Not so easy does it

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Since this was posted, the company critiqued has addressed a few, but by no means all, of the issues detailed here. Some of the links in this post may now lead to pages different to those listed and illustrated. The editing process has not been thorough, and the reader will soon find other errors and inconsistencies throughout the site. It is, however, not my job to proof-read their site, nor to debug the software. JRR – 30 January 2015.

I was recently asked my opinion of the EasyBib add-on for Google Docs.  I don’t – didn’t – have an opinion. I haven’t tried it.  But, pushed by the request, I took a look.

First, though, I had a look at EasyBib itself, to see if an issue I had noted before had been addressed.  It hadn’t.  While checking, I found a lot of features new to me – and many more issues to add to my list of concerns.

So, let’s go over these first.

Auto-citation generation

The first thing I looked at was whether EasyBib had improved the way it handles dates, in its automatic citation generator mode. I have remarked before [Getting it wrong] that it seems to convert (some) British dates to US dates.  Nothing has changed.

 

Here, 1 December 2014 is interpreted as 01-12-2014 and so becomes January 12 2014.

Anyone relying on auto-citation might, or might not, notice that something is wrong.

There are other details that EasyBib’s auto-cite feature cannot always find or identify, such as the author, the title, the publisher, even when they are plainly there… Some omissions are highlighted, and users are invited to complete the missing details themselves.  I understand (anecdotally) that few students do. They tend to accept whatever EasyBib gives them, and few check what is missing or the actual citation generated. Some omissions are highlighted, some entries are just plain wrong.  It’s a quick-and-easy route to disaster.

I’ll come back to auto-citation later.

To be fair, these problems are not confined to EasyBib.  It’s a problem of many – most? – all? – auto-citation generators. They all tend to make the same mistakes.  Enter the same URL or ISBN into most auto-citation generators and you’ll get the same output.  EasyBib is, however, one of the most popular citation generators at high school level. It generates citations for more types of source material than most others, and has more added features than most.  It’s the biggest.  Of course, there’s not a lot of point being the biggest if you also make the biggest mistakes, but that is another matter.

I have one other concern with auto-citation generators. If you don’t know the elements, if you don’t know what your reference should look like, then you may not know if and when the auto-citation generator has got something wrong.  You will only know if you know – and you still need to be awake, awake and thinking.

Do you hear that, EasyBib?  Think!

Citation Guides

One of EasyBib’s added features is a set of citation guides. The very first I looked at was one of their “Popular Guides” : How to cite a book in APA

Citing a book in print

Structure:

Author, F.M. (Year of Publication). Title of Work. Publisher City, State: Publisher.

 

and, slightly further down the page:

James, Henry. (2009).The Ambassadors. Rockville, MD: Serenity Publishers.

Note: Capitalize the first letter of the first word of the title and any subtitles (the first word that follows a colon), as well as the first letter of any proper nouns.

Both the template structure and the example citation fail to follow the note/instruction. If you haven’t spotted it/them:

Title of Work” (in the template) should read “Title of work.”
and
“James, Henry” should read “James, H.”
The Ambassadors” should read “The ambassadors.”

Slight differences, small errors.  But is this acceptable as an example of correct formatting?

In International Baccalaureate programmes (and no doubt others as well), students are not required to name the reference style they are using.  IB instructs examiners and moderators to ignore “mistakes” in formatting like those above – as long as the student is consistent within each paper submitted.  EasyBib fails in that respect as well. It is inconsistent.

It’s only one example. EasyBib might get every other entry right, on every other page. But it is the first citation I looked at, right at the top of the page.  It does not bode well.

EssayCheck

Another feature offered by EasyBib is EssayCheck, which offers to score essays. For free.  That’s clever. There’s no rubric, no instructions, no recognition of grade level, no awareness of subject, and no criteria, but EssayCheck can score essays. For free. Wow!

I just had to try this out.

I have to admit, I plagiarised. I plagiarised myself, twice – double submission. I submitted the two nonsense essays I had previously submitted to Pearson Essay Scorer (see Burnt Offerings).  Pearson gave me 6/6 and 5/6 for these essays, both of which were – and still are – total nonsense.  EasyBib’s EssayCheck was a tad more discerning than Pearson:  I scored only 26/30 and 25/30 respectively.  Not to worry, that’s still more than 80% for each of the essays. I’ll accept those scores.  I’m in a hurry.

