Entering into a degree, especially one so heavily research-based, will inevitably lead students into dealing with copyright. At first, that’s terrifying. Can I use this? How do I cite that? Is this quote too large? Indeed, plagiarism seems to have become a larger and more visceral fear in higher education institutes over the last ten years. Especially so after a number of high-profile cases like Monica Crowley – one of Trump’s top picks for a national security communications role – and not one but two defence ministers in Germany, accused in 2011 and 2015. Eventually though, when the dust settles after your first few essays, most students who engage with copyrighted material come to think of it as the norm and, barring the odd curiosity, end up quite comfortable in dealing with copyrighted content.
For me, the best way to get accustomed to navigating copyright was to footnote as I went through my projects – not leave the referencing to last. This forces you to memorise the institution’s style guide, rather than leaving it until the end and forgetting everything you wrote by the time you have to submit again. The other thing I learnt to accept was that even a very good library doesn’t compare to a copyright library. In the UK, there are five copyright libraries (or Legal Deposit Libraries) and having access to these can be incredible for your research, because they get a free copy of any copyrighted item they request. This means that unlike other libraries at higher education institutions, they won’t be reluctant about acquiring a copy of that £150 book on seventh century Christian pilgrim practices, which only Melbourne University in Australia seems to have in stock. (Thank you, Bodleian Library!)
Of course, when you’re not hunting books, you swiftly learn to not underestimate what the Internet can do for you. Journals and their articles were my best friends at university (outside of other humans…) both during undergraduate and postgraduate study. They kept me up-to-date with the latest research in my areas of study, and now that university libraries have search engines for their stock it’s dastardly simple to find something relevant. Of course, when you’re looking for something more specific it can get a little trickier, but most university library search engines now come with a database function inbuilt. You can use these databases to narrow down your search to subject-specific reading, removing journal articles from other disciplines that aren’t directly relevant to your own research. The modern accessibility of journal articles cannot be underestimated.
In my third year, I once had to go hunting through the depths of my university library archives for a pre-Internet journal and it couldn’t have been more difficult. The grit of older scholars must have been phenomenal. Thankfully, many journals are now attempting to backdate their online stock, making academia published before the 80s just as easily accessible as articles published in 2017. So, between JSTOR and Google Scholar, you can often find exactly what you need. Academia.edu can also be a really valuable resource, and on the odd occasion when your university hasn’t paid for a subscription to a particular journal, it provides you a channel through which to receive the article you want directly – there is quite literally a ‘request’ button on academic profiles.
When it comes to citing all these sources, universities regularly provide a style guide from the inception of your studies. While this means that departments are often very good at explaining why you must credit authors, it is often the case that students are a bit stuck for when to credit them. I found that the easiest way to do this was to have a friend read over your work; if they can’t find the source in your work immediately, then you should have probably footnoted better. Trust me; after you read work from the early twentieth century and don’t know where they’ve got their information from, you soon learn that when you reference is just as important as referencing itself.
Overall, I learnt pretty quickly not to panic about copyright and learning to navigate it vastly improved both my research and my learning techniques.
About the Author
Liam McLeod is a recent graduate from the University of Birmingham. He holds a master’s degree in Medieval History and a first-class bachelor’s degree in Ancient and Medieval History, and hopes to begin studying for his PhD in September 2018.