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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Cite It Right: Online Citation Tools and Formal Citations

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant

We hear it often: "Plagiarism is rampant! Teachers as detectives! Punish the wrongdoers! Stand up for what is right! Seize the moral high ground!"

I have written about plagiarism before, but this time I want to discuss how the offense can often be subtler than buying a published paper online or overtly copying and pasting a document. Rather, it can be a case of simply failing to properly cite sources. If a chunk of text, an image, or a multimedia clip is taken from a source without citation, then -- bingo! -- plagiarism.

In fact, we should probably include the ability to copy and paste and to blend content from multiple digital sources into a single document or file as a key twenty-first-century skill. With this realization, rather than discouraging such behavior we should be encouraging it, while simultaneously teaching students how to properly cite materials.

Here are some online tools for students that take the confusion out of citing sources:

  • Education blogger David Warlick's Citation Machine, which he describes as a tool that will help students, teachers, and researchers learn how to properly "respect other people's intellectual properties"
  • NoodleTools -- with its wonderfully simple NoodleBib functionality -- which targets grades 1-5 and English as a Second Language students and requires the creation of an account but is free and allows you to save bibliographies as lists
  • SourceAid, the tool for professionals that encourages educators to, as the SourceAid Web site states, "invest in the academic integrity of your classroom by providing your students with the best tools to cite properly and avoid plagiarism."

These Web sites vary in the number and type of citations they illustrate, as well as the diversity of sources they cite. Each discusses how to cite books, Web sites, and encyclopedias, but they are not equal and should be reviewed by teachers and students to identify the one that is right for them and for their work. While perusing these sites, be sure to look at the interactive resources available on NoodleTools under "Teacher Resources," the SourceAid newsletter on research skills, and the other wonderful tools and resources available from Warlick's Landmarks for Schools.

Arguments I occasionally hear against the use of these powerful tools remind me of the calculator debates. The ability to automate the creation of citations still makes some educators nervous and has them wondering whether, by allowing students to avoid the pain of learning how to properly cite their term papers, they aren't doing enough to support the development of good researchers. Many are concerned that these tools just make it too easy for students to cite without really understanding how and why to cite, and when.

Do you and/or your school support the use of online citation builders? Do you use Modern Language Association or American Psychological Association formatting and style guides? Why or why not -- and, if so, which is your favorite? Are there other tools we should know about? I'm interested in your comments. And, yes, I promise to cite you as a resource!

Jim Moulton

Technology Integration and Project-Based Learning Consultant
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John's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is nice to see a similar view on this topic. So many of the teachers I have talked with about this topic say the same thing. Students need to know how to do things old school so they will "learn it". I agree with them to a point, my motto is that "the more I work with technology the more I like paper and pencil". I use this motto more as a way to help colleagues deal with technology crashes. When I tell students this they get a kick out of it as well. However I agree with your point of view that students need to know how to use the technological tools out there properly. To our students in this day and age the computer is their pencil and paper. We as teachers need to realize this and help work with students on how to properly use it, not force them to learn an archaic way doing research. I feel that often times within education we do certain things simply because that is the way we did it and by god if I did it then my students will too. I am starting to see this method of thinking begin to change with education reform movements which I think it is long over due.

Jennifer Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to teach how to properly cite references and for some students online citation resources are going to be much easier than looking up methods in a grammar book. In my opinion the writing process can seem very difficult to students with average or below average English skills. On top of having difficulty in composing an essay or paper we then ask them to put their essays in to American Psychological Association (APA) or Modern Language Association (MLA) format which can become very confusing if different teachers require use of each format.

In my high school building there are three English teachers. From what I know only one of the teachers advertise the use of online citation web sites. I co-taught an English class where we used MLA format, but other teachers in my building may use APA. I am using APA for graduate courses currently. I remember that using MLA format seemed easier, but it could be because I was familiar with MLA format and not APA format.

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