Zero credibility

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BBC News today carries the story of Mariam Malak, The star pupil who scored zero in all her exams.

It seems that Mariam expected to score highly in Egypt’s high-school graduation exams. She had such a good record that she, her family, her school expected her to be among the country’s top-scoring students. She expected, and was expected, to score well enough to make it to medical school.

Instead of which, she managed to score a zero in all seven exams. It is pretty difficult to score a zero in one exam, never mind seven. According to the BBC report, “To get the minimum possible score, a pupil must more or less leave the paper blank.”

First thoughts, evidently, were that she had been discriminated against because she is a Coptic Christian in a Muslim country. Then corruption was suspected; now it seems likely that Mariam’s papers were switched with someone else’s papers, someone who had written out the questions – but nothing else. This seemed especially likely when a handwriting test showed that her handwriting did not match that on the papers which were alleged to be hers.

If so, this is a blatant travesty. And, when her story aired on national television, it emerged that she was not the only student with high expectations to score zeros.

Nasty.  One can only hope that justice is done, that these students somehow get the credit and the marks that they deserve. If not, they have been cheated and the country will have been cheated.

And the cheats? Just think… will they change their ways at university? Or will they go on cheating, cheating their way to medical qualifications they do not earn, pilots, bank CEOs, ships’ captains, the police or army, other positions they have bought but are not qualified to hold?  Positions which could endanger other people’s lives?

The only thoughts more terrifying than these might be, how many other students have likewise been cheated out of their futures, how many years has this gone on?


Lighten the load

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At a recent in-school workshop, one of the year 11 students put up her hand and asked, “Is referencing taken as seriously at university as it is in this school?”

Good question – but maybe a sad question as well.

This student seemed to have the wrong understanding. The question suggests that she sees citation and referencing as an empty chore, a hoop to be jumped through, some kind of torture that teachers enjoy inflicting on students, without point or purpose.

She did understand that citation – in-the-text indication that words or ideas or data or information does not originate with the writer, along with quotation marks or markers as and if necessary – demonstrates honesty and integrity (as discussed in Nothing to fear).

But she seems not to have understood – yet – that or how referencing adds to one’s writing, enhances it. Referencing shows that the writer is ready to take part in conversation with other scholars and academics, that she has something to say, a contribution to make. Referencing, and one’s choice of sources to reference, demonstrate scholarship.

Amongst other things, our references

  • demonstrate that we have done our homework and know what others have said
  • provide support for what we want to say
  • add credibility to what we say
  • add authority to what we say (and the more respected the authorities we refer to, the more authority and credibility we provide)
  • allow us to credit the people whose work we are using
  • allow us to show that we know arguments, opinions, or other discrepancies which might run counter to our own (and perhaps give us opportunity to explain or demonstrate why the counter-evidence is not as strong as ours)
  • allow us to build on what has gone before, show gaps in what is known, present alternative explanations or methodologies
  • allow interested readers to follow-up on what we say, just as we can use other writers’ references to follow up what they say
  • allow us to share the blame if we get it wrong
  • demonstrate our credentials and worthiness to join the academic conversation.

Of course, the more “correct” our references, the more we show that we are ready to join the conversation. The more scholarly our use of other people’s material in support of what we want to say, again the more we show that we are ready. That is what it’s about at the school level, and in early years of college or university as well, getting practice, getting ready.

To be good, at anything, we need to practice. Reading, writing, soccer, piano, ballet, tennis, cooking, math(s), thinking … practice, practice, practice. See the purpose, know the WHYs, reflect, get feedback, improve …

Referencing is not a chore and it is certainly not pointless or without purpose. Far from it. In everyday argument and persuasion, we argue more convincingly when we have good evidence to support our points-of-view.  In academic work, we write better for the references we use. We show that we have something to say, a contribution to make. We show that we know what we are talking about. We talk the same language as the academics in the field. We have a voice and we have the right to be heard.

Powerful stuff, referencing – and nothing to do with academic honesty!


