Not such a wise OWL

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It came as a bit of a shock, a press release declaring The Purdue University Online Writing Lab and Chegg Partner to Make World-Class Writing Education Tools More Accessible.

Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, often referred to as “the OWL at Purdue.” is a much-respected service, providing advice on academic writing in all its aspects, most especially for its comprehensive guidance on the formatting of MLA, APA and Chicago references. .  For many, it is the number-one go-to guide.

I have to admit, the OWL at Purdue is not my number-one source.  For my own referencing queries, I go directly to the official publications,  the MLA Handbook, the APA Publication Manual or Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations, a version of the 1144-page Chicago Manual of Style adapted for use in colleges and schools.  If I cannot easily find what I am looking for, I will try the official Q&A sites: Ask the MLA at the MLA Style Center, the APA Style Blog and the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A are great supplements to the guides themselves. I also use Noodletools.

But there are those and they are many who prefer and recommend the OWL at Purdue.  Fine.

There are of course, also those who prefer technological solutions such as EasyBib, BibMe, Cite This For Me, Citation Machine, CiteFast, WorksCited4U and Noodletools (and there are many many more) over the published manuals, but there we go.

Note, I hesitate whether to include Noodletools in this list because it is in a class of its own.  Among other considerations,

  1. the designers of Noodletools go to great pains to ensure that the advice they give and the references generated are accurate and up-to-date,
  2. Noodletools offers far more than just a reference generator (including note-cards,  organising tools and collaboration opportunities),
  3. its pop-up help and advice messages really are helpful, promoting accuracy,  consistency and completeness, and
  4. it is a superb learning tool throughout: students get to know what they are doing, will learn to be independent, will learn the elements which make up a reference and more readily see the patterns, and will be able to stand on their own feet even when asked to use a referencing style other than the Big Three.

[Disclosure of possible bias: I have worked with Debbie Abilock, the founder of Noodletools, on a number of occasions. I hold Noodletools in the highest regard, not out of friendship or collegiality, but out of firm conviction that it really is the best of its type.]

These considerations are not necessarily true of other online reference generators.  Most generators (including Noodletools) offer a selection of forms one must choose according to the type of source (book, magazine, newspaper, online newspaper, web page etc etc); then you manually complete the form with the information available in the source being referenced: author/s, title of source, date of publication, other publishing details, URL and so on.  The software algorithm then produces a reference in the chosen style.

One issue is that, in many reference generators,  the forms are not necessarily accurate. They may, for instance, miss asking for elements which really should be included (or request details which are not needed).  Another is that help, advice or tips are often sparse (and may even be inaccurate), leaving users to guess at (for instance) capitalization and punctuation or dates and other elements required.  There is often inconsistency between the results generated by different reference generators.  Worryingly, there are often internal inconsistencies thrown up by individual reference generators.

(This is where Noodletools scores. As noted, the designers go to great lengths to ensure accuracy in terms of information to be entered for each type of source, to assist the user in entering the information correctly, and in ensuring the software accurately generates the references based on information input. I am not so sure about other referencing generators.

(This too is where the OWL at Purdue scores. As well as its templates for referencing in the various styles, it offers videos. tutorials and other resources to help students learn what is needed and why it is needed. The OWL is about writing, not about getting the formatting right.)

Many online reference generators offer the opportunity to auto-cite sources:  just enter a URL or ISBN or title and the auto-cite feature will come up with one or more suggestions, and generate a reference in the requested style.  Auto-citation is notoriously inaccurate.  Much depends on the accuracy of the metadata of the requested source – often incomplete or given the wrong label or entered in the wrong data field – and then on the ability of the user to determine if elements are missing or in the wrong place in the generated reference, if the punctuation is correct and so on.

If the user is reliant on reference generators and has not learned what a correctly-formatted reference (in the chosen system) looks like or should include, then there is no way the user will know if the generated reference is wrong or has missing elements.  Knowing what a correct reference looks like is of course not essential if one has a good template or examples to hand to check the accuracy of the generated reference. This is where the appropriate referencing manual/ style guide or the OWL at Purdue or any other example sheet is helpful.