Research

Then there is the Research feature: “Smarter Research. Powered by You.”  Whatever that means.

A friend suggested that I search for [orwell 1984], having been alerted to hit #1 by a colleague at Illinois University Professor Frances Jacobson Harris, recently retired librarian of the University Laboratory High School, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Thank you, Frances.  Frances had spotted this hit’s provenance – and alarm bells had sounded for her.  Given the prompt, I dug deeper.

Hit #1 is a paper by John Bennett, Orwell’s 1984: Was Orwell Right?  published in the Journal of Historical Review in 1986.  This paper has been cited 166 times, which sounds good; it sounds like a worthwhile paper, authoritative, in an authoritative journal.  Indeed, EasyBib rates the site and therefore the journal as “Credible.”

A closer look at the paper, the publishing journal and the mother-organisation, the Institute for Historical Review, all sound alarm bells – if you’re awake for the sound of them. The site claims that “It strives, in the words of Barnes, to “bring history into accord with the facts”” (About the IHR).  The “facts,” alas, include Holocaust denial, freely admitted in a biographical note at the foot of Bennett’s paper. For “Review” read “Revisionism.” Credible? Or incredible?

It is not clear what the Times Cited count means.  There appears to be no order to the hit list.  it is not ordered alphabetically, and it is not ordered according to the number of times each source has been cited.  What is more, the numbers haven’t changed in at least 4 months (since this feature was brought to my attention).   That seems curious.  Has no EasyBib user written an essay on Orwell’s 1984 and used at least one of these top sources to inform the essay within the last few months?

Never mind, onward.

One helpful feature in EasyBib Research is that you can find the EasyBib “user bibliographies that contain this source.”  There’s a quick citation tool to these citing sources too.  Just mouse over the titles and you get the list in a pop-up box on the right.  The more authoritative the piece which cites the source, presumably, the more authoritative the source. It’s a bit like the original Google, before they started playing with the algorithms.

I just moused down the list, glancing at the list of the pages citing each of the sources. and then I hit Research hit #5.  Hit #5 is for 1984, in The Complete Works of George Orwell, and cited 66 times.  What took my eye was the first item in the list, the USA Patriot Act.  My knowledge of the Act is limited, but I was surprised to learn that it had cited Orwell’s 1984.  I clicked on the link to take a closer look.

The link to “USA Patriot Act” does not lead to the USA Patriot Act.  It links to the Wikipedia entry for the (USA) Patriot Act.  Orwell is not cited, not once.

There is mention of 1984.  Indeed, three times “1984” is mentioned in the Wikipedia article. And each time, it is mentioned in the phrase “Victims of Crime Act 1984.”  This is not Orwell’s 1984.  This is not a reference, not a citation.

What about the rest of this list, then?  Hit #2 is for Red Scare, another Wikipedia page. There is no entry for 1984 here, but perhaps that is not surprising.  In the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit, the reference could have been edited out at some stage.

Hit #3 is for www.george-orwell.org.  Firefox, or one of my Firefox add-ons, tells me that this is reported as an “attack page,” a page which may download malicious software.  Do not go here, it warned.  I did not go there.

Hit #4 is another Wikipedia page. This includes, in the list of Sources:

“Smith, Richard Norton. (1984). An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover. New York: Simon and Schuster.”

There we go, 1984 again!  Just not the right one.

What does it all mean?  Not a lot, methinks.  EasyBib seems to have a credibility issue.

EasyBib Research and auto-citation. Again.

At this point, I remembered that Easybib has – or had – a feature which suggested the reliability of web sites. I couldn’t recall seeing it lately, it wasn’t in the tabs. Credibility is suggested in the list of Research hits, but this was not where I had found it.  But let’s see… I entered the URL of that first hit, the revisionist holocaust denying paper, in EasyBib’s auto-cite bar, to see if EasyBib had a note on credibility elsewhere. No. What I did get was a wonderful, horrible mishmash of a citation. Where I should have got something like:

Bennett, John. “Orwell’s 1984: Was Orwell Right?” The Journal  
       for Historical Review
6.1 (1986):  9ff. Institute for Historical

       Review. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

what I got was:

“INSTITUTE FOR HISTORICAL REVIEW.” Orwell’s 1984: Was
         Orwell Right?
N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Dec. 2014.