When you get wrong answers to the wrong questions…

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There has been a bit of a splash in the last few days, publicity regarding a study of Turnitin by Susan Schorn of the University of Texas.

iSchoolGuide, for instance, splashed an item by Sara Guaglione: University Of Texas At Austin Writing Coordinator Susan E. Schorn Finds Turnitin Software Misses 39 Percent Of Plagiarized Sources, and EducationDive posts a similar take on the story, this by  Tara García Mathewson, Plagiarism detection software often ineffective.

There is not a lot new here, not for regular readers of this blog. Turnitin is ineffective.

Both articles are based on a post in InsideHigherEd by Carl Straumsheim, What Is Detected? worth reading, for its content and for the comments it has generated. Again, not a lot new, not for regular readers of this blog. Turnitin is ineffective (as are other so-called plagiarism detectors, it is not just Turnitin which is problematic).

Straumsheim goes further (than Guaglione and Mathewson), pointing to Turnitin’s propensity to assign false negatives Continue reading

Nothing to fear

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A colleague recently told me of a teacher in her school who seems paranoid about students making mistakes in their referencing. He hounds them. Commas, UPPER and lower case, shape of brackets and parentheses, order of elements, everything – everything must be as per style guide, lest they be accused of academic dishonesty. Tortuous exercises, harangues, endless tests, mini-style guides, all coupled with careful, minute checking of every piece of work and submission to Turnitin to boot … for fear of plagiarism.

The students, it seems, are so scared of making mistakes that their writing is sometimes forced, their thinking is blunted. Many of them spend more time on getting the references right than they spend reading and writing. A few, it seems, prefer not to read or to use other people’s work at all – it saves the bother of referencing (and limits their awarenesses in other ways?).

It’s a shame and a disservice. It is wrong. It is wrong, not least because Continue reading

Somewhere, over the spectrum …

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Shades of grey?

It is tempting to think of plagiarism in terms of black-and-white, either a writer has committed plagiarism – or s/he hasn’t.

There are plenty of grey areas, of course, especially when considering paraphrases or summaries, or the grey areas of common knowledge or of self-plagiarism (duplication of work). But by and large, plagiarism is clear-cut: a piece of work which appears to be the work of the present writer but which lack the indicators that show that this is the words, work or ideas of somebody else, that is plagiarism. Probably. Possibly.

Issues such as intent and extent might be of consideration when determining the consequences, but those are other issues, it is plagiarism or it isn’t. Cases in which plagiarism is suspected but cannot be proven will (usually, in education situations) be given the benefit of the doubt: it isn’t plagiarism. It is clear-cut, black-and-white.

Black-and-white. If the signals are not there, signals that indicate that these are someone else’s exact words, or the citation which indicates that these are someone else’s words or ideas, and it can be shown that the words or ideas originated elsewhere, it’s plagiarism.

Black-and-white (and shades of grey).  It is or it isn’t.

I often use Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” activity* in workshops (with permission, of course). Carroll gives us six situations, six descriptions of work starting with no attribution or signal or bibliographical reference, and then increasingly more information is included in each scenario. Example 1 is clearly plagiarism, example 6 is clearly good practice, and, as this is a continuum, we can draw a line: that example would be considered as plagiarism, the next example is not plagiarism. Where do we draw the line?

This is a useful activity. I have often found that, even though plagiarism is a matter of black and white, teachers often draw that line in different places. Some draw their line too low, and would accept work which other teachers would rate as plagiarism – and, sometimes, some draw the line too high, and would refuse work which most would rate as acceptable.  Students too. We all know what plagiarism is – except that we don’t all agree. More grey than black-and-white?

Definitions are not always clear either, and the terms used to describe plagiarism or to explain good practice are frequently confused and confusing. Examples are often inconsistent and advice given is frequently wrong. Worst might be those bodies which give examples and state, clearly, categorically and mistakenly, that this is the only way to cite and reference, and that anything else is unacceptable. The SQA muddle which I highlighted recently is a case in point.

The worst of that SQA mess was the guide for Advanced Higher Chemistry which states Continue reading

Not such a bad idea?

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It’s a convoluted story.

First, a memorandum was leaked (shortly before the recent UK general election) which was apparently an account of SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon saying, in private conversation, that she would prefer that David Cameron won the election and stayed on as Prime Minister, rather than Ed Miliband, the then leader of the Opposition.

