Yes and No – footnotes

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A question that comes up regularly in the forums is, “We use MLA; can we use this style with footnotes?”

I think there are two answers to this. The first is “No, you can’t.” The second is, “Yes you can.”

Before I explain my thinking, I will just add that the reason most frequently given for wanting to use MLA and footnotes is “the word count.” If the citation is in a footnote and footnotes aren’t counted in the word count, then the rationale is that using footnotes will save words. This could be crucial in, for instance, an IB Extended Essay.

Q:  Can we use MLA style and footnotes?
A:  No, you can’t.

MLA, the student-level style guide of the Modern Language Association as published in the MLA Handbook, recommended the use of footnotes in the 1st edition, published in 1977;  in the 2nd edition, published in 1984, MLA stated a preference for citation in the text. (This piece of history is gleaned from page xi of the 8th edition, published in 2016.)

The 6th edition (2003) noted that some disciplines using MLA still used “endnotes or footnotes to document sources,” and gave a few examples in an appendix (298 ff). The only recommendation regarding footnotes in the 7th edition (2009) was that they be used (only) for explanation or clarification of a passage in the text and/or for comment on sources or a listing of multiple sources adding to the points made in the text (230 ff).  The implication is that footnote documentation as a standard method of documenting sources would/should no longer to be used – or  supported. The latest edition, the 8th edition, makes no mention of footnotes at all.

So, the short answer to the question, Can we use MLA and footnotes? is : if your instructor, school or college or examination board demands the use of MLA7 (the 7th edition of the MLA Handbook), then footnotes can be used only for the purposes suggested.  You may lose marks for incorrect formatting and use of MLA if you use MLA7 style in your footnotes – especially if you use footnotes instead of in-text citation.

If your instructor, school or exam board demands the use of MLA8, then – given the spirit of this edition, one of the main aims of citation and referencing being to help the reader – I would suggest that the same thoughts hold: explanation and/or listing multiple sources. Again, you could lose marks for incorrect formatting and use of MLA in your footnotes – especially if you use footnotes instead of in-text citation.

Note: “may lose marks for incorrect formatting.”  Incorrect formatting, in in-text citations, in footnotes or in references, is not misconduct. This is not cheating. Incorrect formatting is the equivalent of a spelling or grammar mistake, a calculation error in mathematics. It is not misconduct, it is not plagiarism.

If your school requires you to use the 6th or earlier edition of MLA, then a quiet and carefully-worded suggestion that the school get into the 21st century might be appropriate.

One other thought here: MLA allows for the use of explanatory footnotes. IB does not. In the past, students have sometimes attempted to evade word count limits by including explanations, clarifications and additional thoughts in footnotes. IB examiners are instructed to disregard such footnotes but to include them in the word count. Bibliographic footnotes continue to be read and are not included in the word count.

Q:  Can we use MLA style and footnotes?
A:  Yes, you can.

Style guides are just that: guides to style.  One of the principles of MLA, many other referencing style guides too, is to allow a degree of flexibility in its use by individuals, institutions and organisations. There is freedom to add institutional or organisational rules or guidance. What is important is consistent usage and helping the reader, consistency and helpfulness as against notions of correctness.

Thus IB can legitimately prefer or require that students always use URLs in their references, even when MLA7 said these were unnecessary – but may be used “when your instructor requires it”  (MLA7, p. 182).

MLA8 no longer suggests a date of access to online sources, but again, the IB requires students to “date-stamp” their references.

For IB students writing IB assignments, IB requirements should take precedence over MLA suggestions and guidance.

That can be a frustration for students and for teachers, that there may be more than one way to cite a source and that IB (and other bodies) can add their own variations.   But this is spelled out as one of the core principles of MLA8:

Remember that there is often more than one correct way to document a source (p. 4).

It may also be frustrating that IB allows the use of any documentation style guide, as long as references are complete and recorded consistently.

But internal consistency of formatting is what is sought, not notional correctness. A list of Works Cited in which some of the references are recorded

          Lastname, Firstname, “Title of article,” Title of magazine,  Date
but others are
          Firstname Lastname, (Date), Title of article, Title of magazine
and others still are
           Title of article Date, Lastname Firstname, “Title of magazine”

could be confusing and unhelpful to the reader. If all elements are entered in the same order and the same punctuation, then confusion is minimised.  Nitpicking pedantry, perhaps, except that, reading student work, one is unsure whether you are looking at the title of an article (or webpage) or looking at the title of the magazine (or the name of the website). Consistency serves purposes, it is helpful.

Helpfulness to the reader is vital. (Completeness of entry is another factor which makes for  helpfulness, but this is a subject so big that it is best left to another post.)

What is important here is the acceptance that MLA formatting can be used in footnotes. It is not wrong. It is not MLA but it is a variation on MLA.

As has been noted before in this blog, EndNote “EndNote offers more than 6,000 bibliographic styles” while RefME claims more than 7500 referencing styles, and this week I discovered the crowd-sourced CSL Repository which includes more than 8000 citation and bibliographic styles

There is huge overlap and duplication among the styles, or inconsequential variation between, perhaps the use of <angle parentheses> as against (rounded parentheses), or the use of single or double inverted commas. A few styles are obscure and are unlikely ever to be used outside the most exalted realms of academic publishing, but many more are accessible and are used.  When the rubrics allow the use of any style as long as it is used consistently. notions of correctness go out of the window.

So yes, MLA-style footnotes are acceptable, as long as one is not required to follow strictly the guidance and examples used in MLA7 or MLA8. Nobody can say you have formatted incorrectly if a required format (style guide) is not specified.

There are two further thoughts to pursue.

The first is that footnotes in MLA, strict MLA (per editions six and earlier), are NOT written with the same formatting as those in the list of Works Cited. It is not simply a case of following MLA format for the numbered footnote, and copy-pasting it into its alphabetical place in the list at the end. The examples given, those in MLA6, show a natural or conversational single-sentence approach, for instance:

       1 Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, 2002) 32.
.      2 Diana Rigg, perf., Medea, by Euripides, trans. Alistair Elliot, dir. Jonathan Kent, Longacre Theatre, New York, 7 Apr. 1994
.      3 Annie Murphy Paul, “Self-Help: Shattering the Myths,” Psychology Today Mar-Apr. 2001: 60.
.      4 F. W. Murnau, dir., Nosferatu, 1922, The Sync, 16 June 2002 <>.

(These examples are taken from MLA6, pages 300, 304, 312 and 307 respectively.)

Compare these with the entries as they would – and do – appear in a list of Works Cited:

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences
      of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, 2002.

Murnau, F. W., dir, Nosferatu. 1922. The Sync. 16 June 2002

Paul, Annie Murphy . “Self-Help: Shattering the Myths.” Psychology
     Today Mar-Apr. 2001: 60-68.

Rigg, Diana, perf. Medea. By Euripides. Trans. Alistair Elliot. Dir.
     Jonathan Kent. Longacre Theatre, New York. 7 Apr. 1994

(MLA6, pages 147, 232, 188 and 200 respectively).

Of course, now that word processing is all but universal, these entries are just as likely to appear with Titles in Italic Font as against Titles Underlined – underlining being a signal to the typesetter that italic font was to be used.

Does it matter if, instead of the conversational single-sentence format, the footnote or endnote is an exact replication of the MLA-style bibliographic entry – with the addition of page numbers, frame times, Act & Scene numbers and so on to enable precise location within the source cited? It’s a similar question to the main question, and a similar answer. If the writer is required to use strict MLA then correctness is an issue and deviation from strict MLA advice may be penalised. If there is no such requirement, then correctness is not an issue, it is more important to be consistent and complete.