Auto-citation is not necessarily a problem in itself.  Too often, however, users use auto-citation tools and trust implicitly in their output. They do NOT check for accuracy or completeness.  They want ease and speed. Checking for accuracy slows them down so mistakes are unnoticed, are accepted.

None of this is new.  I have critiqued and criticized reference generators and especially auto-citation several times in previous posts, including A gift that kept on giving…, Not so easy does it, Getting it wrong…, and Double-dipping.

In one of these posts,  By any other brand-name, not so sweet? I expressed dismay at the Chegg company’s take-over of many reference generators.

Chegg makes me feel uneasy. It advertises “24/7 homework help,” online tutors and other study help and solutions manuals (solutions to problems posed in textbooks).

The Chegg stable also houses several reference generators, although only EasyBib is mentioned on its website.

The help offered and the use made of the service may be dubious, as evidenced by comments made in the Chegg Homework group on Twitter or the complaints made on – many other review sites are available.  Apart from those hosted by Chegg, they do tend to be unfavorable.

What’s more, a recent trend is for reference generators to offer more than reference generation – including proofreading (spelling and grammar checks) and text-matching services (sometimes but erroneously called ” plagiarism detection”).

Anyone who has qualms about uploading work to Chegg should be wary (we all should be wary).  Note, for instance, a note of reassurance on Citation Machine’s so-called smart proofreader:

Don’t worry, your writing won’t be searchable publicly.

Maybe your writing won’t be “searchable publicly,” but you are still giving it away.  Chegg’s Terms of Use (covering all its products) should give pause:

User Content and Activities

When you submit, post, upload, embed, display, communicate, link to, email or otherwise distribute or publish any review, problem, suggestion, idea, solution, question, answer, class notes, course outline bibliographic and citation information comment, testimonial, feedback, message, image, video, text, profile data or other material (“User Content“) to Chegg, any Chegg employee or contractor, or a Chegg Website, you grant Chegg and our affiliates, licensees, distributors, agents, representatives and other entities or individuals authorized by Chegg, a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, unlimited, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully sublicensable (through multiple tiers) and fully transferable right to exercise any and all copyright, trademark, publicity, and database rights you have in the content, in any media known now or in the future, and to make, use, reproduce, copy, display, publish, exhibit, distribute, modify, sell, offer for sale, create derivative works based upon and otherwise use the User Content.

Note that we may create, facilitate or display social advertisements, whereby your name, profile and photo may be used to advertise products and services to your network based on your use of the Services and your interactions with Chegg. You agree that Chegg may use your name and profile picture in connection with social ads to advertise products and services to your network based on your use of the Services and your interactions with Chegg and third parties through the Services.

You could be giving Chegg the right to use your work in any way they wish.  By uploading, you are giving away your essays. By using the site, you are giving Chegg the right to use your personal data in any way they wish, including “your name, profile and photo.” Is this wise?

A note in a later section of the Terms of Use sounds remarkably close to disclaimer statements made by many companies which sell pre-written and custom-written essays:

Homework Help, Study Guide and Note Usage

Chegg’s homework help, study and note services are available merely as informational and study aids and should not be considered substitutes for applicable coursework, homework, class and lecture requirements, assignments and related materials. In using the Services, you specifically agree not to use, claim or submit as your own any portion of the help materials. Chegg does not guarantee the accuracy or quality of answers or other study material that appear on the Services, some of which may be posted by other users. You further agree the Services may present information that is incorrect or inconsistent when compared to similar content and materials, including solutions and their methodologies, provided or preferred by publishers of applicable problems or instructors of applicable courses.

I really do have strong reservations about Chegg and its various off-shoots.

So I am saddened by the news that the OWL at Purdue is teaming up with Chegg. The OWL looks set to tarnish its independence and its reputation.

