All of my classes in the BLS program involve some kind of essay or research paper. Additionally, students discuss a variety of course topics using threaded message boards—a kind of virtual classroom discussion. With both kinds of writing, many students supplement their understanding of the topic by conducting quick online searches. Sometimes these efforts are deliberate attempts to research but in some cases, students “just want to be sure” their thoughts are on the right track. In either case, I ask students to document the sources they consult but I suspect that many informal online searches go undocumented. Unfortunately, students who conduct this kind of informal web research without proper documentation can easily commit an act of plagiarism–even if the student does not intend to deceive.
My rule of thumb for students is to include any source consulted in a bibliography, whether that source is quoted in the paper or not. Sources that contain unique information or sources that are quoted in the text of the paper require parenthetical citations, a hallmark of Modern Language Association format (MLA).
I’ve found two tools that make online research and documentation just a bit easier. The Online Writing Lab (OWL), hosted by Purdue University, contains a variety of style and formatting guides, including details on MLA format. This site is up-to-date with the 2009 MLA format updates, is completely free, and can replace the hard copy version of the MLA Handbook I used to ask my students to purchase. The OWL contains great information on citing electronic and web sources, which is great for online students who do so much of their research using the web. Using the OWL can help students present all of their sources in an easy-to-read, easy-to-navigate format.
Second, I’ve found an application called Zotero, which is a plug-in for Mozilla’s Firefox web browser. With Zotero installed on my browser, I can document a web source in one click. When I’m conducting a web search, I launch Zotero and the software helps me track all of the information I need to generate bibliographic entries: the site’s name, the date the site was published, the date on which I accessed the material, and the URL. I can sort the various sources into a folder so all of my sources for one project are stored together. Zotero allows users to take screen shots so that the content of the web page can be stored along with the citation data. And files can be attached to each entry, so I can download a PDF of a journal article and save it along with the necessary citation data.