For what it is worth, MLA6 also makes the point that, unless otherwise instructed, notes should be presented as endnotes at the end of the paper and not as footnotes at the foot of the page on which the superscript number is inserted in the text. As a personal note, I do not like footnotes, having to leave my place on the page in order to take in the note at the foot of the page and then find my place in the text again. I do not like footnotes, but I hate endnotes, for one has to leave the page, find the note at the end of the paper or book, and then find both the page and the place on the page where I left off. Footnotes and endnotes are unhelpful to the reader, this reader – but this is a personal opinion.

MLA6 also suggests (page 298) that if notes are used, then it may not be necessary to have an alphabetical list of works cited as well – but again, writers are advised to check with instructors.

The second thought worth pursuing is a matter of style and readability and understanding. Do footnotes really save words in the word count? If saving in word count is achieved, is it counter-balanced by losses of other kinds?

Take, for instance, this paragraph:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital.  Dr Ben Goldacre, a highly-respected investigative medical doctor. declares, “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’” (1).  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

That is 70 words (not including the parenthetical (1) – in most IB assessments, parenthetical citations are not included in the word count.

Now try this:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital. Goldacre declared “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’” (1).  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

This is shorter, 63 words, but we have lost that link which establishes Ben Goldacre’s credentials. In practice, someone versed in the subject may know who Goldacre is, and so appreciate the opinion that more than someone who has no knowledge of the man – but should the writer take that chance? Those extra 7 words pack a lot of power.

Now this:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital. It has been noted that “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’” (Goldacre 1).  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

This is 66 words, two words MORE than the previous example – and we don’t know who is being quoted until near the end of the paragraph. We now save only 4 words but we have lost power, and more.

The footnoted form loses no words and adds only anonymity to the quotation:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital. It has been noted that “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’.” 1 This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

66 words again, less helpful, less authoritative, less crediblity established.

It does not have to be like that with the footnoted form: you can establish authority in the text:

It can be vital to know who is behind the research, sometimes literally vital.  Dr Ben Goldacre, a highly-respected investigative medical doctor. declares, “industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently-funded trials … this is one of the most well-documented phenomena in the growing field of ‘research about research’.” 1  This could be true of any industry, any company, which studies its own efficacy and effectiveness.

That is good news for users of Chicago or any other brand of footnoting, including variations on MLA – but it does negate the choice of a footnoting style solely or mainly on the grounds of word-count.

For the record, the full bibliographic reference for the Goldacre quotation is:

Goldacre, Ben. Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors
      and Harm Patients. London: Fourth Estate, 2012.

In sum: footnoting? fine, if you must. Just be consistent!


The MLA Handbook (8th edition 2016) was titled MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers up to and including the 7th edition, 2009. The handbook is intended for students in universities, colleges and schools.

The Modern Language Association also publishes the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. This is intended for professional writers and for scholars, and its 3rd edition was published in 2008.

[The views and interpretations expressed in this article are entirely my own and are not necessarily approved or endorsed by the Modern Languages Association or the authors and editors of the various MLA manuals and handbooks.]


Smoke and mirrors

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“Technological solutionism” – a term coined by Evgeny Morozov – offers us solutions to problems we often do not know we have. Some might feel that it sometimes creates new problems, too often without solving the problems it is designed to solve. So often and too often, it fails to do what it says on the tin.

On the other hand, technological solutionism can make big money for the companies behind the so-called solutions. It can blind us to other, often more workable, often more less expensive and more low-tech strategies, approaches and solutions.  Worse still, it can divert attention from the real problems, including situations which might cause the problems in the first place.

I have blogged before about technological solutions which promise far more than they deliver. Turnitin and EasyBib are the ones which come most readily to mind. You can name your own “favourites.”

And now, Microsoft has just released enhancements to Office 365. The announcement is made in an Office Blog article posted on 26 July 2016 with the snappy-catchy title New to Office 365 in July—new intelligent services Researcher and Editor in Word, Outlook Focused Inbox for desktop and Zoom in PowerPoint. The piece is written by Kirk Koenigsbauer. He is a corporate vice president for the Office team, heavy-hitting stuff indeed.  In this post, we’ll be looking just at Researcher and Editor.

In the blog, we read that

Researcher is a new service in Word that helps you find and incorporate reliable sources and content for your paper in fewer steps. Right within your Word document you can explore material related to your topic and add it—and its properly-formatted citation—in one click. Researcher uses the Bing Knowledge Graph to pull in the appropriate content from the web and provide structured, safe and credible information.

and that

Editor assists you with the finishing touches by providing an advanced proofing and editing service. Leveraging machine learning and natural language processing—mixed with input from our own team of linguists—Editor makes suggestions to help you improve your writing.

Powerful tools indeed.  If they work.

Given the first look that Microsoft gives us, they have a long way to go.

First, Researcher. The section heading in the blog reads

Introducing Researcher—accessing credible sources and cited content just got easier

That’s two promises in one: the promise of easy finding of “credible” sources and the promise of generating bibliographic citations for easy insertion a bibliography or list of works cited.  It is still up to the writer to write the work – which Editor will make it “easier” to check, proof-read and refine, and we shall come to this later.

The blog includes expandable screengrabs to illustrate the research and writing processes, and there is a video-clip embedded in the blog, available also as a YouTube stand-alone.

They are not encouraging.

“Researcher helps you get started,” we are told.

You can “Explore reliable sources without leaving Word,” because Researcher brings up Bing hits in a side-bar.

This of course assumes that Bing is better at knowing what you want, what you are looking for, what is relevant and reliable and credible and authoritative, better than you do.  You do not have to accept Bing’s suggestions, of course – but if you are using Researcher, perhaps you value speed and ease over slow intelligent thinking research? Hey! Let Bing do your thinking for you!

The video shows an illustrative example, the building of an essay on The Amazon Rainforest.

We are shown how (thanks to Bing)

we might find an article with the heading and publication details Climate Change 2014 – Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Regional Aspects, Cambridge University Press, Dec. 29, 2014

We can then “pull in facts or quotes”

“and citations are added for” the piece we have just quoted.

Just don’t look too closely, or you will see that the citation/reference that is added reads:

Amazon Rainforest, Amazon Plants, Amazon River Animals. 2016. World Wildlife Fund 9 May 2016. <>

There is a disconnect there. The quotation is taken from Climate Change 2014 – Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability: Regional Aspects but is attributed to a page on the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) website.

Funnily enough, the quotation can be found on the WWF website, at – but this is not where our researcher – or Bing – found it, it is not where Researcher says it found it.  Nor is it the title that the WWF gives it, and it isn’t the URL either. The date of publication is different. What’s more, the WWF appears to have last used the URL in 2010 or early 2011. Thereafter, use of this URL redirects to  Thank you, Internet Archive.

But what is going on? A dubious piece of montage? Advertising magic? How can a search in May 2016 cite a site which ceased to exist 5 years ago?




The second reference generated by Researcher is – perhaps – more accurate,




We see only a small part of the reference in the video-clipbut we do see it in full in the Office blog (below):

It reads:

Field Museum Scientists Estimate 16,000 Tree Species in the Amazon. 17 October 2013. 9 May 2016. <>

which is just about right.

Of course, many referencing styles might not use italics for the title of the article (they might use quotation marks instead), and many referencing styles would use the corporate author, Field Museum, rather than the title, both in the reference and in the in-text citation.



The in-text citation? That’s in the video too. we have moved beyond our draft notes and are now looking at the finished product:


and let’s not quibble too much about the punctuation here?

The forest covers an area approximately as large as the 48 contiguous United States. (Field Museum Scientists Estimate 16,000 Tree Species in the Amazon) Contained within it …

and later, in this same paragraph and screengrab,

… the Amazon is also considered to be a distinct ecoregion. (Amazon Rainforest, Amazon Plants, Amazon …

Sorry. If we are talking academic writing, then perhaps it is not quibbling to suggest that the parenthetical citation belongs inside the sentence it is quoting or paraphrasing, not at the start of the next sentence. The periods/full-stops are in the wrong place. Something which Editor has missed?