Given that SNP and Miliband’s Labour party have much in common – especially in their joint opposition to Cameron’s Conservative party – and they seemed to be natural allies, and given that there had been much scare-mongering about the stranglehold which the SNP would have if Labour won the election, this was a hugely damaging allegation. It was damaging for the SNP as well as for Miliband’s party.

Sturgeon denied making the comment.

Then it was announced that the leak had been authorised by Alistair Carmichael, a Lib-Dem member of Cameron’s coalition government.

Carmichael denied authorising the leak.

Since the election, which the Conservative party unexpectedly won handsomely, there has been a Cabinet inquiry into the leak of the memorandum. It seems that Carmichael did Continue reading

Vested interest

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Just a follow-up to earlier posts (1) on shale gas drilling (fracking) Still wrong to be forgotten and (2) on the problems of research performed on the behalf of companies with vested interests in a process or a product Flattering flaws

In the first, I discussed a heavily redacted report which had been released by the UK government on problems associated with fracking; the report, evidently, was intended to present the facts and so promote  unbiased discussion and informed argument – difficult when so much of the paper was censored.

The post on research and vested interest discussed, inter alia, unsubstantiated claims made in a press release posted by the plagiarism software company, the company behind Turnitin and The press release stated “the number of retractions in scholarly publications doubled between 2010 and 2011,” and cited the well-respected blog Retraction Watch as the source of this information. There was and is nothing in Retraction Watch to this effect (confirmed by one of the blog’s authors), and I made the point that, even if the statement about the doubling of the number of retractions was true, there is nothing to suggest that the retractions due to plagiarism had doubled; on the other hand, might possibly be thought to have a vested interest in promoting plagiarism hysteria, the better to sell its products.

[It was verifying this for the present story which led to my discovery that iThenticate has since removed the erroneous claim that plagiarism doubled in scientific papers in the years 2010-2011. In its stead is an equally erroneous post regarding a ten-fold increase in the rate of retraction of scientific papers over the past 20 years. This second claim is attributed to an article in Nature – which had indeed reported on a study which demonstrated a ten-fold increase in the rate of retraction, but the period under review was more than 36 years, not the 20 years of the iThenticate story (see Memory hole).]

I have Retraction Watch to thank again, for a report which draws together these threads, fracking and vested interest. In the post Undisclosed industry funding prompts correction of fracking paper, Adam Marcus reports on a research paper published in Environmental Science & Technology. The abstract of “Methane Concentrations in Water Wells Unrelated to Proximity to Existing Oil and Gas Wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania” states that the researchers “found no statistically significant relationship between dissolved methane concentrations in groundwater from domestic water wells and proximity to pre-existing oil or gas wells” – and had suggested that the difference in findings to earlier studies (which found significant differences) was because the data-sets used in the EST study were far larger than those used in the earlier studies.

As may be. According to Inside Climate News, “Industry welcomed the Siegel study, the largest ever evaluating methane in water near gas development, as evidence of the safety of hydraulic fracturing.”  Well, it would, wouldn’t it?

But, as Retraction Watch reports, the journal has now published a correction, Continue reading

Memory hole

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Yesterday, halfway through writing my next post, I needed a quotation I had used in an earlier post.  I quickly found the quotation, clicked on the link so that I could check and then cite the original source – and, horror, although part of the passage I wanted to use was still there, – the words of the vital sentence were not. They had been replaced, the evidence  I wanted to support my claim was no longer there.

The quotation in question was from the post Flattering flaws. I was commenting on a press release put out by, promoting their then-recently published study Survey Shows Plagiarism a Regular Problem in Scholarly Research, Publishing, But Action to Prevent Falls Short. I pointed to several questionable statements in the press release, statements which were not always reflected in the actual study.

The paragraph in question reads:

Editors at scholarly publications were the exact opposite, with a majority reporting routinely checking submitting authors’ work for plagiarism. The web site Retraction Watch estimates that the number of retractions in scholarly publications doubled between 2010 and 2011 (iThenticate Press Release, 2012 December 5).

and, amongst other things, I questioned the second statement. There is no evidence in the study to indicate that “the number of retractions in scholarly publications (had) doubled between 2010 and 2011” – and there was nothing on the Retraction Watch website to suggest this either. Where, I asked, had iThenticate found this statement?