Spot the difference?!

Bennett’s paper has been cited 166 times by EasyBib users. Had 166 users got it wrong, every one of them?  Should I check how they had cited the source, given the Complete works experience?

I was tempted not to bother.  But … my conscience pricked. I bothered.

Citing source #1 is for the Bennett paper, self-referencing.

Citing source #2 is for a paper in FindArticles, behind a pay-wall.

Citing-source #3 is for a Google Scholar search.  A Google Scholar search?  A Google Scholar search has cited the Bennett paper?

Not quite.    If you’re still following me, the Google Scholar search pinpoints a paper by Ransford Pyle, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Law, published in ALSA Forum in 1984 (the date is probably not a coincidence?), available in HeinOnline.

This is where it gets really interesting: we have a paper published in 1984 which cites a paper published in 1986?  Unless I have it all back to front, and it’s the 1986 paper which cites the paper written in 1984?

Only it doesn’t.  It isn’t in Bennett’s Notes of sources either.

 

I think I am entitled to ask, are the citations suggested in EasyBib Research conjured out of thin air?

 

I am glad I bothered to follow this up – but I can’t be bothered to look more deeply.  How much rope is enough?

EasyBib add-on for Google Docs

So, not altogether impressed by EasyBib so far, I turned to the original mission, a look at the EasyBib add-on for Google Docs.

What price serendipity?

I performed a Google search for [eastbib app google docs] and got hits, despite the typo.

Hit #1 was for a training video, a YouTube video embedded in a high school news page: EasyBib – create a bibliography in Google Docs.   The original YouTube video carries the title How to Create a Works Cited with Google Docs.

The Gooru (who posted the original video) offers us an essay “To Kill a Mockingbird – Sample Research Paper,”  and shows us just how easy it is to add references to make a list of Works Cited.  Once you have opened the add-on in Google Docs in the right-hand column, you simply select your type of source, Book, Journal article or Web site, select a suggestion from the list (offered by Google), and add it to your list of Works Cited.

Research is as easy as that!

It would have been useful had The Gooru pointed to sources cited in the text and demonstrated how to give a full reference for these particular sources, rather than use a random choice of sources. That might have been useful, helpful, instructional and informative. But that might have taken a little more effort.  EasyBib research seems to be all about making research easy (and who cares about accuracy?).

[Just as a small aside, a Google search for [“As a Southern Gothic novel and a bildungsroman, the primary themes”] – the start of the third paragraph of this “Sample Research Paper” – comes up with 87 hits, including hit #1, the Wikipedia entry for To Kill a Mockingbird.  The whole sample paper is a copy of the Wikipedia article, sans references.]

This video clip is not produced by EasyBib, but it does demonstrate one instance of how the add-on is used and demonstrated in real life.  I clicked on two more video-clips suggested on the YouTube page, again neither produced by EasyBib, but again just as disturbing.

The two clips were Easy Bib Add-on in Google Docs posted by Joelle Walsh
and
Google Docs: Research Tool & Easy Bib Add-on posted by Melissa Hero.

Both demonstrate how to add the app to your collection of add-ons. Both point out how easy it is; both point to the request for permissions to access user accounts and files, and the narrators say “You can click on ‘Accept’ this is okay because its not sharing any personal information” and “You’re going to want to accept that…” respectively. There is no suggestion that it might be an idea to read just what permissions are being requested. No suggestion that it might be okay in this particular case, but other apps may be malicious, or might want to get to places you would rather they did not go or cannot see why they need that data.  No, just accept.

[

Google gets enough of my habits and interests, without my knowingly giving it permission to access my hard drive. And “Connect to an outside service”?  Which outside service?  Why, what for?  I’m not going to rush to add this add-on, not without knowing more, not without it being worthwhile. For the moment, I am sticking to the video-clips.]

 

Both narrators then seem to suggest that the way to conduct research, or even a literature review, is to take the sources which Google suggests sources and add them – unread – to your bibliography. Bop! Easy as that!

We’re not finished.