I find several aspects of this partnership disturbing.

That press release The Purdue University Online Writing Lab and Chegg Partner to Make World-Class Writing Education Tools More Accessible includes the declaration:

Chegg’s writing tools will now integrate OWL’s rules and standards in order to teach students to become better writers. Students will upload their documents and receive AI-enabled instant feedback on grammar, spelling, and how to write more effectively as well as access resources from the OWL on any aspect of writing and at any stage of its development. In this dynamic learning experience, students will receive immediate feedback, with deep context and rich examples.

Users of the now defunct RefMe reference generator know only too well that when Chegg bought out RefMe and merged it with CiteThisForMe, it did not raise the quality of CiteThisForMe.  It did horrify those who had used RefMe; quality suffered. Change is not always for the better.  Look out, OWL!

Again disturbingly, an article on the partnership in Inside Higher Education The Wrong Partnership? carried statements attributed to Harry Denny, director of OWL, including this one:

OWL will advise Chegg on writing instruction and help to develop the company’s AI-powered writing improvement tools. Chegg will license OWL’s writing tips and place advertising on its website, helping OWL to monetize its free content. Purdue students will also be given the opportunity to apply for paid internships at Chegg, said Denny. OWL anticipates a six-figure revenue from the partnership, he said.

All kinds of alarm signals are sounding, “helping OWL to monetize its free content” for one. On the internet, too often we pay for free content with our data and our privacy.   There is certainly money and more to be made from our data – just look at Facebook.

It could well be a win-win situation for Chegg, for OWL users are invited to use Chegg services:  OWL is now promoting (at least) one particular Chegg product, Citation Machine.

Above: the OWL at Purdue as on 2 February 2019 (courtesy the Internet Archive).
Below: the OWL at Purdue as on 3 March 2019 (courtesy the Internet Archive).

Is Citation Machine worth trying? It seems prone to the same mistakes as other trials I have made with my go-to citation requests – but it does make those mistakes faster.  Is that a plus?  (That’s a rhetorical question – don’t even try to answer that.). Here are the suggestions for one of my favorite try-this auto-cites, in MLA, APA and Chicago and respectively.

The article, published in The Journal for Historical Review (Vol. 6, No. 1) in Spring 1986, pages 9 ff. and posted on the Institute for Historical Review web-site is by John Bennett; it carries the title “Orwell’s 1984: Was Orwell Right?”  All this is there, on the web page, but not there in the web page metadata or, if included, included in the wrong fields and with the wrong punctuation.  And while there may be some logical reason as to why INSTITUTE FOR HISTORICAL REVIEW is all caps in all three references, there seems no logic as to why the APA algorithm failed to find the title of the article;  the MLA and Chicago algorithms did find the article title, even if they generate it as the title of the journal, thus the Italics.

There is a limit to patience and misery.  I have to admit I did not try generating other references. One bad experience is enough; experience says these tools don’t get any better.

What I did do though was to take up the invitation to Check a paper for grammatical errors.  I have a standard paper, an “essay” I compiled some years ago to see what Turnitin would make of it.   I use the term “compiled” with care, since the “essay” was 100% copy-pasted from 15 different online sources. (Turnitin didn’t make a lot of it, finding just one match in the entire 1200 word “paper.”)

I tried uploading this bogus paper into Citation Machine’s Proofreader.

Alas, Citation Machine’s Proofreader baulked; the paper would not upload, the “We’re uploading your paper…” message and the spinning wheel just went on and on.

I had better experience with another Chegg product, EasyBib’s Grammar and spelling checker.  The interface is almost the same as Citation Machine’s (but we won’t dwell on that).  This time my essay did upload so the experience was better, to a point.

A pointless point.