And, hold on.  What documentation style is this writer using? The captures we are shown earlier in the video use a numbered footnoting system; the paper we are shown as illustration of the Editor’s capabilities are MLA – or similar – author-style in-text citation.  No date is given (as in APA or Chicago author-date). No page numbers are given. Page numbers are not possible with material taken from the web, but they do exist in printed matter. We see only a segment of the paraphrase from the Margulis source (this again is taken from the blog post, not from the video itself)

but it is clear. The parenthetical citation does not include a page number – yet the line and a bit that we can see is (probably) taken from page 47 of a 107 page document

which, for completeness, should perhaps carry the reference

Margulis, Sergio. Causes of Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. World Bank Working Paper; No. 22. Washington, DC: World Bank. 2004. 9 May 2016.

Hmmm. This is not the URL given in the Bibliography that we looked at earlier (and repeated below). The URL given in the Bibliography, takes us to Microsoft’s home page. Treyresearch indeed. Tres something, Jim, but it’s not research?

Not impressed

The change of referencing style between draft and final paper does not impress. The incompleteness of the referencing does not impress. The research going into this paper does not impress. The writing of this paper does not impress.

The video flits from feature to feature, page to page, making it difficult to see just what is going on. More likely, Microsoft does not want us to see what is going on?  The screengrabs on the Office blog page are more helpful; they do not move (and a click on them gives them full-size. Here is that last image yet again

Note the first paragraph we see here; it begins:

Some of what is lost is just burned down, to make paper, for example. A single paper manufacturing plant starts with burning down about 5600 square miles of forest. Another 2000 tons of rainforest wood a day are used to make electricity for each plant. The forests are also cleared for cattle ranches and the highways to service the ranches and the paper plants.

Now these are fairly exact figures, not exactly common knowledge. Shouldn’t there be a citation here? I rather think this section is based on the work of Leslie Taylor of the Raintree Group. We can find the “5,600 square miles of forest” and the “2000 tons of rainforest wood a day” statistics together in at least two places online, in a paper Saving the Rainforest: A Complex Problem and a Simple Solution and also in Rainforest facts:

The way Taylor writes it, it is just one particular paper manufacturing plant, set up in 1978, which burned down 5,600 square miles of rainforest (and replaced it with pulpwood trees), which every day uses 2,000 tons of rainforest wood to generate electricity.

The way the Microsoft researcher writes it, it seems that every paper manufacturing plant “starts with burning down about 5600 square miles of forest,” and they all need “another 2000 tons of rainforest wood a day are used to make electricity for each plant.”  Which – if this page is indeed the writer’s source – demonstrates the Microsoft writer’s misunderstanding and misreporting of the original source. And, whether it is Taylor who is the source or it is some other writer, where is the credit in the text for the source of the information?  (I am not counting the bibliographic reference, because this could be on the next page of the sample essay, and not included in the video.)

Is Researcher really fit for purpose? Are those responsible for the promotional content aware of what is involved in academic writing?  Are the software developers aware of what is involved in academic writing?

If they are aware, then the video and the blog present an illusion, smoke and mirrors. Don’t look too closely.

If they aren’t aware, then what are they doing? Can they be trusted? Can you trust this software with your research?

Either way, Researcher has a long way to go.

A brief word on Editor

Editor, “your new digital writing assistant,” provides spelling and grammar checking, and suggestions for alternative expression of words and ideas. The blog reports that Editor is set to get “better,” refinement is on the way:

This fall, it will expand upon Word’s current spelling and grammar tools to inform you why words or phrases may not be accurate—teaching at the same time it is correcting.

Ethical or not? Once upon a time, spell-checkers were frowned upon in academia, but are now widely accepted – not least because they are unreliable and users still have to think and choose, decide whether to accept the suggestions made. (Of course, one can auto-accept all changes suggested, but this is to risk looking foolish. As anyone who uses predictive text without double-checking is well aware.)

When it is technology making the decisions, fallible technology which is readily accessible to most users, the playing field is level. Just don’t stop thinking.

As for Researcher, “available (from late July) for Office 365 subscribers using Word 2016 on Windows desktops,” use at your own risk. And if use it you must, that same advice goes, don’t stop thinking.

Seeds or weeds?

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It is sadly ironic when someone writing about plagiarism (with the intention of helping readers understand what plagiarism is and how to write correctly) commits plagiarism.

It happens all too often. I am sure that, in most cases, it is unintentional. The trouble is, readers of their work may sometimes be confused, especially if confused examples are presented. As instances, there are writers on plagiarism who still seem to believe that it is enough to list their sources at the end of a paper.  There are some who appear to think that citation in the text is enough, but are apparently unaware (or who forget) that quoted words demand quotation markers (such as quotation marks or indented paragraphs or a change of font).

I don’t know what to make of the writer of the article, “Planting Seeds,” published in Blossoms: the official newsletter of Abuja Preparatory School (No. 25, 9 March 2016).

The newsletter is aimed at parents. Full credit to the writer for trying to help parents understand what plagiarism is, and understand how students can legitimately use other people’s words and work [“All they have to do is always acknowledge who and where they got it from”]. There is also a section on how some forms of help which parents often give are actually unhelpful, not least because they encourage bad habits and understanding/s. I am particularly impressed that this school takes students up to year 6, ages 10 to 12. I believe the earlier the values of honesty and integrity are inculcated, the better – the awareness of honest use of others’ work is “planting seeds” indeed.

But there are two paragraphs in the newsletter article which give me pause.

The first of these is the one which repeats that old canard, that dangerously misleading statement:

According to a report by, “Studies indicate that approximately 30 percent of all pupils may be plagiarizing on every written assignment they complete.”

My guess is that the writer of the newsletter did not find this statement on the website.  It appeared on that website between 2001 and 2007 (as captured by the Internet Archive), but was removed about nine years ago. I suspect the Blossoms writer found this on one of the sites which serve to perpetualise the statement.  Those introductory words, “According to a report by…” are not the  Blossoms writer’s own words, they come from the second-hand site.  And if I am right, then this site too should be included in the  attribution (along with a double set of quotation marks).

My suspicion is given further weight by two factors. The first is that no URL is given (whereas a live URL is used in the next paragraph, supporting the next point made). The writer knows about URLs and links.

The second lies in that the original statement actually reads

Recent studies indicate that approximately 30 percent of all students may be plagiarizing on every written assignment they complete.

The Blossoms writer users the word “pupils,” not “students.”  Normally, quotations quote the exact words used and signal if other words have been used or inserted.

What is especially damaging and dangerous is that this so-called research finding may well have been misreported, maybe even fabricated, in the first place: would not, could not and did not say at the time – nor since – which studies, recent or otherwise, had promoted these findings. (For more on this, see my earlier post Thirty percent).

The second paragraph which gives me concern is the one immediately following, split between two pages of the newsletter:

Molly Pennington, PhD ( lists a number of different ways in which children can be found to plagiarize. Here are some common methods of plagiarizing that pupils employ:

1.         Copying and pasting text
2.         Copying text with some alterations.
3.         Copying from several articles
4.         Forgetting to acknowledge the source

Most good schools and Universities take a hard line on plagiarism. It has legal consequences in the real world, and it is considered to be equivalent to theft.

The text makes it clear that the list of suggestions, 1 to 4, is based on a piece by Molly Pennington. Indeed it is. (Pennington actually has 5 suggestions in her list; the missing heading is “Turning in prior work”).

The list is Pennington’s.  What is troublesome is that the sentence following the list is also Pennington’s, and even more worrying, these are words copied almost verbatim from Pennington’s piece (per the screengrab and highlighted extract below):

Most good schools and Universities take a hard line on plagiarism. It has legal consequences in the real world, and it is considered to be equivalent to theft.