I still don’t have an answer to this question. It might not even be a valid question any more, because the statement is no longer there. Instead, what I see now Continue reading

Less is more (in this case)

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An interesting post in the IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) Projects discussion forum on the OCC just recently: “if a student uses both MLA and APA throughout the report” would this be regarded as demonstrating “substantial research skills” (for middling marks) or “excellent research skills” (for top marks)?

My two penn’orth was that this was and is not good practice. While I could not comment on interpretation and application of criteria in an MYP assessment (since my experience is mainly with Diploma Programme (DP) students, several years older, and in any case I am not an examiner), good practice is the use of one recognised referencing style, not a mixture of two or more different styles. After some thought, I added that a DP examiner might look more closely at an essay which used two or more referencing styles, as this could be an indicator of plagiarism.

It is that afterthought which earned me a personal message – is it plagiarism to use a mix of citation or referencing styles?

My answer: No. It is not plagiarism to use several different styles, just as it is not plagiarism to make formatting mistakes in citation and referencing. If the writer signals that “this” is not her/his own and indicates direct quotation if direct quotation has been used, then it is not plagiarism. Formatting mistakes, including the use of different citation styles, are not plagiarism.

It’s the use of two different styles which might indicate less than original thought and suggest that further investigation might be necessary.  It might indicate Continue reading

Harvard on my mind – 3

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I made a mistake in my last post. I criticised the SQA document Advanced Higher Chemistry Investigation Guidance for candidates 2014-15 for giving misleading information regarding citation and referencing, information which was either misleading in terms of academic convention or which require students to plagiarise. Possibly both.

Not just required – demanded, in that the examples are headed by an instruction which states that this is “the only acceptable method of citing and listing references.

I made a mistake.

The mistake was not in publishing the criticism. My mistake was to follow advice given in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).  The manual suggests Continue reading

Harvard on my mind – 2

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In Part 1 of this post, I looked at referencing style guides in general, and Harvard in particular. Unlike most referencing styles, Harvard does not have an authoritative published handbook or manual. As a result, many versions of Harvard exist and the opportunities for confusion are rife. In Part 2, we look at confusion writ large.

This investigation started when studying responses to a survey (on citation and referencing) conducted in a school in Scotland. Many teachers and many students commented that they were often confused, having to deal with too many referencing styles. That was odd. Although this school follows the curriculums and syllabi of three different examinations boards, IB, IGCSE, and SQA, the school promotes and uses just one referencing style.  Harvard.

And then the plot thickened.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA)

Not all examinations boards publish detailed curriculum documentation or guidance on the open Internet.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority does.  Much SQA documentation is available.  It might be typical of other examinations boards, it might be totally untypical. But it is accessible – which is why it comes under the spotlight here. Continue reading

Harvard on my mind – 1

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Harvard does not exist.

The referencing style, I mean, not the University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The University exists.  Harvard, as a referencing style, does not.

Most referencing styles, certainly the most widely-used styles, do exist, in that there is one authorised version, sometimes with an authorised version-lite, an adapted version for use in schools and academia. There is a manual to which we can refer,

The Modern Language Association, for instance, publishes the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (in its 3rd edition as of 2008) for professional writers and for scholars and the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (7th edition, 2009)  for universities, colleges and schools.

The American Psychological Association publishes the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (6th edition, 2010), designed primarily for writers submitting papers to APA journals, but adopted by schools and universities and other publishers too.

The University of Chicago Press first produced its own style manual in 1891 to ensure consistency of style in its publications; the Chicago Manual of Style is now in its 16th Edition (2010).  Its offshoot for scholars at school and university, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations : Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, originally compiled by Kate Turabian, is in its 8th edition (2013).

So it is with many other styles. The publisher, university, association or other body responsible for the style guide usually publishes a definitive manual, and gives the manual its name. Continue reading

Isn’t it ironic?*

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Congratulations, the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad.  According to The News International (27 March 2015), the university has won a Turnitin Academic Integrity Award.