While some of the suggestions may well have been valid, many more were questionable.  I was particularly tickled by this piece of advice:  I was advised that

He gained a degree in construction engineering in London and soon devoted himself to literature

would read better if I replaced “degree” with terms such as “much,” “some,” “much of” or “somewhat.” Errm…

With some trepidation I tried signing up to the plagiarism check. Both Citation Machine and EasyBib offer a free 3-day trial and, as I was in EasyBib, it was EasyBib’s trial plagiarism check that I decided to try.  You have to give credit card details and $9.95 payment is then deducted monthly if not cancelled within the trial period.  Would I be able to cancel? – that was my worry.

That trepidation was not necessary –  I could not complete my registration.  As well as credit card details, the form demands a Zip Code and did not accept a UK post code – and I had changed country of residence to United Kingdom.  So I have no idea if EasyBib’s text-match/plagiarism-detection is any more accurate than Turnitin’s.

The whole notion of automated reference generation, grammar & spelling checking and text-matching makes me feel uneasy.

And as I was writing this post, Nature  published an article by German plagiarism guru Debora Weber-Wulff, Plagiarism detectors are a crutch, and a problem. That term “crutch” is so to the point.  Turnitin and similar services negate learning, they give out misleading messages, they provide poor advice.   Weber-Wulff is most concerned that users of Turnitin (etc)  rely too heavily on the face-value of the output and the reports. They do not investigate or think any more deeply, they do not read more deeply, they stop thinking.

Weber-Wulff’s article focuses on the misuse (through misunderstanding and misinterpretation) of Turnitin by editors and professors, but she does make passing reference to students’ use and misuse of Turnitin too.  Students, often without training and guidance in the interpretation of Turnitin reports and unaware of its shortcomings (including the false positives it finds and the false negatives it does not find), come to see the purpose of academic writing as “Beat Turnitin.”

Those low-level reference generators too negate thinking and learning; their output is taken as gospel.  Users become over-reliant on them – like crutches. They replace learning, users do not bother to exercise so cannot process or progress on their own, without those supports, those crutches.

Learning takes time and effort and concentration, exercise takes time and effort and concentration, practice takes time and effort concentration. And eventually the user can dispense with those crutches.  We can then perhaps begin to think of using the more advanced reference management tools such as EndNote and BibTeX, us using technology, not technology using us.

All in all, it makes me feel uneasy that the respected OWL at Purdue has teamed up with the unsavoury Chegg stable.  However independent the OWL remains, it is tainted by association. User beware.

Finding my voice

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A few years ago, I wrote (in Somewhere, over the spectrum …) of an AHA! moment, a realisation that understanding of academic citation practices may best be imaged, not just by a straight-line continuum from black to white with shades of grey between, but by a spectrum, all shades of the rainbow and anywhere in between.

It was Teddi Fishman, then director of the International Center for Academic Integrity, who gave me this insight.  In a plagiarism case in which she was asked for her opinion, had a published piece of work had been plagiarised, Fishman said

With regard to citation errors and plagiarism, there is a wide spectrum and certainly not all are created equal. The main defining characteristic in cases that we’d classify as citation errors is that there is an attempt to identify the source of the information rather than to make it appear as if the words or ideas are those of the person using them in the document.

(The full article from which this quotation is taken is no longer available on the Cambridge Chronicle site.  Fortunately, it can still be found in the Internet Archive;  the quotation of Fishman’s response as reported by journalist Sara Feijo is on page 3 of this article.)

Fig. 1 – Black and white and shades of grey

In the continuum imagery, the white end comprises writers who know the rules, know what is right, what is expected, what is needed – and do them!  Ideally they will observe the conventions of citation and referrencing because they have integrity, they wouldn’t – couldn’t – do otherwise.

At the black end we have the writers who know the rules, who know what is right, what is expected, what is needed – and they knowingly break the rules! They copy, they paraphrase without acknowledgement, they use other people’s work and claim it as their own, they use their own work over and over and claim each time that it is new…  they know it is wrong but they do it, presumably hoping to get away with it.