So, two more points: these sentences need a link such as “Pennington also says that …” to show that this idea is taken from the same article.  And probably more vitally, those highlighted words should be in quotation marks.

Now I appreciate that nobody is going to read the Blossoms article, follow up by turning to Pennington’s article, notice the copy-paste lift and think, “Ah, this is okay to do, this is how to use someone else’s words, this is how it’s done.”

But it does make me wonder if the Blossoms writer has full appreciation of how properly and ethically to use other people’s words and work. If not, then what is being passed on to the children at Abuja Preparatory School, is misleading. Wrong.  Such misunderstandings seem often to be well learned and never forgotten, are carried through to adulthood thinking this is all we need to do… until problems are met, or somebody points out that such practice is wrong. Sometimes the consequences are severe.

It is worrying.  If teachers do not fully understand or present poor practice, how can their students fully understand, can or will they be helped if they get it wrong?

Self-serving survey?

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When a company (or other group with vested interest) conducts its own research and publishes its own analysis of the results, it is usually worth investigating more deeply. Turnitin has long been a favourite source of disingenuous disinformation (see. for instance, my posts How much plagiarism?, Guilty: how do you plead?, A second look at SEER, and Not as I do, but… ).

Now my attention turns to RefME, the reference generator (unless it is a citation generator; there may be language differences here, as discussed in Language and labels).

RefME has just published a report Survey Reveals Unique Insights to US Students’ Attitudes Towards Plagiarism on two surveys which the company carried out in recent months. It seems a prime example of how not to analyse data, how not to write a report. That’s a brutal assessment, but I think the brutality is justified. Just be sure to get in quick in case the report is edited or deleted.

I think there are (at least) five or six ways in which the report can be considered flawed. Fuller explanation follows the list:

  1. the discussion of the surveys reads at times like an inadequate discussion of the surveys and at times like a press release produced by the RefME publicity bureau;
  2. the report manages to confuse and conflate incorrect or inconsistently formatted references with plagiarism and/or academic misconduct;
  3. the discussion grabs at different research and studies, and suggests (inter alia) that small-scale surveys can be regarded as universal truths;
  4. in grabbing at those different research reports and studies, the writer misreports some and fails to do the homework, to check on the source behind the source;
  5. the report, despite praising RefME for enabling correct and consistent referencing/ endnoting, manages to be incorrect, incomplete and/or inconsistent in at least 11 of its 13 references.
  6. a small matter of several, many, passages which reuse so much wording from source documents that it might be felt that quotation marks are required; some readers might even class these passages as plagiarism.

This is not to denigrate the RefME software itself. I have no opinion there. Until I bought a new computer a few months ago, I found the app hung up too often to enable a valid critique of its performance as a reference (or citation) generator. Now, I find it fast, usable, so perhaps a review will come in time.

Or maybe not. If the RefME writer was using RefME to generate the endnotes in the report, there is no need to review RefME. That job is already done, per this report, per point <5>.

This is a long post, a very long post. If you prefer to read it across a full screen or to print this out, you might wish to download this PDF version.

The concerns

1>        the discussion of the surveys reads, at times like an inadequate discussion of the surveys, and at times like a press release produced by the RefME publicity bureau.

Earlier this year, RefME “conducted two online surveys among 2,111 US students currently enrolled in higher education.”   We are not told what level of higher education these students were engaged in, whether they were undergraduate freshers or postgraduate students or somewhere in between. We are not given the actual questions asked, nor whether they were open-ended questions or responses to set (multiple-choice) answers. We are not told whether the two surveys were identical or different.

We are told that “Two groups were surveyed, students who currently use RefME and those that do not.” We are not told how the groups were identified or recruited, nor how representative they might be of general US higher education students.

We are told the purpose of the polls, to “find out if citing correctly is a genuine concern for students in the US, how knowledgeable they really are on the subject, and their general attitude towards plagiarism.” We are also told that the “two sets of findings have been amalgamated and at times, where statistically relevant, the findings have been used independently to showcase the disparity between RefME users and non-users.” That seems a wide range of purpose driving the surveys, not necessarily coherent. We are not told what is regarded as “statistically relevant,” which could be an important consideration, given that “the findings have been analysed and interpreted by RefME.” Not exactly the most impartial of analysts.

The lack of impartiality may be most readily discerned in the paragraph:

The results demonstrate the value of using a citation management tool by highlighting that those who do not use RefME are more susceptible to citing incorrectly than those who do. Whilst 61% of non-RefME users reported that they have lost points for citing incorrectly, the survey found that just 50% of non-RefME users have been marked down on their work for inaccurate citations. It is important to note that RefME users were asked if they had ever lost points, and were not asked to differentiate between before and after they started using RefME.

Is there a typo there?  Should this read “50% of RefME users…” rather than “50% of non-RefME users…”?  That would make sense. As it stands, the point made makes no sense.

If there is a typo, then the claim is that 61% of non-RefME users said they had lost marks for “citing incorrectly” (or do they mean “referencing incorrectly”?) while only 50% of RefME users have lost marks for “inaccurate citations.”  That is still a large number/proportion, which could be why the RefME writer goes on “to note that RefME users were asked if they had ever lost points, and were not asked to differentiate between before and after they started using RefME.”  Now, is that a cop-out or is that a cop-out? The reader can assume EITHER that those marks were lost before the present RefME users discovered RefME (and it changed their lives, or at least changed their academic writing) OR that RefME users have only a marginal advantage over non-RefME users, and that RefME isn’t that accurate or consistent.  It is not clear in the report. But maybe the latter line of thought is spot-on  – see point #5.

[We are not told, it is unclear, whether the surveys asked respondents – especially non-RefME users – if they used any other reference generator/s such as NoodleTools or EasyBib. this too could affect results and interpretation of the results.]

What is more, while discussing survey findings, or at least those which RefME wishes to share, the report manages to bring in irrelevant data – which is where it begins to sound like a press release or advertising. Take, for instance, the paragraphs

RefME enables students to generate accurate, fully-formatted citations in over 7,500 styles – including popular styles such as the MLA format, APA citation and Chicago style. Whether students want to cite their sources using a popular style or a more-specific style, like ASA, IEEE or AMA, they can cite like a pro with RefME’s multi-platform tool.

Students can generate accurate citations in any style with RefME for Chrome, the browser extension that allows you to instantly create and edit a citation for any online source, or the highly-rated iOS and Android apps which create citations in a flash with your smartphone camera. Even better, students can now cite as they write by upgrading their account to RefME Plus to access RefME for Word. Ultimately, RefME enhances the quality of students’ research by providing them with the learning resources to educate themselves about the citing process and the benefits of adopting great referencing standards.

or the later (unfounded?) claims

As well as citing students’ sources in a matter of seconds, RefME helps students understand the importance of accurately citing all source material, which is why 92.2% of RefME users know to cite online sources in their written work.

Using technology to automate citations allows students to keep their work free from plagiarism, leaving them more time to spend on broadening their research and strengthening their writing. Nevertheless, this does not remove the need to educate students in understanding why citing is important and how a citation is created.

It has also to be noted that the report’s headline tells us that “Survey Reveals Unique Insights to US Students’ Attitudes Towards Plagiarism.” Far from fulfilling this, most of the survey’s findings are supported by the findings of earlier studies and reports; the insights are not “unique”. One of the few unique findings is surely the one which apparently notes that 50% of RefME users have had marks deducted for incorrect citation (though as noted, we cannot even be sure of the details of this claim).

Confused thinking, confused writing.

[Back to the list of concerns]


2>        the report manages to confuse, conflate and confound incorrect or inconsistently formatted references with plagiarism and/or academic misconduct.

