UPDATE: please see this page for updated slides and additional tips.
Here are tips for educators on how to attribute images in a Powerpoint slide deck (hit pause button to assert manual control of the slide advance). The tips are focused on the logistics of attribution (placement, text color, etc.) since the law aspect is, um, complicated. It’s just a draft, so if you have suggestions, let me know in comments or via email. I made it because very, very few educators seem to provide image credits. Or at least the ones who post their slides online …
I created the PDF below because many students who post their talks on the internet seem to think it’s OK to plagiarize when using Powerpoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc. It’s just six slides because the average person will get bored after the first slide, when references to elevator romance abruptly stop. It ends on a few issues that have short answers, but you can add the details if you want. If you can help spread the word, great.
Open up a Powerpoint or Prezi show on the Internet and it is likely to be packed with text and images copied from others: no quotation marks and no image attributions. I think this is unfortunate, but not surprising — kids probably learn to plagiarize in grade school from their teachers, and then they watch their college professors do the same. When students graduate and get jobs that require them to post slide decks on the internet, they’ll do the same: use other people’s text and images without indicating that that’s what they’ve done.
But why don’t teachers use quotation marks and attributions? Teachers ask their students to cite sources on papers, so teachers clearly know about academic honesty in writing. Here are my guesses:
Teachers think that quotation marks and attribution text ruin the aesthetics of their slides.
Teachers think citing others for copied text and images undermines their authority in class.
Teachers know it’s wrong to plagiarize (and steal copyrighted images) but are busy and hope nobody will notice/complain.
For many teachers, it’s probably a little of all three. And about #3, I’m left wondering why so many teachers place their plagiarized slide decks on the internet for the whole world to examine, rather than hiding them behind Blackboard and Moodle like everyone else does.
Given the common Powerpoint plagiarism by teachers, one might think education/teacher organizations would develop clear policies urging their members not to plagiarize (and not to use uncredited, copyrighted images). The only statement on this topic I’ve found so far is from the American Historical Association (website):
“All who participate in the community of inquiry, as amateurs or as professionals, as students or as established historians, have an obligation to oppose deception. This obligation bears with special weight on teachers…”
I was asked on Twitter if I could clarify my views on text justification for conference posters, but decided I couldn’t come up with a good 140 character response. So here you go:
I recommend left-justified research posters for several reasons. First, I read in some typography/readability article (can’t find reference but will keep looking) that your brain subconsciously uses the ragged right edge to better gauge vertical reading position, allowing reader to more quickly travel through a paragraph. This matters less if you have good space between lines of text, but matters a lot if you’ve squished lines together to fit more on your poster (unfortunately, a very common scenario). Second, left-justified text has more predictable spaces within and between words, and that consistency makes sentences easier (faster) to read. Fully justified text can be especially awful when column widths are too small, and for smaller text boxes like figure and table legends. As an example of how awful those space problems can be, here’s an artificial dem on stration. These spacing issues are much bigger problems for people with dyslexia (20% of people, perhaps) and other reading disorders. That said, typesetting software such as InDesign have really good controls for minimizing the spacing problems of fully justified text. And some fonts (often the ones you have to actually purchase) are good at spacing themselves. Third, left-justified paragraphs suffer much less from the rivers and pigeonholes of white space that are sometimes created by full justification. These distracting visual elements are probably more of a problem for people or disciplines that are fond of big words, which coincidentally are those that love to have poster sessions. You can minimize rivers and pigeonholes by turning on automatic hyphenation, of course. In related news, Powerpoint doesn’t do auto-hyphenation, which makes it terrible for posters because you typically want to cram as much on a page as possible. Finally, errors in spaces between sentences (you just need one) are much easier to catch if you are using left justification.
But there are at least two reasons why you might reasonably ignore what I’ve written above. First, full justification looks so cool! If you want people to think you’re cool and professional, and you probably do, you might just go ahead and hit that button … because most viewers (and mentors, and poster judges) will also be similarly impressed. Unless they’re dyslexic, in which case they might hate you. A compounding problem is that justification looks cooler and cooler as you reduce font size … contributing to the word problem that plagues almost all conference posters. Second, there seems to be some research (again, I’m looking for citations I know I have somewhere) suggesting that full justification might increase a reader’s comprehension of the text. My guess is comprehension increases because one reads it more slowly. Changing the font every sentence might also increase comprehension in the same way, though I don’t recommend doing that. (Hyphenated paragraphs take longer to read, too.)