But it’s those in-between areas, the grey areas, the shades and the tints, the hues and the nuances and the shifting light, which are so tricky – and this is why the notion of “spectrum” is illuminating. It’s not a straight continuum. It is multi-dimensional.

Fig. 2 – colour wheel/ spectrum

Those in-between areas include:

  • writers who do not know the rules
  • writers who know the rules but (wrongly) think they do not apply in this particular case
  • writers who know the rules and think they are doing everything required, including students who have been misled as to what the expectations are
  • writers who know the rules, but are confused, because sometimes what they do seems to be accepted, but sometimes it is not.

There are other shades and grades of confusion in between too. For instance,

  • just think “common knowledge” and the minefields in wait there, what is common knowledge to you might not be common knowledge to me – and vice versa;
  • just think of the different conventions for acknowledgement in popular non-fiction, where there may be no indication of attribution in the text even if there are pages of endnotes which provide full acknowledgement (or not);
  • or student textbooks, which too often provide information unsupported by anything other than a “For Further Reading” list;
  • or writers whose paraphrases are too close to the original?
  • or writers who have misread or misunderstood an original source and so misrepresent them?
  • and writers who conflate several different sources in one paragraph, to the extent that one cannot tell who contributed what, nor even what is the writer’s own?

Outright plagiarism, citation errors, careless or unhelpful writing and scholarship, and somewhere in the spectrum, good practice.

Extent, intent, non-intent, accident.

It’s a multi-dimensional understanding, far more nuanced than a simple black-grey-white continuum suggests.

We tell them – but do they understand?

Jonathan Bailey tells a cautionary tale. In a blog post on Plagiarism Today, How Schools Are Hurting the Fight Against Plagiarism, he relates an occasion when, while a student at college, his instructor had entered the room and told the class that someone had plagiarised in their last assignment – and she wanted the culprit to own up.  Bailey continues:

The students, all 30 of us, wondered who it was but were more worried that it was us. Many of us began to talk openly about that fear saying things like “I didn’t plagiarize but… I hope it wasn’t me.”

They had not plagiarised – they had not intended to plagiarise – but so uncertain were they about what plagiarism is that they could not be sure that they had not fallen foul of the sometimes-arcane rules.

There is much evidence, anecdotal and research-based, which demonstrates that students (and instructors) often think they know but don’t.  As instance, Kate Chanock and Kim Shahubudian, who in separate studies point to university students who may think they know the rules and so may turn off when they hear yet another lecture on academic honesty or Phil Newton, whose study talks of “misplaced confidence” that they know the rules.

Do we ourselves understand the “rules”?  In my workshops, Jude Carroll’s “Where do you draw the line?” exercise (which I discuss more fully in Somewhere, over the spectrum…) consistently shows disagreement among workshop participants as to what constitutes plagiarism – so what chance do students have?  And there’s Doug Brent‘s study which suggests that

learning to write from sources, like learning any of the practices of the academy, is at least a four-year process of gradual acculturation, a process that continues through graduate school if a student takes that direction, and arguably can continue over the span of an entire career (p. 336)

Chanock’s review of the literature includes half-a-dozen papers whose authors report that university entrants often include other people’s work, including direct quotations and paraphrases, without attribution in the text  (or quotation marks if quotation indicators were needed) but happily include the materials in the reference list.  Those writers conclude that these students are not happily pointing the way for plagiarism detectors; they are just doing what they were told to do at school, include a list of sources at the end of the paper – and nothing more is needed. (And that’s what I learned at school too, just the list at the end.)

Plagiarism is not black and white.

The wrong end of the stick – beating Turnitin

Nor is “plagiarism avoidance.” I have long held that it is not enough to teach students how to cite and reference without helping them understand WHY we cite and reference – and the WHY is NOT simply about avoiding plagiarism.  Avoiding plagiarism might be a small part of the WHYs, but it is a very small part.  Of far greater importance is establishing our credibility as writers who know something about the topic, and helping our readers in many different ways (more details, if you need them, in Lighten the load).  Without the WHYs, our lessons are empty and citation and referencing is seen by many as a hoop through which students must jump if they are to succeed – and if they fail, they are guilty of plagiarism.

