Errors ain’t errors!

Castrol logo with the text oils still ain't oils Australia 1919 - 2019

Remember when you first learned oils ain’t oils? Have you realised that errors ain’t errors either?

Errors in referencing certainly weren’t created equal. Accuracy in referencing reflects three critical principles:

  • transparency – acknowledging all sources
  • traceability – ensuring the source is traceable from the information provided
  • consistency – using consistent structure, order of information, and formatting

The first two of these rely on the third. Readers decode the formatting in citations to understand the type, location, and credibility of the source material. However, small errors in the formatting of references do not necessarily impede the reader’s ability to trace or identify the original source. Errors of formatting, at least in the early stages of an academic course, may be permissible unless they obscure the traceability or identification of a source. Omitting to acknowledge a source is, of course, the deadly sin of referencing. This needs to be communicated to students.

The best way to ensure students get that message? Make sure your referencing criterion and performance standards clearly indicate that errors ain’t errors. Many rubrics quantify the number of errors permissible at each grade level, but this means the omission of sources may still result in a pass for this criterion and academic integrity is not promoted. It is much more instructive to qualify the type of permissible errors (and, yes, numbers will probably be involved as well). Here is a pass level descriptor as a starting point:

Referencing is comprehensive and mostly accurate according to the conventions of APA (7th ed.) style. Frequent minor errors or omissions in style and formatting choices have no impact on the transparency and traceability of the source, or the demonstration of academic integrity.

Language errors can be similarly differentiated. In this case, it is meaning-making that is the critical principle, not accuracy of spelling, punctuation, or grammar, or even the flow of the writing or engagement it provokes, although these are certainly the primary contributors to the making of meaning. Consider the effectiveness of this range of descriptors:

PS The meaning is apparent to the reader with some effort, despite frequent and/or intrusive errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice, and/or structure.

HD Language features and structures are used to convey meaning effectively, clearly, unambiguously, concisely, and in a tone appropriate to the audience and purpose with few spelling, grammatical, or punctuation errors.

As always, the discipline, course, subject, and professional outcomes as well as the stage of the course will determine the specific contents of functional, instructive descriptors, but if you’d like my full set of literacy, referencing, and numeracy performance standards as a starting point, just let me know.

Debbie Wheeler, Academic Skills Coordinator (BJBS)

dwheeler@csu.edu.au; (07) 55 294 140