Lament: The Art of Research Lost and Found

Research Is Discovering New Facts

key phrase: discover new facts. Not: repeat other people’s facts

When I was still teaching high school English, I used to get occasional research papers with the URL from which the words had been stolen printed at the bottom. I don’t know if the students thought I was a complete idiot, if they were used to teachers giving a B+ to anything with more than one page to it, or if they were actually completely deluded. Lazy is more likely, really. And don’t think it was the lower-level kids who did it more. My AP classes were usually most guilty of this type of transgression. And this was after introductory units about research and plagiarism – with dire warnings of Zeroes and Calls Home.

Sometimes the slightly less lazy kids would cut and paste – even occasionally making sure the fonts matched. And oh! the dismay when they received my exasperated and sarcastic responses* (I am sure more than one parent was horrified – horrified! – at my comments) showing that I, too, understood Google search.

In both my Journalism and AP Language classes I had lessons using the students’ indiscretions (no worries, names removed) to demonstrate the difference between citation and plagiarism. And many of the students truly didn’t understand why they couldn’t just use information they had “found” – as though finders-keepers counted. And really, considering the Stars and Stripes standing at stiff attention on the Moon and the less-than-altruistic expectation of reward when we return a lost item to its owner, who can blame them?


screen grab from Sun Come Up, 2011 documentary

The art of research is quickly sinking into oblivion. On-line news sites scramble to get the “news” out FIRST – no matter if it’s true. They can always edit it later (without acknowledging said edit). Reporters, supposedly the bastions of facts and ethics, have been faking sources and stories and events for as long as they’ve been writing. We just shame them more now. Although, some newspapers actually provide appropriate apologies and explanations. And major websites, and minor blogs, think nothing of re-publishing entire stories (or the most interesting tidbits) from other sites – with a buried link to the source – to keep readers on their own sites and with their advertisers.

When a story is well-researched, it shines. It answers questions the reader didn’t know she had. With the 24-hour at-your-fingertips news we have today, emphasis is on getting information out first, quickest, and often with quirky and irreverent headlines that have little to do with the subject and everything to do with attracting the click.

Not everyone has the same dismal outlook as I do. The fine folks over at NJ News Commons are hosting Hack Jersey – an event designed to allow coders and journalists a chance to move news forward instead of down.  I’d take part if I had any idea what a “hackathon” was and whether I could offer anything to the projects. I seriously doubt I could, but I’m interested to see what comes out of it.

And my despair over the neglected Art of Research sometimes is lightened. These Internets so many call home sometimes encourages stumbling upon hopeful tidbits like the spectacular Quote Investigator. If you’re trying to remember what research looks like, visit this fantastic site to see research in action. You’ll get lost in this site, I think. Here’s just one example with Age as Mind over Matter. They’re on Twitter, too.

* Just one of the many reasons I’d never last teaching out here in Suburbia

About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to car culture, dealing with leaving a career I loved, and spouting off along the way. Do The Most Good.
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16 Responses to Lament: The Art of Research Lost and Found

  1. sisterhoodofthesensiblemoms says:

    Yes! I am constantly trying to instill (pound) this into my kids. Research is standing on the shoulders of others and shining the spotlight in a unique way – different angle, different wattage, different something. A research paper is not regurgitation, let alone stealing. AND WIKIPEDIA IS NOT A SOURCE! Ellen

  2. Erica M says:

    I had teachers who would outright fail students, not return for a rewrite, so the fear of God has been with me since 10th grade.

    • I was easier – a zero on the paper AND they had to rewrite it. School policy was *technically* disciplinary action, but we deans always knew nothing would come of it. The Asst. Principals never wanted to deal with the parents and students (who were often “good kids”). So just the “bad kids” ended up getting dealt with – whose parents often just shrugged in defeat. Just another example of institutional preferences.

  3. Me too, this was hammered into us as kids! It’s nice to have so much info at our fingertips but shocking at how kids don’t seem to get plagiarism. Thanks for this and for sharing the quote investigator site!

    • But it’s not just kids, remember. People do this on blogs, in newspapers, and so on. Everyone wants to think they were the first ones to say something – as if anyone remembers stuff from the Internets 15 minutes later.

  4. hsw says:

    I love what you wrote about good research shining. The tendency to publish first and edit later is troubling but a very good observation. I hesitate even to do more than link to, say, a recipe even if I’ve adapted it because I don’t think just giving source credit is fair in an age where clicks are currency.

    • That’s so true. I try to use just a little of other sources with attribution and a tested link. I acknowledge it’s difficult, however. Perfect (ironic) example: the image that leads this post. I tried to find the original through various sources. I only found it on about five different websites – none of which cited an original source. I ended up linking to the most obvious source, but THAT post didn’t attribute the image. I’m considering removing it and using a CC image.

      • hsw says:

        I think trying goes a long way. A blog I really enjoy recently did a post where she talked about how she tried to find an original source for a veggie tray idea and let people know what she found ( It brings so much ethos to writing (even when it isn’t persuasive writing) when I see someone go the extra mile like that. When I was an extern in law school one of my jobs included looking up case citations in briefs to make sure the source material actually said what was quoted. People do check!

    • Rachel: Since I don’t know her writing and blog well enough, I can only hope that it was written with her tongue firmly in cheek. That’s how I read it. And either 1) my Pollyanna side came shining through or 2) I was the only person in the comments to think she was being satirical. Both options are frightening! She’s a great writer, so thank you for sharing that link!

  5. Rachel says:

    Yes, she is a fantastic writer and I love her links! I loved this one from the creativity post

  6. Ahh… so true. The worst I’ve seen so far is two students who handed in nearly identical papers. Complete with identical typos. (Like I don’t READ or REMEMBER?) Fortunately not all students take this route — many might not be the best writers, but at least their work is authentic. 😉

    • There are so many nuances, and I know pressure takes a role. Does a parent helping with a project count as cheating? Maybe not, but I always graded projects based on a rubric that included “student did her/his own work.”

  7. TheJackB says:

    Plagiarism is a plague. Name your source, come clean and be up front. Show people you can think for yourself- it just throws me how many think it is ok to claim work that isn’t there own.

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