Plagiarism.  The fear of committing it when it is not understood can lead students to use other people’s work excessively, albeit as properly-attributed quotations, using those quotations to say what they want to say rather than as support for their own ideas. They are frightened to have or express their own ideas –  their voice is not heard when they simply report what others have said (Neville, Elander, Pittam (et al) and other studies on authorial identity).  This is the opposite to Newton’s notion of “misplaced confidence” – but it is just as problematic.

And we make students even more defensive in our use of Turnitin and other text-matching services to catch them out and make them even more fearful.

John Schrock‘s story is telling. He relates how a Chinese student once approached him and asked, ‘“Can you help me plagiarize my thesis?”’  He thought this strange request was because her English was, perhaps, not perfect. He checked his understanding:

“You want me to help you a-v-o-i-d plagiarism, right?” I emphasized.
“No,” she repeated back to me, in slow English so I would clearly understand. “I need help plagiarizing my paper” …
“Tell me what plagiarism means to you,” I directed.
“I need to change enough words so it won’t be detected by the computer.”

What this student had learned about academic writing was that the aim is to parrot back the ideas of others but in her own words; the goal is to avoid getting “caught” by Turnitin.

It is not uncommon, this (mis-) understanding, and it is not confined to international students.  It’s a problem when students do not or have yet to appreciate that academic writing is not about telling us what is already known and what others have already said,. It’s about presenting one’s own thoughts, reacting to or supported by what is already known (or what we think we know).

This is a foreign idea for many “international students,”  especially those from countries in which rote-learning is the norm; in such cultures,  students learn to memorise and regurgitate the words of their teachers, and this earns them approval and high marks. They are not expected to think for themselves nor expected to question what they are taught. They learn that they cannot think for themselves until they know much more than they do now.

This too is illustrated in Schrock’s article:

To avoid plagiarism, some believe that all you have to do is change enough words so there are never seven or more in a row that match other work.
“Why not put quotes around all the sentences that are from other people, and then put their names in parentheses at the end of the sentence?” I asked.
“Oh, I know all about that,” she said. “My whole thesis will be in quotes.”
“Didn’t you add some ideas yourself?” (I really wanted to help.)
“No. We are just students. How can we come up with new ideas? Those people get Nobel Prizes. Everything in here I got from the books and articles I read.”

So it is that the student is unheard. The aim of the game, for many, is not about reading, reacting, thinking, learning, writing, growing – it’s all about beating Turnitin.

Finding your voice

It is always fraught, writing about cultures other than one’s own; it may not be politically correct.  So I am delighted to be pointed to Bygrave and Aṣık’s “Global perspectives on academic integrity” (thank you, D.A.). This paper is chapter 1 of a very new book (publication date: 2019) and available I think in full in Google Books: Strategies for fostering inclusive classrooms in higher education.

The paper relates attempts over a number of years to change attitudes towards and awarenesses of international students with regard to the development and understanding of writing and of academic integrity at one North American University campus.  Changes in approach were made each semester – mirroring strategies commonly used in schools and universities around the world – and their effects were monitored and recorded. This is a long-term action-research study.

The chapter opens with a discussion of international students and the cultural challenges they may face understanding the nature of academic writing and academic honesty as an aspect of writing.

The strategies used in succeeding semesters were

  1. advising students of the Academic Integrity Policy and making them aware of the consequences if breach of the policy was discovered;
  2. advising students of the AI policy, submitting work to SafeAssign (text-matching software) with the requirement that they redraft work with 30% or more matched text;
  3. requiring all students to participate in workshops which taught how to cite and reference;
  4. when advising students of the AIP, instructors discussed academic honesty and respect for authors’ work; a writing center was introduced in which students could seek advice;
  5. introducing a writing course for students whose English was below university level designed to inculcate values and an understanding of writing, with special consideration of authorial voice;
  6. extending the writing course to all students regardless of their English proficiency scores.

