Best Practices for Writing Online Content: On Secondary Sources

By Damien Bilka, Jen Kach,

March 31, 2015

Because the majority of content in an online course is delivered in writing, proper citation of others’ words and ideas is crucial. It bolsters the course’s credibility, protects against plagiarism allegations, provides a good model for students, and is the right thing to do.

But when should you include someone’s exact words? Are there times that it would be better to summarize thoughts and ideas instead of quoting them?

If someone else has said something particularly well, or you’re reaching for a thesaurus to help you reword a sentence or passage, it’s probably better to quote. But maybe you’ve already quoted extensively, or perhaps the field’s foremost expert is not its finest writer. If so, close the book (or your browser) and return after a few minutes to write down your understanding of the author’s point without looking at the original; you’ll retain the gist of the idea while capturing it in your own words. Just remember that a paraphrase still needs citation.

Another issue that arises in course development is whether to reproduce material within the course or to link out to the original source. While fair use does allow for the reproduction of others’ words for educational purposes, keep in mind that the amount that can be reproduced is limited—even when proper credit is given. Course spaces are like classrooms: places to expand on required readings and engage students in discussion. Reproducing large sections of outside material within the course reduces space for you to add your own insights. Since students are just a click away from many sources, linking to outside materials frees up space for your commentary and avoids copyright concerns.

The decision to quote, paraphrase, or link to sources may not always be cut and dry. In the end, let what’s best for student comprehension and discussion guide your decisions.

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