The first of these video clips (Joelle Walsh) demonstrates how to add a MLA7 reference to the Works Cited list:

“Adams 12 Five Star Schools.”  Adams 12 Five Star Schools.
     Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.adams12.org/>.

The web page may or may not have a date – I haven’t bothered to check – but the reference fails to indicate either. If there is no date, then the citation should read:

“Adams 12 Five Star Schools.”  Adams 12 Five Star Schools.
     n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.adams12.org/>.

No date? No problem, says EasyBib – ignore it!  And presumably anything else that is missing.

The second video clip (Melissa Hero) is even more problematic.  First, Melissa shows us, in a completely empty document, how to cite a source by inserting a footnote: “If I go down to the bottom of the screen, it’s cited properly for me, as a footnote,” she says, demonstrating:

1 (2003). Genetically modified organism. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved March 12, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetically_modified_organism

It’s a curious citation. I don’t know of any citation style which starts the reference with a parenthetical date. The placement of the date and the use of “Retrieved … from…” suggests this is an APA style citation, but APA does not use footnotes. Even more curiously, where did that “(2003)” come from.  Surely this article was found, last updated, in 2014?   EasyBib is just full of mysteries.

Even more mysterious in this same document hypothetically demonstrating research for a hypothetical essay on genetically modified food is the list of References:

Newsela | Florida mom sues Pepperidge Farm over “natural” in its Goldfish label.
(n.d.). Retrieved March 11, 2014, from http://newsela.com/articles/goldfish-suit/id/791/

Robbins, J. (2011, August 01). Can GMOs Help End World Hunger?  Retrieved March
11, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-robbins/gmo-food_b_914968.html

It’s that Upper Case – lower case issue again.  Here, EasyBib gives us both. There’s consistency for you.  There is no mention of Huffington Post in the second reference, other than in the URL.  But then, there is no mention of Newsela in the first reference.  No mention of the date, even though it is clearly there.  And it would probably be overkill to suggest that, although Newsela staff adapted the article, it originated with Sun Sentinel.  Nor is it too hard to find the original Sun Sentinel piece, Lake Worth mom sues over Goldfish ‘natural’ label, dated August 3, 2013, and with a named author, Nicole Brochu.

“A wonderful tool… So much easier…” gushes Melissa in the video.  Sure.  Research? There’s nothing to it, EasyBib style – and special thanks to EasyBib’s slap-‘appy Google Docs add-on…

Closing thought/s

I have not been cherry-picking, deliberately trying to find bad points. I found these, genuinely, and without trying.   Much comes from EasyBib’s own web pages, and in material published by those who applaud the software and wish to spread the word.

There is only one word I want to spread with regard to EasyBib (and it is unprintable).

 

[My apologies to regular readers. I closed my last post Not just honesty with a promise to continue my train of thought. I got derailed, following on on this particular line of inquiry. I’ll get back to the theme of citation helping the reader.]

7 thoughts on “Not so easy does it

  1. Thanks for your post.

    We at EasyBib always appreciate feedback as an opportunity to improve our products. One thing that we are always aware of is the quality of the data used to create citations on our site. We rely on 3rd parties for much of our citation data, like the OCLC or the websites themselves. While we quite often get wonderful data from these resources, it’s not always 100% accurate, and, very unfortunately, we have no control over that.

    We agree with you that students shouldn’t mindlessly use our automatic citation when putting together research papers, which is why many of our tools do include prompts to help them understand where data may be missing or can be improved.

    We would never want to give students the impression that research should be easy. We do, however, think that the citation process can be simplified to give students to have more time to focus on finding quality resources, organizing information, and structuring and writing their papers. Our intention is to support students throughout these processes, and not make it too “easy” for them.

    We would love the opportunity to chat with you about any other feedback you may have on how we can improve your product. Your input would mean a lot.

    Best Wishes,

    Emily Gover and Caity Selleck

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  3. I had been under the impression I was the only one dubious about EasyBib, and frustrated with the inaccuracies. It’s a relief to find I’m not.

  4. Since i’ve read “Animal Farm”, i liked the scentence”all are equal but some sre more equal”.We can see how it haenpped.It’s still up to date.That’s why i like George Orwell.Gyidaw

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