Always cite your sources

Recently I was asked if as an instructional designer and content creator I cite my sources. What did I answer?

I answered that always, if it is my call. What do I mean? I have worked on some projects where I wasn’t allowed to say who or what inspired me to write a certain statement. I think the reason of this purposeful reappropiaton of knowledge is fear. Yes, some managers and content creators can be afraid that if projects cited their sources it would place a stain on the company’s know-how or on its creating finesse, because they’re depending on the knowledge of others, which they see as competitors. It would blemish their genuineness as a business or as authors.

Well, they could hardly be more wrong.

Why do I always try to cite my sources? The main reason is quality. When I read articles, I’m always pleased to see authors supporting their arguments with the help of what others have said on the matter. It kind of strengthens their position. With instant information transmission, it is so easy to reproduce false or imprecise content, even unintendedly, so the more your statement is supported on what other respectable and reliable individuals have said, the better. At least, it’s how I see it.

The second main reason is empathy, for I don’t want to take away the credit of what others have written or said, as I wouldn’t want others to do that to me. INTEF, a Spanish institution within the Ministry of Education and Sport, has a clear rule constraining their authors of always citing their sources, in compliance with Creative Commons licenses and I think is a very valuable thing to do. If what I want to cite is not Creative Commons, or it’s a more academic or theoretical context, I turn to APA citation.

However, I have experienced that citation is not a priority in some privately owned e-learning companies. Citing your sources is often seen as a time-consuming pain that nobody wants to do. Or, even worse, is regarded as useless: no student is interested in reading such a thing. Both are unfair excuses, if you ask me. If you don’t want to bother students with references and citations inside of a course, put them in an additional document, like an external PDF, or at the end of the lesson, where they can be easily dismissed if not interested. Even though it is not completely correct, as a last resort and to not sacrifice valuable space inside of the course, you can only cite inline and exclude references at the end of the document/lesson, like this: Spanish internet service providers are amongst the most expensive in Europe (European Digital Progress Report, 2017). That didn’t take much space.

Citing is particularly relevant in my area of business as an e-learning creator, when we create content that can be regarded as what I like to call unfathomable boxes. Every now and then we use terms for something that, even though we think is settled and clear, it is a blurry concept. You can’t always be sure what actually is inside of the box. I don’t try to be a solipsist but, as a psychologist, I learned during my university years that terms such as ‘intrinsic motivation’ or ‘insight’ are controversial as to how they are operativised (or defined to a concrete extent), enough to be researched rigorously. This vagueness can lead to a scenario in which every author has a particular and unsupported view of the concept that term represents. And how could it be more supported if the concept is vague and poorly defined. Another scenario is one in where every author repeat blurry terms that they uncompromisingly define to a vague extent. Well, I think this happens a lot with trendy words like ‘digital transformation’, ‘visual thinking’, ‘creativity’, ‘digital disruption’ and so forth. It is in these cases where citation is of greater importance, if you want to be taken seriously or you want to foster a critical appropiaton of the content you’re trying to teach.

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