“Search, citation and plagiarism: skills for a digital age have to be taught!”

When I switched to full-time teaching in 2007, I realised undergraduate students learn the difference between skimming and actually reading journal papers only if they are signed up for a research module. A small proportion of our undergraduates do this in their 3rd year, and some 60% of each cohort will conduct a research project as part of their honours degree.

These and other academic skills are a valuable acquisition as it helps develop an undergrad’s ability to evaluate and manage information, which they will need to apply elsewhere in life. So I have been experimenting with injecting some lessons into first, second and third year modules which I teach as part of practicals and assignments, with the help of our motivated biodiversity and ecology TAs.

Digital literacy is an important skill to impart, as few are really competent with IT-related matters – an informed user can manage their environment effectively and better communicate their ideas with IT professionals (and know how to make reasonable demands!) So some ideas and hints are inserted into lectures and I experiment with a graduate science communication class (e.g. see “Using Twitter“). Eventually I’ll trickle down the proven methods to the biology undergraduates.

I shared some of these efforts with colleagues in NUS at the start of the year for BuzzEd2012 and later with other educators at EduCampSg4 and RGS staff. I’m posting this mainly to remind myself about objectives and to identify areas to trim, expand, delete or introduce this semester.

At the last Department of Biological Sciences retreat we discussed ethics and a few colleagues and myself were asked to generate some slides. Department staff would be inserting those into their first lectures in various modules next week. We settled on just two points to suggest to our undergraduates which would enhance their university experience – academic honesty and respect for peers. Links point them to resources and tools.

Some staff have more to say and be able to expand on those ideas, while others will use them as a primer to discuss the topic briefly. Its nothing really news and are mostly in the NUS Honour Code. Since students wade into a whirlpool of university life peppered with many ideas, fundamental points should be communicated like advertising – never stop talking about it. A reminder each semester in each module will help keep the ideas afloat.

This is also relevant is wake of the thoughts shared by a plagiarism researcher here: “Viewpoint: The spectre of plagiarism haunting Europe,” by Debora Weber-Wulff. BBC News, 25 Jul 2012.

“In the US and the UK, universities have honour boards and ethics councils and there is a wide discussion of ethical practices. There are procedures in place for dealing with plagiarism. In Germany, though, professors wanting to address plagiarism are pretty much left to their own devices. They don’t have much in the way of tools or formal procedures.”

Meanwhile, undergrads have started exhibiting a greater familiarity with these ideas. And when I’m looking though manuscript with a research student, we reference ideas and guidelines from earlier classes. Still lots more to be done and I am looking forward to enhancing literacy in the years ahead.

I’ve always been tickled by Carl Sagan’s suggestion about “Science as a candle in the dark“. Hopefully students go on to inject society with some of these skills too!


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