This blog has several times discussed the notion that plagiarism lies in failure to cite – at the point of use in the text – words or ideas which are not those of the writer; citations which are incorrectly formatted are not necessarily incorrect citations and are not necessarily instances of plagiarism. Similarly, incorrectly-formatted or inconsistent referencing is not plagiarism, and may be misconduct only if the reference actually is incorrect. (See Language and labels for my most recent post on this topic).

The report several times states that students have lost marks for incorrect references, using the wrong style and so on. There is a paragraph which details

The most prevalent mistakes made by those students surveyed who have lost points for citing incorrectly:

>   Formatting citations incorrectly 54%
>   Using the wrong citation style 44%
>   Not submitting a full works cited list/bibliography 19%
>   Failing to cite a quote or idea 12%
>   Citing the wrong source 12%
>   Paraphrasing another author’s work 9%
>   Self-Plagiarism (recycling your own work) 3%
>   Other 1%

Of these, only “Failing to cite a quote or idea” and “Self-Plagiarism” can immediately be classed as plagiarism (and with self-plagiarism it might be a matter of “it depends.”) Of the other mistakes, “Citing the wrong source” might or might not be a form of academic misconduct (but not plagiarism as there is no attempt to claim the summary or quotation as one’s own), while “Paraphrasing another author’s work” is misconduct, probably plagiarism, only if there is no in-text citation to indicate that this is someone else’s work – in which case, isn’t this “Failing to cite a quote or idea”?

The RefME writer’s confusion as to the differences between citation and reference may be echoed by students: if they are used interchangeably and as if meaning the same thing when they do not, then confusion seems bound to occur. If getting one or other wrong leads to severe consequences and the “rules” seem constantly to change, then fear seems inevitable.

The confusion as to the differences between citation and reference and the consequences for failing to do one or the other is particularly evident in the section which starts:

72% of US students fear facing disciplinary action for plagiarism

The majority of both groups surveyed reported that they fear facing disciplinary action for plagiarism. Fortunately, this widespread concern can be easily avoided by simply learning to cite correctly. Using an accurate citation tool helps to reduce this fear by generating citations in line with the formatting of the style in use, giving students confidence that they will not lose points for their bibliographies.

Moreover, the fact that 28% of students do not worry about the potential consequences of plagiarism highlights the importance of providing enough resources and education on the topic of correctly handling and crediting others’ work.

Yes, fears of being charged with plagiarism “can be easily avoided by simply learning to cite correctly,” if by “cite correctly” we mean citation in the text – but using a software application “to reduce this fear (of committing plagiarism) by generating citations in line with the formatting of the style in use, giving students confidence that they will not lose points for their bibliographies” will not do the trick. Mistakes, most especially formatting mistakes, in bibliography are NOT forms of plagiarism.

[Back to the list of concerns]


3>        the discussion grabs at different research and studies, and suggests (inter alia) that small-scale surveys can be regarded as universal truths.

The discussion throughout the RefME report is not a good model of report-writing. The discussion flits from point to point, at times with unclear lines of argument.

We have already seen that concern regarding consequences of plagiarism “can be easily avoided by simply learning to cite correctly.”  But this notion of simplicity is overturned later when we read that

Citing is a complicated process that takes time to master, so it is a real cause for concern that 60% of students were either unsure or revealed that they had not been provided with enough information on how to cite accurately.

Simple or complicated? Citation in the text is (relatively) simple – it is referencing which can be complicated, taking time – and practice, methinks – to master.

Then there is the statement

It is widely known that there is a lack of understanding around the rudimentary requirements for crediting sources in written academic work. A 2015 study found that students who are new to university lacked even a basic understanding of how to cite sources. Interestingly, those same students claimed that they were very confident they understood what both citing and plagiarism are. 3.

The opening sentence of this paragraph may be questioned. The 2015 study cited here was a small study – 622 respondents  – in one UK university. There is nothing to show that the finding applies to all UK universities, or universities outside the UK. It may be the case – there are plenty of other studies which might support these statements – but surely some of them need to be brought in here?

Similarly, the discussion of ghostwriting services:

Although 82% of students are aware that outsourcing ghostwriters is a major issue, universities are still experiencing a troubling plagiarism epidemic. 7. Reports found that California, New York and Texas are the most popular regions for commissioning ghost writers, whilst the most sought-after types of content are essays, research papers, and MA theses. 8

The 82% of students who are aware that the use of ghostwriters or custom essay writing services is problematic are respondents to the RefME surveys, 82% of them. The statement “universities are still experiencing a troubling plagiarism epidemic” is attributed to an article in the UK Independent newspaper which bears the headline, “UK universities in ‘plagiarism epidemic’ as almost 50,000 students caught cheating over last 3 years.” That article probably chose the term “plagiarism epidemic” because it is also used in the Times article on which the Independent’s report is based. The Times headline is “Universities face student cheating crisis,”  but while their story talks of a “plagiarism epidemic” (so perhaps fair use by the Independent journalist), there are no figures, no data, to suggest why the term “epidemic” is used in relation to other types of academic misconduct – and many of these are investigated as well.

Perhaps more of a problem in this study of the RefME report is the flow of argument

Although 82% of students are aware that outsourcing ghostwriters is a major issue, universities are still experiencing a troubling plagiarism epidemic. 7. Reports found that California, New York and Texas are the most popular regions for commissioning ghost writers…

taking us from the RefME study to a (questionable) statement about UK universities and from there directly to California, New York and Texas, with no explanation or comparison, based on the loose connection of “ghostwriting.”

Generalisations surely need to be based on more than a single survey, and connections do need to be explicit.

Not too far removed from the discussion here is the misleading headline and paragraph:

3 out of 4 US students are concerned about citing correctly

Of the RefME users surveyed, over 60% agreed when asked if they are concerned about accurately citing their work. In comparison, a whopping 75% of students who do not use RefME reported that they were worried about citing correctly. Today students have access to automated citation tools that help them cite correctly and avoid the risk of plagiarism.

Can both the first two sentences here AND the section heading be true? Shouldn’t the heading read

3 out of 4 US non-RefME users are concerned about citing correctly

Why, one might wonder, are so many RefME students concerned about citing correctly? Is it because, despite using the tool, they are given confusing, confused and conflicted information and misinformation about citation and referencing?

[Back to the list of concerns]


4>        in grabbing at those different research reports and studies, the writer misreports some and fails to do the homework, to check on the source behind the source.

We have noted that the quotation from The Independent is based on an investigation by and report in The Times. The RefME writer appears not to have gone to The Times to check the article and gain information from the source.

Similarly the discussion of students who “inadvertently plagiarise” when they have not set out to cheat:

With a large number of students being marked down for academic misconduct, one might assume that students’ academic integrity should be questioned. However, many students are worried about citing because it is so easy to inadvertently plagiarise. Perry’s (2010) two-dimensional model of academic misconduct suggests that only those students who understand the rules yet fail to adhere to them are classified as cheats. 2.

The notion of Perry’s (2010) model is based on a series of slides in a presentation by English and Ireland (attributed in the endnotes and indicated by that subscript 2). Nearer to the point of Perry’s model is the suggestion that “only those students who understand the rules yet fail to adhere to them should be classified as cheats” – “should be classified as cheats” is different to saying “are classified as cheats.”

Also troubling is the RefME writer’s discussion of possible consequences:

The repercussions of student plagiarism can be extremely serious. In most cases, it will result in a failing grade for the assignment or possible failure of the course. In extreme cases, such as repeat offending, students can face the loss of academic scholarships or outright expulsion. If their work is published, they may face legal action from the original author. 6.

