There has been some discussion in our schools about students using online “citation tools” to format footnotes and bibliographies. While that discussion is important in the sense that it begs for some consensus, in many ways it obfuscates the real issue. How our students take responsibility for attribution in a cyber world where everybody’s ideas and positions are revealed is the challenge. Very simply, is there much that our students could propose that has not been set forth by somebody else? If the answer is no, then should students be citing everything they write? Furthermore, when students recount information in their work, where do we draw the line regarding what is common knowledge (cataloged in an encyclopedia?) and what is not? As teachers, is it necessary for us to teach kids information they could easily obtain elsewhere or should we focus our talents on higher order learning skills? The problem with this inquiry is that the more you think about the topic, the more questions are raised. As we begin to recognize the complexity of these questions, think about the stress these questions might cause our students as they deliver papers, projects, and tests to us.
The problem today is that the sphere of common knowledge has expanded if we define it as anything that can be found on the web in ten seconds or less. So when a student writes that “John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, TX,” and cites Wikipedia as the source, I tell that student “no citation necessary – common knowledge.” Does that mean everybody knows the answer, sort of like the sky is blue, or does it mean that the answer can be obtained online in less than ten seconds? Alternatively, if the student says “the British Empire declined, in part, due to its lack of tolerance for those living in the British colonies,” and cites Amy Chua‘s recent book, Day of Empire, am I satisfied with the reference? Does it matter that Chua’s idea is not original, and the student should have picked up the footnote in Chua that gives prior attribution to Niall Ferguson? And did Ferguson steal the idea from Edward Gibbon? This is a slippery slope, you say. Perhaps we should just leave it alone and be thankful our kids are citing sources at all. Food for thought. I would suggest, however, that there is considerable scaffolding necessary before we can begin to develop some 21st century guidelines for attribution. When we are finished developing a framework, we will have completely undressed the idea of intellectual property in the digital world, and some of us will be very unhappy with the result. Imagine donating all of your original work and ideas to the “Creative Commons.” Is this a conversation we should begin or should we sit back and let higher education do the heavy lifting?