By the way, don’t center-justify text in figure legends and table captions. Many prestigious journals use centered text in this way, but I think they’d change to left justification if they could do so without admitting to prior foolishness.
As an aside, I recently purchased a Kobo eReader because I can specify left-justification. I couldn’t do that with my Kindle. I can also now read while floating in a pool (my Kobo is waterproof).
If for some reason the above didn’t bore you, please see more of the same at Designing conference posters. Drop me a note if you have actual data for any of the above speculation.
This post is for public school principals and superintendents — people who are in a position to set broad educational policies and to rally teachers, staff, and students to achieve those goals.
Here’s my plea: ask your teachers to use quotation marks and citations when they copy/paste text into Prezi shows and syllabi. Without explicit marching orders, some teachers seem to plagiarize, and then their impressionable students end up viewing plagiarism as “mildly bad but acceptable,” just like sharing MP3 files and bootleg Gossip Girl episodes.
How often do public school teachers plagiarize? I don’t have any real data, but I’ve recognized chunks of my text on perhaps several hundred syllabi, slides, and handouts. That might seem like a small number (there are a lot of teachers), but I see the frequency as rather depressing. They are teachers — of all people on the planet, shouldn’t they be on top of proper and careful attribution? You don’t even need to find a special character code: it’s SHIFT + ‘. Easy peasy.
So some teachers clearly plagiarize (and then post the files on the Internet for the whole world to see). But why? Let me allow a teacher to answer that. The teacher quoted below plagiarized from me several times, excerpting parts of my Designing conference posters page onto her syllabus (no quotation marks or citation). When I mentioned this to her the second time, she replied,
“You’re absolutely right. Sorry again. It is a good resource and it helps kids, which is why I use it. I can see why you take issue that it is part of my syllabus which is tied to me/my class, but the teaching world couldn’t possibly, on every single document/worksheet/test we give our students, quote or cite source for chunks of information we use to help our students learn things. Education (at least where I teach) moves too quickly to do so, and we already have too much asked of us in and outside of the classroom. But yes, it is a large amount of information taken directly from your site/work.”
On her syllabus are chunks taken from other people, too (you can tell partly because the font and writing style are completely different; again, no quotation marks and no citations). If students are able to recognize this as patchwriting (likely, given it was an Advance Placement course), students may assume plagiarism is socially acceptable. If a lot of teachers plagiarize like the above, I think it may explain why so many students in college plagiarize. It can also explain why they seem so shocked when they get penalized.
The teacher above is using what I like to call the Fair Use Excuse. “Fair use” is a quasi-official term that describes a clause in the US Copyright Act that allows people to legally use copyrighted text or images under some circumstances. But “fair use” does not allow plagiarism (using text without quotation marks and without attribution). I’ve even had university copyright lawyers try the Fair Use Excuse when I mention that a faculty member has plagiarized me — I laugh at this lame defense. Would teachers accept a “fair use” explanation from their plagiarizing students? I don’t think so.
The Fair Use Excuse for plagiarism seems especially common among younger teachers, and I suspect these individuals are second-generation plagiarizers who learned how to plagiarize from their teachers … the first generation that started using Powerpoint in class. Powerpoint is, in my view, the entry drug for chronic plagiarizers.
By the way, the teacher mentioned above has a strong (one-sentence) warning about plagiarism in her syllabus — she clearly knows what plagiarism is and views it as academic dishonesty. (Her school’s academic honesty policy is plagiarized from another school, by the way.)
So if you are a principal or superintendent, please use your influence to encourage your teachers to model academic honesty. It’s in the same vein as asking them not to smoke in front of the school, behavior you’d think you didn’t need to explicitly prohibit, but do. Of course, if you’re a typical principal or superintendent, you’re thinking right now, “But my teachers are all great — this is simply not an issue at my school/district.” And — forgive my bluntness — you’d be delusional.
If you are not a principal or superintendent, but know one, please consider sending this post to them. If you happen to be an education professor in college, you might want to add this issue to your teacher certification program. Really.
And if you are a student who has just been caught plagiarizing (oopsy!), the above information is your ticket out of the trouble! Just analyze (via Google search) your teacher’s syllabus (or Prezi slides, or whatever) and document his/her plagiarism. Then show the results to the principal and argue that your teacher showed you, by example, that it was totally acceptable to copy/paste without attribution. To further make your case, plug in your school’s academic honesty policy into Google — chances are that your principal plagiarized it from a university web page. If teachers and principals do it (they’re busy!), you can, too (because you’re busier!).