The notions expressed in the first three sentences are fairly well-known and may even be classed as “common knowledge” (a topic covered in a later passage in the RefME report). While plagiarism is illegal in a few countries, it is not universally a crime. Copyright infringement is another matter, of course, but we are not talking copyright infringement here. More urgently, that last sentence, the notion that “If their work is published, they may face legal action from the original author” is NOT included in the article footnoted by the subscript 6. Charlton’s article makes no mention at all of legal issues. This is added by the RefME writer, it does not come from the paper cited.

Curiously, Perry’s 2010 paper makes the point that “bogus referencing” may be more widespread than we realise. The RefME writer’s statement regarding legal issues may fall under this heading. Another serious shortcoming?

[Back to the list of concerns]


5>        the report, despite praising RefME for enabling correct and consistent referencing/ endnoting, manages to be incorrect, incomplete and/or inconsistent in at least 11 of its 13 references/ endnotes.

Given that the RefME report is built around the notion that incorrect and/or incorrectly-formatted referencing leads to loss of marks (and possibly to charges of academic misconduct) and how use of RefME enables students to reference correctly, one might think that the RefME writer would be at pains to ensure the correctness of the references used in this report.

If only.

It is not stated which referencing style (or citation style if this is the preferred term) is used here. Whatever style it is, the references are inconsistent and many are incomplete. In my understanding, that classes many of them as, at the least, incorrectly-formatted.

Here we go:


1.   Tami Strang, “Are College Students Concerned about Plagiarism?,” Learning Outcomes, September 7, 2015,

Where does the “Learning Outcomes” come from? The breadcrumbs trail is Cengage Learning > Engaging Minds > Achievement and Outcomes > Learning Outcomes > Are College Students Concerned About Plagiarism.

The heading on the page notes that this is posted in Achievement and Outcomes,  Learning Outcomes, so either both headings should be used in the endnote – or neither? Should Cengage Learning be credited as well, or Engaging Minds? That may depend on the referencing style in use, and we don’t know which it is. Not a good start, though.

2.    John English and Chris Ireland, Plagiarism: Let’s Start as We Don’t Mean to Go on, (n.p., 2015),

The link given here leads to a slide presentation in PDF format, fronted by a cover page from the University of Huddersfield Repository.

Although the first slide following the cover page lists John English and Chris Ireland in that order, the cover page itself notes that the preferred citation/reference lists Ireland before English. A small matter, perhaps.

Of more import, the cover page notes the year of presentation/publication as 2011, not 2015 as recorded by the RefME writer.

3.    Philip Newton, “Academic Integrity: A Quantitative Study of Confidence and Understanding in Students at the Start of Their Higher Education,” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, March 27, 2015, doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024199.

Newton’s paper was published online on March 27, 2015, and it might have been helpful to note that – if indeed the full day and month of publication or the online note are needed in the referencing system in use.  The RefME writer gives us the DOI which, in some referencing systems, means that the full and actual date of online publication is unnecessary.

On the other hand, it might also be worth noting that the print version of the paper was published in print in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Volume 41 Issue 3, 2016.

4.   “Are College Students Concerned about Plagiarism?”

This is Tami Strang’s post, per footnote #1.  Is it usual to record second and subsequent uses of a source by the title rather than by the author?

5.   Katie Malcolm, “Plagiarism and Inclusive Teaching: A Perfect Union?,” January 20, 2015,

Given that the reference for footnote #1 includes elements of a breadcrumb trail, shouldn’t this reference have one as well: Center for Teaching and Learning >> At the Center >>  Plagiarism and Inclusive Teaching: A Perfect Union?

In the text, Katie Malcolm is introduced as “CTL Consultant.” It could be useful to know that CTL stands (presumably) for Center for Teaching and Learning, and that this group and/or The University of Washington should be included in the reference?

6.    “Consequences of Plagiarism in College | the Classroom,” 2001, accessed May 3, 2016,

This piece is by Debra Charlton, though her name is not mentioned in the RefME reference.

The site (?) is mentioned as “The Classroom” but this part of the breadcrumb trail is different to the part used in that first endnote (Strang: Learning Outcomes).”  Why the pipe, the vertical bar which separates “the Classroom” from the title – and with both inside the inverted commas, it looks as if “the Classroom” is a subtitle, not the name of the page/s.

There is no mention of Synonym; should there be in this referencing system?

The page carries no date, so where did the “2001” come from? It is not conclusive evidence, but the Internet Archive’s first record of this page is in July 2013.

Note too the date of access; this is the first endnote to include a date of access. It isn’t the last, endnotes  date #9, 10, 11 and 12 have access dates as well, but none of the other online sources include an access date.

7.   Aftab Ali, “UK Universities in ‘plagiarism epidemic’ as Almost 50, 000 Students Caught Cheating over Last 3 Years,” The Independent – News (Independent), January 4, 2016,

All other endnotes are Title Case – all the important words have an initial Upper Case letter even when the title of the source uses Sentence case, with only the first word using an initial Upper case letter.  For consistency, shouldn’t “plagiarism epidemic” be recorded here as “Plagiarism Epidemic”?

8.    Nancy Laws, “The Shocking Truth about Essay Writing Services,” Huffington Post, April 14, 2015,

This could be the only consistent reference/endnote on the page – if a reference can be consistent with itself. It includes an author, the title of the article, the publishing organisation, the date of publication, and the URL. If one wanted to quibble, then perhaps a note that the page was updated on June 10, 2015 might be in order, but let’s not (quibble).

9.    “Detecting and Deterring Ghostwritten Papers: A Guide to Best Practices,” 2011, accessed May 5, 2016,

Again, the author’s name is omitted though it is stated clearly in the original : David A. Tomar  Once again we are given a publication date – 2011 – although there is nothing on the page to support this assertion.

More alarmingly, the earliest record in the Internet Archive is November 2014 with a clear publication date of November 6, 2014. Given that Tomar’s paper includes references to materials published in 2012, 2013 and 2014, RefME’s 2011 date may seem a trifle bogus?

10.  “Local 6 Confronts Man Helping Students Cheat for Cash,” Click Orlando, May 6, 2014, accessed May 17, 2016,

And yet again, the author’s name is omitted though stated clearly in the original : Sean Lavin. Should the sub-title be included? I haven’t been checking these as much perhaps as I should have, but this one stands out loud.

11.   “What Is Common Knowledge,” accessed May 5, 2016,

This is an extract from Academic Integrity at MIT: A Handbook for Students. Isn’t that worth a mention in the reference?

12.   “6.4 Plagiarism,” accessed May 5, 2016,

This is from a page headed “Information Literacy, module 6: Sharing,” published on the University of Idaho web site and based on a book by Radford, Barnes, and Barr.  Shouldn’t at least some of that be included in the reference?

13.   Kuwcnews, “Exploring and Preventing Plagiarism in a Digital Age,” September 23, 2015,

The author is NOT Kuwcnews. The author is Amy Sexton, a KUWC tutor. The page is from the Academic Support Center Faculty Blog. Worth a mention?

There may be other inaccuracies, omissions, insertions and inconsistencies that I have not noted. Not to worry – I think the point is made? By RefME’s apparent definitions of plagiarism and academic misconduct, this list of sources is heavily flawed, a prime piece of plagiarism. By my own definitions of plagiarism and acacedemic misconduct, I wouldn’t  class this as plagiarism, most of this list and the essay itself is just poor writing and poor scholarship. But, just as I was concerned earlier by the apparent invention of a statement attributed to source #6, I am here concerned about the apparent invention of dates in endnotes #6 and #9.  These again strike as bogus, as possible attempts to mislead the reader. I would feel happier if the RefME writer could explain or demonstrate the source of these dates, else I might be more positive in that assertion.

But I won’t condemn the writer for these faults. Yet.

[Back to the list of concerns]


6>        a small matter of several, many, passages which reuse so much wording from source documents that it might be felt that quotation marks are required; some readers might even class these passages as plagiarism.

On the other hand, this small matter is of great concern.

