas can only be demonstrated in the context of previous scholarship.
  2. Discuss in class how the author of one of the course readings uses sources. Focus specifically on the relationship between the argument the scholar is making and the ideas of their sources, and on how the author’s use of sources helps demonstrate the impact of their argument. If it’s more useful, you could conduct this exercise using a model student paper from a previous semester.
  3. Assign students a pre-writing exercise in which they write an annotated bibliography or a paragraph that places several sources in conversation. Giving students an assignment where their primary task is documenting their use of sources gives them a head start on citing effectively as they draft their essays.