It is the third paragraph which catches the eye. It reads:



Turnitin claims to be the global leader in evaluating and improving student writing. The company’s cloud-based service for originality checking, online grading and peer review saves instructors time and provides rich feedback to students. One of the most widely distributed educational applications in the world, Turnitin and Ephorus is used  by more than 15,000 institutions in 140 countries to manage the submission, tracking and evaluation of scholarly work online.

Now, this seems so very similar to Turnitin’s description Continue reading

The three legs of research

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As promised in my last post, Hang on…, here is a two-minute take on Ken Vesey’s “three legs of research.” It’s an analogy that works, especially when we try to wean students away from internet-only research, when we get them to demonstrate use of a wide range of sources.

Picture the milking stool. It’s a three-legged piece of furniture, and it’s been around for thousands of years.  Just imagine an 8-year old girl… it’s four o’clock in the morning, it’s dark outside, the girl is asleep, the cow she is milking is asleep, swaying from side-to-side, occasionally knocking into the girl as she milks away…  The girl does not fall off her milking stool because a milking stool has three legs.  Three legs make for a stable form of furniture, it is very difficult to knock it over. It’s better than furniture with one leg or two legs, and it’s better than four legs or five legs or six or .. It has stood the test of time.

Three legs are good, three legs are stable. Think about the modern camera, many many thousands of dollars worth of equipment.  Photographers and movie-makers put them on three-legged tripods. They trust their expensive to a three-legged piece of equipment, because three legs are stable.

It’s the same with research. Research based on three legs makes for stable research… Continue reading

Hang on …

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As noted in my last post, Kardinia International College library has disposed of 60% of its book collection. Manchester Central Library has recently disposed of 240,000 books, passed on to other institutions – or pulped.  Priceless and irreplaceable.  These are not isolated cases; it’s been happening for years, and the pace is increasing. Do we still need print? Is print dead?

A few days ago, I posted this on the librarians’ pages of iSkoodle, the ECIS listserv/ bulletin board, a discussion of print versus online resources, a plea to hold on to print:

I ended with a mention of Ken Vesey’s milking-stool analogy in an article for Teacher Librarian in 2005, “Eliminate “Wobbly” Research with the Information Resource Tripod.”  I invited iSkoodlers to track down Ken’s article. As yet, nobody has written to claim success.

Where would you go? Can you find it? Continue reading

What’s better than a book … ?

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A LinkedIn alert this morning caught my eye.  The heading reads Do you have a ‘Learning Commons’ at your school? You should! and it’s been posted by Maxine Driscoll.

“Meeting the needs of 21st Century learners.
I had an amazing experience last week. I was invited to visit the new Learning Commons at Kardinia International College a K-12 school in Australia and was blown away by what I saw! 21st Century thinking, creativity, courage and conviction! Here is…”

I like the learning commons concept. It’s exciting, it enables a refreshingly different approach to teaching and to learning. It makes learning more enjoyable, and reports promise great things. It may well be too early to say if the benefits are real, but there are aspects of learning commons that any library can use to advantage.

The post to which Maxine Driscoll’s LinkedIn alert refers is, Continue reading


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An email came today, a comment for this blog that I was asked to approve:

Want to copy posts from other websites rewrite them in seconds and post on your website, or use for contextual backlinks?
You can save a lot of writing work, just search in google:

Daradess’s Rewriter

I don’t think so, thank you …

Citing sources makes you think…

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One reason I like an author-date style of citation and referencing is the date element: sometimes it is important to know just when a cited source was published. The standards and formality of academic referencing are not expected in non-academic settings such as blog posts or journalism or popular science – and perhaps, more’s the pity?

Regular readers will know my bugbear, that oft-quoted statement, “Recent studies indicate that approximately 30 percent of all students may be plagiarizing on every written assignment they complete.”  Not only is this statement absolute balderdash not least because the claimed studies never existed, the repeated use of “recent” is an irritation in itself. As noted in an earlier post, Thirty percent, the claim was first made in 2001, and fourteen years hardly qualifies as “recent,” not when we are talking internet history. This particular claim is regularly attributed to Continue reading

Elusive allusions

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Coincidences, again. This morning, in a post to a listserv forum, I included a sentence: “The guide’s the thing…” and then, unsure whether the allusion would be recognised, I added: “as Shakespeare so nearly said.

