By: Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, ABD
Let’s pretend for a moment that your loved one is in the hospital, suffering and dealing with a crisis and in need of care. Or perhaps you are the one who needs care. How would you feel if you learned that your caretakers hadn’t done all they could to become excellent care providers? Or routinely skipped classes and were now making treatment decisions? How about if these professionals had hired someone else to write their papers or carelessly “Googled it,” missing a valuable opportunity to learn? Can you even imagine what their case notes and paperwork would look like without all that practice writing papers in school? In short, would you trust them to provide high quality care?
It seems there are more and more options these days to use technology to cut corners on assignments, posing a host of ethical problems and concerns about social work practice quality. For example, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an alarming interview with a person who wrote papers for students (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329/) that has generated more than 600 comments. An excerpt:
I work hard for a living. I’m nice to people. But I understand that in simple terms, I’m the bad guy. I see where I’m vulnerable to ethical scrutiny. But pointing the finger at me is too easy. Why does my business thrive? Why do so many students prefer to cheat rather than do their own work?
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. It’s easy to understand how time pressures might tempt someone to scan Wikipedia or Google, and to copy and paste. However, if you are not willing to do the work to become the best social worker you can be and provide excellent care, I’m not sure you should be providing services to clients. Remember, what Google and random people online are lacking is *you* and your distinct voice. You have skill and compassion to offer your clients—don’t shortchange yourself and your career development by cheating. Being in school offers you the opportunity to hear constructive feedback on your work in a way that a future supervisor in practice may not have time to do. Use it wisely. As one social work professor explains:
While the Internet has greatly increased my students’ ability to access electronic resources, I am greatly troubled by the extent to which students just “chunk” bits of articles or reports into their papers without attribution. In my opinion, this is not always blatant intentional plagiarism, but rather ease of access and not taking time to cite resources as you go.
Let’s be clear about what is meant by plagiarism. According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), “Whether paraphrasing, quoting an author directly, or describing an idea that influenced your work, you must credit the source” (p. 170). To properly cite a source, refer to the APA manual and these handy Web sites for guidance:
APA style blog: http://blog.apastyle.org/
OWL at Purdue: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/2/10/
Other times, students may try to prompt others, via various technologies, to complete their assignments for them. For example, it’s not uncommon to see students post school assignment-related questions to online bulletin boards such as SocialWorkChat.org (http://www.socialworkchat.org). Although these forums exist to facilitate conversations about social work online, members do not necessarily appreciate being asked to complete a student’s entire homework assignment, especially if the assignment has 10 essay questions and needs to be done by tomorrow. Not going to happen!
In addition, even when one does receive a response, it might not be of the highest quality without follow-up, probing, and attention to detail. For example, a common social work assignment is to interview a social worker to learn what the social worker does, how he or she became interested in social work, what a typical day looks like, and so forth. If you post this question to an online bulletin board or e-mail it to a social worker, it might look something like this:
Q: What is your job title?
A: Senior social worker
Q: How long have you been at this job?
A: Two years
Q: How did you get the job?
A: Online ad
Compare this with an interview I participated in that took place over the course of a week and included many follow-up questions to produce the final result:
Q: So without further ado, what made you decide to pursue an MSW in general and then to go on for a doctorate?
A: In terms of background, my mom was still in high school when she became pregnant with me, and we were very poor and struggling to make ends meet for a long time…College didn’t seem like a realistic prospect unless one was wealthy. I don’t remember knowing anyone that went to college besides a couple family members who went into the military and received assistance paying for it…wanted to learn about human behavior—why did we do the things we do? what could be learned about people? how could we make things better, especially for those who are struggling?—and came across a school catalog that explained experimental psychology. I was instantly hooked on the idea of doing research someday, read that I would need a doctorate to do so, and set myself on that path....Given my upbringing, I was also fascinated by social work’s person-in-environment and systems perspectives, and was interested in learning how research and policy work could affect positive social change. (http://www.dorleem.com/2011/01/talk-about-upward-mobility-and.html)
To improve your writing, practice, not Google, makes perfect. If you are unsure about your writing, read it out loud. Have a friend, partner, professor, classmate, or tutor read your writing, and ask for feedback. Your professors can help you refine your ideas and improve them. Besides, isn’t that what you’re paying them for? As one social work professor adds:
While many students complain that they will never have to write a paper in their social work practice lives, this is not the right way to approach anxiety about writing. When we ask students to try out new ideas and/or applications of theory to social work cases, etc., in papers, this is part of growing a new lens on the world—the biopsychosocial lens. There are different types of writing for different courses and different aspects of social work practice. Concise, to the point, clear and forceful writing, for example, is good for advocacy writing—such as reports to judges, etc. The Internet can be a great resource for finding (and vetting!) statistical evidence in support of a point for policy testimony or other behind-the-scenes advocacy.
For additional help on the writing process, check out:
OWL-Purdue–The writing process: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/section/1/1/
Getting writing feedback: http://www.unc.edu/depts/wcweb/handouts/feedback.html
Other sources that provide excellent advice on writing in social work and the human services are:
A Guide to Writing for Human Service Professionals: http://www.amazon.com/Guide-Writing-Human-Service-Professionals/dp/0742559475
Writing Skills for Social Workers: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Skills-Social-Workers-Action/dp/1412920728
Writing That Works: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Works-Communicate-Effectively-Business/dp/0060956437/ref=pd_sim_b_7
Writing With Style: APA Style for Social Work: http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Style-APA-Social-Work/dp/084003198X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1299220097&sr=8-3
Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, is an ABD doctoral student at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. Her research interests include the role of technology in social work, the effects of information communications technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet and e-mail, poverty and class, aging, social informatics, socioeconomic development, public policy, and community practice. Karen is the chief editor and founder of EditMyManuscript.com, providing manuscript editing services to students, faculty, and other social work professionals. Her Web site is http://www.karenzgoda.org. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/karenzgoda.