I have not submitted the paper to Turnitin or any other text-matching software/service. In looking up the RefME’s writer’s use of source material, I have noticed in passing similarities between passages in the RefME report and the sources cited, and these are what I report on here.

The similarities are small, but they make me feel uncomfortable. What do others think? What do you think?

Source #1: Tami Strang, “Are College Students Concerned about Plagiarism?,” Learning Outcomes, September 7, 2015,

From Strang:  On the other hand, a slightly larger percentage (45% total) indicated that their peers demonstrate at least some concern about plagiarism: 25% arevery concerned,” and 20% are “somewhat concerned.” Though these students may, on occasion, accidentally cite a source incorrectly, they’re striving to follow good academic practices.

Significantly more concern is warranted among the 6% of students say their peers are “not at all concerned” about plagiarism and the 5% who only care about it to the extent that they don’t get caught doing it. “

From the RefME report:

In 2015, a survey conducted by Student Engagement Insights found that 25% of students said their peers are very concerned when it comes to plagiarism, and 45% of students indicated that their peers demonstrate at least some concern about plagiarism. However, the real cause for worry is that only 6% of students reported that their peers are “not at all concerned” about plagiarism, and that 5% reported that they only care about it to the extent that they don’t get caught. 1.

and source #4, also Strang:

it’s also uncomfortable to hear that many students don’t seem to care about it at all. These students need a fundamental introduction to the importance of correctly handling and crediting others’ work, conducted in a manner that thoroughly conveys the seriousness of the matter.

and RefME:

Moreover, the fact that 28% of students do not worry about the potential consequences of plagiarism highlights the importance of providing enough resources and education on the topic of correctly handling and crediting others’ work. This should be conducted in a manner that thoroughly conveys the seriousness of the matter. 4.

Source #6:   Debra Charlton, “Consequences of Plagiarism in College,” Synonym: The Classroom, (2013?),

From Charlton:  Penalties might include loss of academic scholarships, failure to receive credit for the course or outright expulsion.

From RefME:

In most cases, it will result in a failing grade for the assignment or possible failure of the course. In extreme cases, such as repeat offending, students can face the loss of academic scholarships or outright expulsion. If their work is published, they may face legal action from the original author. 6.

Source #9:  David A. Tomar,   “Detecting and Deterring Ghostwritten Papers: A Guide to Best Practices,” 2014,

From Tomar: 2.2 Pricing and Structure
Most companies operate using a similar pricing spectrum, charging between $10 and $50 per page depending on proximity of the deadline.

and shortly after

2.2.2 Bidding:
A writer-manager will send instructions to a select number of staff writers, often based on a writer’s area of expertise. Based on the deadline, length, and anticipated difficulty of an assignment, writers will quote prices for prospective assignments.

while from RefME:

A ghost writing service usually charges somewhere between $10 and $50 per page – the price being dependent on factors such as the proximity of the deadline, length, and anticipated difficulty of an assignment. 9.

Source #11:  “What Is Common Knowledge,” Academic Integrity at MIT: A Handbook for Students, nd.,
Source #12: “6.4 Plagiarism,” Information Literacy module 6: Sharing,

These two come together in a single paragraph in the RefME post:

From “Common Knowledge”
Information that most people know, such as that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or that Barack Obama was the first American of mixed race to be elected president.

and from “6.4 Plagiarism”
c: When you use phrases that have become part of everyday speech: you don’t need to remind your reader where “all the world’s a stage” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” first appeared, or even to put such phrases in quotation marks.

and from RefME:

Common knowledge is information that the average person would typically accept as a reliable, proven fact. For instance, most people know that ‘Barack Obama is the first American of mixed race to be elected president’ so it is unnecessary to credit it in your work. 11. Likewise, when you use phrases that have become part of everyday speech, such as “all the world’s a stage” or “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, you do not need to cite them or even to put them in quotation marks. 12.

In this case, the RefME writer has cited the sources, so the copied words – even if common knowledge in themselves – surely DO need to be enclosed in quotation marks (or, in the second copy, double sets of quotation marks) or else better paraphrased?

In sum

All in all, this report adds nothing to the academic conversation except, perhaps, even more confusion. It is a poor model of an academic paper, and a poor example of survey and data analysis and argument. As a piece extolling the uses of RefME, it is not exactly encouraging.

As an example of self-promotion, it serves to confirm my notion that studies aiming to show how effective a product is are ineffective – and rich for investigation – when produced by the company producing the product.





Language and labels

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Different people have different understandings of the terms “citation” and “reference.” This can – and does – cause confusion. In my classes and workshops, I usually start discussion of use of other people’s work by stating how I use and will be using these terms, following the International Baccalaureate (IB)’s use of them. In brief:

  • citations are the short notes which go in the text, as part of the text or in parentheses;
  • references are the full bibliographic information which goes in the list at the end.

If we all have the same understanding of the terms, we are nearer being sure that we are talking about the same things.

There is much to suggest that many students go through secondary school and enter university believing that they understand how to document their use of source material correctly and appropriately, when all they have learned and practised is making an alphabetical list of sources at the end of their work. When told they need to cite their sources, Continue reading

Copy, paste, EDIT

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Following on in this mini-series of common errors in extended essays: one of the ways in which IBDP extended essay candidates drop marks for  Criterion I: Formal Presentation (Criterion D: Presentation from 2018) is inconsistency in the formatting of references.

IB examiners are instructed that consistency and completeness of references is more important than notions of accuracy, which is good. Given that students are free to use any referencing style that they wish, it is not possible for an examiner to declare that this or that reference is recorded inaccurately, not according to style guide.

But the criterion requires that references are consistently formatted within the list itself. If the reference list is something like this: Continue reading

Back to basics – MLA8 revisited

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I have to admit, I am excited by the latest edition of the MLA Handbook. Gulp! Does that make me some kind of uber-nerd?

I am breaking into my mini-series on common documentation errors in IB extended essays to share my excitement. MLA8 gives us a new way of looking at citation and referencing, very different to the approach taken in the previous edition. What’s more, the hopes I expressed for this new edition (well before it was actually published – see the post MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook) are incorporated in the new approach.

The special delight is because, in basing its new approach on the principles and the purposes of citation and referencing, MLA8 provides us with principles which can be applied to any referencing style or style guide. What you might call a WHYs move, perhaps. Continue reading

Orders are orders

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In my last post, What’s in a name, I discussed the need for clear linkage between the name/s used in an in-text citation and the name/s used to start the entry in the list of References. If the citation reads,

“According to Michaels and Brown, ……”


“‘……’ (Singh 2014)”

then it is helpful to the reader if the entries in the References list start

Michaels, J., & P. Brown….


Singh, V. (2014).

Many students, however, seem unable to make the link. A number of extended essay examples posted by the International Baccalaureate show instances where students manage to mismatch names – detailed in that last post. Two of the instances I listed were essays in which students had used Continue reading

What’s in a name?

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In my last post, Credit where it is due, I discussed IB’s approach to referencing, with special regard to the new Extended essay guide. The guide affects students starting their two-year diploma programme in September this year, for first examination in May 2018.

In an attempt to ensure standard understanding of citation and referencing, IB is instructing examiners to refer to the Awards Committee all cases of inaccurate or inconsistent citation and referencing. This will be, I hope, for the good, for the benefit of students. I fear, however, that the committee will be inundated with such cases.

I have another concern here: the comment (on many commentary forms printed alongside sample essays) reads, “Under the new requirements this essay must be referred as a possible case of academic misconduct due to incorrect and inconsistent citing and referencing.” My concern is that examiners may be wrongly influenced in their overall assessment of the essay by any “incorrect” or inconsistent citation or referencing; they may be prejudiced as they read, and award lower marks than if the student had used “correct” and consistent citation and referencing – even when there is no misconduct, just mistakes. This is a big concern, but I will reserve discussion of this aspect for another post.

