One of the hallowed practices we teach students is how to properly reference sources. This is deeply entrenched in academic practice – we often give explicit marks for it in assessment, teach it as a key skill, give explicit methods to follow and demand it in publication. As such you could view it as a cornerstone of the enculturation process that is higher education – we are bringing people in to the culture of higher education and referencing is one means of exhibiting your membership of this club.
Let’s think about why it’s important. There are two main reasons that I can see:
- To properly acknowledge the work of others. The act of referencing provides a clear framework for avoiding plagiarism since it positively encourages students to reference others and thus removes ignorance as an excuse.
- To allow readers to locate any sources for themselves. This acts as both a check on the author (they can’t make up references or misrepresent them), and also promotes knowledge sharing.
Reason 1 is still valid obviously, now more than ever perhaps. But reason 2? Isn’t that a pre-Google motivation? The reason why I think it’s worth raising it is that the necessity for strict referencing guidelines and their structure is determined by the need to locate physical objects in a library. Also there is an inherent bias in these guidelines towards a) text and b) traditional forms of publication. The attempts to incorporate online resources often seem clumsy.
So why do we need it anyway? If I quote from a paper, I can either link to it, or you can simply find it by Googling the quote. Search replaces memory – I don’t need to remember where I saw something, just what I saw, since I can always find it again. While teaching people to properly acknowledge the work of others is essential (and here I think blogging provides a very useful example of good practice), increasingly I feel that the need to master the Harvard (or whatever) referencing method is anachronistic. We should teach the important of the process , ie that you must properly acknowledge work and make it easy for people to locate.