Honesty, dialogue, cooperation – and cheating

Referencing is a chore.  Software does help, and guidance from tutors can sometimes support the student, but actually getting the info all in the right order and the right stye is a bloody pain. Especially if the threat of being “done for plagiarism” hangs over the writer. I’m not talking here about the parasitic cnuts who will write an essay for money, or the weak mate who will lend you their essay; I’m thinking about how we stay honest about our ideas and where they come from.

We can make plagiarism one more stumbling block to academic success, a “why should I?” task which lurks on the shoulder of the harassed student – but let’s just think about that harassment: when any of us are writing (or as lecturers preparing a class) we are full of ideas, and behind us are the shadows of people with better ideas or with slicker sentences. I don’t mean the obvious ones, like the lovely, quirky, dated language of Margaret McMillan:

Just as a child loves to run fast, loves to jump off a high stump, loves to throw a stone far, just as he loves these things and for the same reason he loves to marshal all his memories, to use them and feel his life quicken in so doing.

I mean writers who have just hit the nail on the head, and so while I’m looking at theories of learning in the Early Years I find this:

The world clearly presents children with sufficient stimulation to keep their inquisitive juces flowing and offers sufficient answers and solutions to the questions children pose about their world to maintain their interest in being active and interactive learners.

Now that’s very good. I like that. It might be a bit long to put the whole quotation in, or I might be a bit busy to type it all out, and really the bit I need is that last bit to maintain their interest in being active and interactive learners. Yes, that will do. A bit later I’ll come back and find the page reference. But life intervenes, and in a Google doc or on a notepad is a phrase: active and interactive learners.  And now it’s essay time.  What book was that from? Or was it my own idea? I’ve read five articles, skimmed twelve books, read two carefully. I am harassed by the shortness of time I have left to do this work – the deadline was years away two weeks ago – or I am harassed purely and simply by the fact that that phrase now seems inescapably the one I want for my piece of writing.

In fact after typing it I did shut the book and am now cursing that I’ll have to spend time finding it.  I also know that if the book had gone back to the library, I’d be even more lost. As it is, it’s my own copy of Julie Fisher’s Starting from the Child.  It’s still on my desk. I rifle through and find the right passage. It is a good quotation, and it says what Margaret McMillan was saying in neat, authentic, up-to-date prose. Fisher J (2013) Starting from the Child, 4th edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.   In the text this is supposed to have the page number too for a direct quotation: Fisher (2013:97).

So why does it matter really? It matters because if you expect to profit from someone else’s ideas it is courteous to acknowledge them and dishonest to pass their ideas off as your own. It’s about ethics.  Bluntly, this notion of “profit” seems to me it comes down to three things: the profit might be marks for a student, or kudos for a presenter or money in book sales for a writer. The latter is silly: I got, I think, 43p last year. Or was that the year before? But the kudos thing is interesting. Academia gets jumpy about this stuff partly because in some cases (beyond the student essay) jobs and reputations, funding and publications rest on getting this honest reporting right. And this is just a big-world version of what happens when a student tries to pass any idea off as their own: “Look at clever old me! I thought this up!” No, you didn’t: that pithy phrase you couldn’t trace is by Julie Fisher. We do need experts after all.

But before I lose it completely, let’s go back to that harassed student. That phrase, active and interactive learners, is a neat one. I can’t really think how to put it better. So: put it in (keep the quotation short so as not to eat into your word count) and play the game, do the styling. &c., &c.


But there’s another side to this: the student has been learning. Not just ingesting in order to regurgitate, but debating, thinking, playing with ideas, reading on, reading again.  We learn from one another; we are social animals, not much different from the troupes (or troops) and shrewdnesses of other apes. I learn explicitly and in practically every book shared, conversation had, or walk taken with Mat Tobin; I learn more subtly but still with considerable influence from the thinking Jon Reid is doing on compassion and inclusion. Conversations with him are buried deep in the ideas on compassionate leadership I have been writing about. Roger Dalrymple makes me wish I had taken another path entirely: he informs me with patience and passion about the Middle English literature I only really leafed through. So in my own examples I acknowledge I learn from interactions with these people, and with all those who worked so hard on the book on Professional Dialogues in the Early Years the School of Education has out, colleagues such as Catharine Gilson, Elise Alexander, Mary Wild, Mary Briggs, Gillian Lake… It is about dialogue, after all: that time-consuming dance of ideas that enriches both (or all) sides.  Perhaps for the book I have learned most from discussion my friend and co-worker, Helena Mitchell, who wrote our chapter on values with me and picked up the threads of the little I had done when I was unable to make sense of them. I am also grateful for her teaching me Higher Ed: the time she showed me how to moderate, demonstrated how to supervise a dissertation – these things are hidden in my part of the chapter somewhere, in my understanding of mentoring, of the disciplines of Early Childhood.

Here’s the problem: for the student, or for any of us, where does acknowledging our sources begin and where do we call a halt before it becomes an Oscars’ acceptance speech?  

My take, then: we acknowledge a source when it’s explicit – a real book we are referring to, for instance, or a presentation slide; we acknowledge it when it’s distinct – a chunk of thinking, an idea that comes from a person or a group; we acknowledge it when not doing so is somehow to our benefit, when it makes us look better than we are.

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