I was still pondering whether the second part of the sentence was necessary when my daily “plagiarism” alert popped into the inbox, pointing me to an article In praise of plagiarism by Paul Greenberg, published in Arkansas Online, 26 January 2015.

Most of the page is hidden behind a paywall, but the first paragraph is open – and, like the title, intriguing.

Could I find the article anywhere else, a page which was open and free? Copy-and-paste the article title, in quotation marks, in a Google search box, add Greenberg, hit ENTER and bang! The first authentic hit (after the paid-for ad) was also behind a paywall, the second led me to the full article, on

The first two paragraphs read: Continue reading

Nice like you, Ivi … Part 3

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The story so far: I am trying to learn the meaning of Ivi when used in a footnote. The only instances found so far are in four papers written by Dr Marco Soddu, all published online in Foreign Policy Journal.  At least two of Soddu’s papers are academically dubious to the point of plagiarism – and beyond.

Meanwhile, We are no closer to working out what Ivi means or how it is used.  Now read on:

The search for Ivi

Ivi is used – at least, it is used by Marco Soddu, Continue reading

Nice like you, Ivi … Part 2

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In part 1 of this post, I related the background to this quest, trying to find the meaning of Ivi, when used in a footnote.  I did not know, and my searches were unsuccessful.

In her letter, Ruth had pointed to “Kennedy and Macmillan by Dr. Marco Soddu;” this was the source that her student wanted to use. She wanted to quote a quotation used in the paper, a quotation footnoted as Ivi. page. but who was Ivi?  Did this have the same meaning as Ibid, same source as the immediately previous citation but on a different page?

It took just a few seconds to find the paper.  It is published online in Foreign Policy Journal, and in several formats, Continue reading

Nice like you, Ivi… Part 1

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This journey started innocently enough. It started with a simple question.

Ruth set me off (thank you, Ruth). She emailed to ask what Ivi means, in a footnote. I don’t know – I didn’t know.

She said that she knows Ibid. (which she suggested means: same page in the same source as the last source/footnote) and she knows Op. cit. (full details given in an earlier footnote), but she hadn’t come across Ivi before. She asked if it means the same source as in the last footnote, but on a different page?

It was important to know. Ruth had a student who wanted to use a quotation she had found in an academic paper. This makes it a secondary reference or indirect source, a quotation of a quotation. The student needed to know the author of the original quotation as well as the author of the paper in which she had found the quote. The student wanted to write something like Continue reading

Tied up in knots

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DOIs? Duh! No problem!!

No problem?

Web page URLs are notoriously unstable. Authors may make changes between one view and the next; hackers may make changes too. Page contents of a URL may change completely, or the original document might be moved somewhere different, on the same site, or to a different site. The MLA style guide no longer requires a URL as a matter of course, arguing that a good search engine will find a document, if the reference is accurate: knowing the author/s, title and publisher should be enough.

DOIs are different, and many style guides recommend the use of the DOI (Digital Object Identifier) when one is available, instead of the URL (Uniform Resource Locator). The DOI will lead to a stable version of a document. (More-or-less stable. The DOI Foundation recommends that minor changes need not be identified, although papers with major changes should be assigned a new DOI. Frequently Asked Questions about the DOI System #7. Should be.)

Curiously, MLA does not mention DOIs Continue reading

Getting ahead of ourselves

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I recall an IB extended essay examiner’s report in which the examiner deplored the number of essays which appeared to have been written at the last minute; all the URLs of websites in these essays had been accessed on the same day (presumably different same days for different essays). There was no indication as to whether these essays had been marked down because of this, possibly as part of the criterion which takes in holistic impression. Nevertheless, the tone of the comment suggested that the examiner/s disapproved.  Perhaps he thought that the dates of access should provide evidence of continued research?


This examiner’s report came to mind as I tried to work out a reference for A geometric realisation of 0-Schur and 0-Hecke algebras by Bernt Tore Jensen and Xiuping Su.  Authorship, title, journal title, volume number and issue, even the pages in the print journal, they are all clear enough.
The problem comes with the date of the journal. Here we are, it’s December 2014, and the paper I want to cite is dated February 2015. How do I cite a paper which hasn’t been published yet? Except … it has been published, there it is, on the internet, and it even has a DOI. Continue reading