RT, MT, and HT

March 1st, 2014 / By

Student writers sometimes struggle with attribution. They know to use quotation marks, and to cite the source, when they take language directly from another author. But when should they credit that other author with an idea? Or with paraphrased language? Social media now give us a way to explain these key practices. The “RT-MT-HT” culture also illustrates the positive role that attribution plays.

Lessons from Tweeters and Bloggers

I’m still polishing my skills as a blogger, while starting to learn Twitter. I recently summoned the courage to ask a 20-something what “RT” and “MT” mean on Twitter. He kindly explained that “RT” is a “retweet.” A tweeter uses that abbreviation when passing along another user’s tweet word-for-word. “MT” is a “modified tweet.” In this case, the tweeter transmits the gist of a previous tweet but modifies some of the language.

Easy–and a direct parallel to quotation and paraphrase. From now on I’ll tell my students: If you take language directly from another source, that’s a “retweet.” You need to use quotation marks and credit the source. If you take the gist of an idea from another writer, that’s a “modified tweet.” Give credit to the original source just as you would on Twitter.

HT or H/T, meanwhile, is blogger-speak for “hat tip.” That’s how we credit another source who has provided information or inspiration for a post, although our posts may depart considerably from the original source. Writers in other media, including student papers, should learn to “HT” sources offering that type of information or inspiration.

The RT/MT/HT typology is easy for students to understand. I’m also intrigued by the fact that the attribution process in 140-character tweets parallels what we do in scholarly papers. That fact made me think more about why we attribute–and why students often resist the process.

Why Attribute?

The primary reason for attribution is to give credit where credit is due. If you have devised an innovative argument, dug up original data, or spun a creative phrase, I shouldn’t claim those words or ideas as my own. Attribution acknowledges the work of others.

That’s one reason, I think, that students resist attribution. They feel great pressure to produce original ideas and language in products like seminar papers. They worry about a poor grade if they attribute too much of the paper to others.

Student papers, of course, should reflect the student’s own language, as well as some degree of personal insight on substance. But maybe we need to be more pragmatic about just how “original” a student paper can be. In large part, we want students to manipulate the ideas of others; that’s part of the learning process. It’s also unrealistic to expect original work from students before they’ve had a chance to work with those other ideas over time.

Luckily, attribution has another role: it demonstrates the author’s familiarity with related work and her growing connections with the field. That’s one reason we see so many RT’s, MT’s, and HT’s in social media. These authors aren’t shy about building on the work of others, and they want to create networks through their connections. We sometimes forget the importance of attribution in articulating networks.

In the future, I hope to stress this positive aspect of attribution when supervising student papers. Attributions aren’t admissions against interest, conceding that an idea originated with someone else. Instead, these attributions are positive signals that a paper is part of a larger network of ideas. A student who knows how to attribute is one who has engaged with a knowledge network, staked out a spot for herself within that web, and started to cultivate her own voice. Just as tweeters develop a following by building on the ideas of others, writers can enjoy the same success.

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