For the moment, I want to ignore notions of misconduct and concentrate on consistency, possibly with a view to reducing the number of essays submitted for further consideration.

So, in that last post I discussed the notion of accurate referencing, which could be seen to contradict other IB advice to the effect that “Students are not expected to show faultless expertise in referencing…”. I argued that the notions can be reconciled if “accurate” referencing is taken not to mean accuracy of formatting of the references but instead used to mean that the right authors are cited (as against just any names randomly plucked from a hat). Now, accuracy makes sense.

The right authors, the right names

Some of the comments on the sample essays suggest that essays are referred to the Awards Committee because Continue reading

Credit where it is due

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I have to admit, I’ve long been puzzled by seemingly contradictory statements from the International Baccalaureate. They are highlighted once more in the new Extended Essay Guide (for first examination in May 2018).

On the one hand, we have the statement:

“Students are not expected to show faultless expertise in referencing, but are expected to demonstrate that all sources have been acknowledged” (p. 33 of the pdf guide),

and on the other:

“Producing accurate references and a bibliography is a skill that students should be seeking to refine as part of the extended essay writing process … Failure to comply with this requirement will be viewed as academic misconduct and will, therefore, be treated as a potential breach of IB regulations” (p. 88).

Can we reconcile the suggestion that “faultless expertise” is not required while at the same time requiring “accurate references” – especially given that “correctness” is impossible to judge, given that IB allows use of any recognised style guide. Continue reading

Tangled trail

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In the course of this blog, I have engaged in the occasional tortuous tangled trail.

I doubt if any of my trails – or trials – is as complicated as one recently followed by Debora Weber-Wulff. In her latest blog post, A Confusing Pakistani Plagiarism Case, she relates how she tried following up a report in the Pakistani Express Tribune, Confession: Ex-HEC head apologises for plagiarism.

Her difficulties involved trying to find the original paper which the former chair of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) might or might not have co-authored and which might or might not have been included in this writer’s CV and which might or might not have appeared in an academic journal; the paper might or might not have included plagiarised material. This last doubt arises because any plagiarism in the paper might not be considered plagiarism on the (questionable) grounds that the paper was published before Pakistan had legislated any policies regarding plagiarism.

Weber-Wulff sums up her investigation and the issues Continue reading

MLA8 – new edition of MLA Handbook

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Heads up: MLA – the Modern Language Association – is about to release the 8th edition of the MLA Handbook.

The MLA site says it will be available some time in April, but warns that the online version of the 7th edition will not be available after 31 March., the American warehouse, gives a release date of March 14, 2016 (four days ago at time of writing) – but also states “This title has not yet been released.”, the British warehouse, gives a release date of 30 April 2016.

Two things catch the eye immediately, the subtitle and the price.

The Amazon US site carries no sub-title at all.



The Amazon UK site gives the title as “MLA Handbook: Rethinking Documentation for the Digital Age (Mla Handbook for Writers of Research Ppapers).” Ignoring the typo and the punctuation of the bracketed instance of MLA, we see what is possibly a new approach: “rethinking documentation…“.

This notion of a new approach is borne out in the price, $11.42 in US and £10.50 in UK. That compares with $16.79 and £18.50 respectively for the still available 7th edition.

It is not necessarily generosity behind the reduction in price for the new edition. The 8th edition is 145 pages against the 292 pages of the 7th edition – the new edition is Continue reading

Snake (in the grass)

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A recent posting in an OCC forum* got me investigating again.**  The post included a recommendation for the free “plagiarism scanner” Viper.

I have warned about Viper, and its parent company in an earlier post, Authentic authenticity. There I noted that Viper’s then Terms and Conditions included the statement

When you scan a document, you agree that 9 months after completion of your scan, we may upload your essay to our student essays database so that other students may use it to help them write their own essays. You agree that any right you may have to remuneration for such use of documents is waived.

Some of the other sites using that same “student essays database” are paper mills, selling on pre-written student essays. Viper and Scanmyessay may be free to use, but the cost is the possible loss of one’s original essay, one’s rights to it, and the possible loss of one’s reputation.

That wording is slightly different Continue reading

In other words…

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The usually excellent Jonathan Bailey has, I fear, fallen short of excellence in his latest post in the WriteCheck blog.

Granted, he upholds that standard in much of the post – How to paraphrase. It is good advice – but there is, to my mind, one vital notion missing.

He gives a three-step guide to good paraphrase: read and understand what you are reading, put it aside and don’t look at it again, then note or write fully what you remember as most important, the “key points.”

Bailey does not define “key points.” I would make the point that what is key may well depend on your purpose, why you want to make those points, why you think they are important and worth noting.

That is a minor point. The big point I think he has missed is that, Continue reading

Another fine can of worms

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In my last post, I reflected on text-recycling. This is the practice of re-using one’s own work without acknowledgement. While (I think) most academics frown on the practice and call it self-plagiarism, it seems to be accepted and possibly widely practiced by academics and their professional bodies – in very limited circumstances – in a number of disciplines.

In those fields which do accept text-recycling – or at least turn a blind eye to the practice – it is claimed to be a useful device for speeding the writing process and for ensuring consistency of language when compiling, for instance, a review of the literature, or when describing methods and methodologies. It is not seen as acceptable to copy-paste someone else’s literature review, but it is acceptable (in those fields in which the practice is accepted) to copy-paste one’s own previously published literature review, as long as, for instance, material which is irrelevant for the current study is deleted.

I am not sure that I accept the argument, but, as Cary Moskovitz has argued Continue reading

Cans of worms (and other kettles of fish)

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I have long been aware of the notion of self-plagiarism, reusing one’s own work without acknowledging the earlier use. The post Elusive allusions is especially to the point.

That post was built around a piece by Paul Greenberg, In Praise of Plagiarism, in which he suggests that the re-use of a master’s prose (he names Cervantes and Shakespeare) may be excusable (along the lines of: you cannot say it any better than a master, so why try?). Not excusable, he continues, is the case when a plagiarist uses “… bad prose. It’s not the theft that troubles in such cases, but the poor taste of the thief.” Possibly in an attempt to establish a claim to literary taste and mastership, Greenberg’s January 2015 piece included large chunks of an article he had published in 2007, which in turn included large chunks of an article he had published in 2000.

I have recently come across the term “text recycling,” the practice of re-using one’s own words in new pieces, without noting that the text has been used before. Plagiarism? Self-plagiarism? Where is that line to be drawn?

Many sites and sources use (without thinking?) and usually attribute the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of plagiarism such as ” the act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something” This definition be found in the online Meriam Webster Dictionary as well as in myriad resources which have used this definition.

But if the words or ideas are one’s own and not someone else’s, then it cannot be plagiarism, can it? Self-plagiarism? Not by the Merriam-Webster definition.

Where it gets complicated, even more complicated, is that, in some disciplines, it seems that text-recycling, the re-use of one’s own words may be – in some circumstances Continue reading

What’s common about common knowledge?

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A participant in a recent workshop had a cautionary tale to tell: one of her school’s brightest students, one who scored 40 points in her IB examinations (out of a maximum 42 for the six subjects), had been found guilty of plagiarism in her extended essay. This merited a straight Fail for the essay and that meant she could not receive a diploma (normally awarded to students scoring 24 or more points, with at least a D in Extended essay and Theory of knowledge).

During the investigation, the student accepted that she had not provided a citation for the passage which had been questioned – and declared that, as it was common knowledge, there was no need to cite it. Without seeing the essay and the passage in question, it is not possible to comment on the merit of this claim or to decide whether the examiner and the Awards Committee were over-harsh – or if they were perfectly justified in their decision.

It is a salutary reminder. I always advise classes and workshops of the five golden rules of citation: Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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