The first three of these are described as “consequence-based” with an emphasis on detection and punishment, aiming to decrease negative behaviour.  The second set of three are “virtue-based” with an emphasis on providing understand and encouraging positive behaviour.

The authors report that steps 2 and 3 appeared to be counter-productive, the rate of plagiarism and other academic misconduct actually rose. Instead of practicing academic techniques, students relied on the software and the opportunity to rewrite to pass muster. Some students are reported to have been surprised that they were still guilty of plagiarism, despite clean reports from SafeAssign.  Others were found to have used Spinbot and other text rewriting applications, often submitting nonsense. (Students whose English is poor may not recognise when others, including applications, use poor English.) These students were not learning to write, they were learning to beat the text-matching software.

The positive approaches of the later set of strategies, understanding authorship and getting students to realise that they are authors in their own right, were far more successful. As I said earlier, when students understand the WHYs, they better understand HOW citing and referencing and the other conventions of academic writing support their own writing.  They do have something to say in their own right – and they appreciate the opportunity to say it. They value the contributions of others and are better able to use them in their own work.

One last thought: to promote the notion of authorial voice and help students appreciate that what they say does add to the conversation: students in this study were encouraged to write in the first person. This device immediately makes the work personal, encourages their own thoughts, helps them understand how writing works.

Wow!  It’s another AHA! moment, and something I intend to explore further. Watch this space!


(Poor as they are, the two graphics are my own, created using Keynote.)

Bailey, J. (2010, May 10). How Schools Are Hurting the Fight Against Plagiarism. Plagiarism Today. Retrieved from

Brent, D. (2017). Senior Students’ Perceptions of Entering a Research Community.  Written Communication, 34(3) 333–355. Retrieved from’%20Perceptions%20published%20version.pdf

Bygrave, C., & Aṣık, Ö. (2019). Global perspectives on academic integrity. In J. Hoffman, P. Blessinger & M. Makhanya (eds.). Strategies for fostering inclusive classrooms in higher education : International perspectives on equity and inclusion. Emerald, 19-33.  doi:10.1108/S2055-364120190000016003

Chanock, K. (2008). When students reference plagiarised material – what can we learn (and what can we do) about their understanding of attribution? International Journal of Academic Integrity, 4 (1), 3-16. Retrieved from

Elander, J. (2015, May). In search of an authorial identity. The Psychologist, 28, 384-387. Retrieved from

Feijo, S. (2015, May 20). Top Cambridge school administrator under fire for miscitation. Cambridge Chronicle and Tab (3). Retrieved from

Newton, P.M. (2015, March). Academic integrity: A quantitative study of confidence and understanding in students at the start of their higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 1-16.  Retrieved from

Pittam, G., Elander, J., Lusher, J., Fox, P., & Payne, N. (2009). Student beliefs and attitudes about authorial identity in academic writing. Studies in Higher Education, 34 (2), 153-170. doi:10.1080/03075070802528270

Schrock, J. R. (2014, June 18). Odd request from student: Help me plagiarize! Hays Post. Retrieved from

Shahabudin, K. (2009). Reaping the fruits of collaboration: Learning development research in the LearnHigher CETL network. Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, 1. Retrieved from

Rewrite Redraft Rework Revise Reword Rephrase … Refrain

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My GoogleAlert has just presented me with an anonymous article (“By Guest Contributor”) posted on TechGenYZ, a media company which started just over three years ago (according to its About Us page). They claim,

Our core values are Integrity, Innovation, Quality, Honesty and Excellence.

Perhaps they need to apply these values to their guest contributors.

The article I was directed to carries the title Get unique content with the help of article rewriterIt is a review, of sorts, promoting use of Article Rewriter. This is an application developed by SmallSEOTools. As the name suggests, it rewrites text: it is a paraphrasing tool, a synonymizer.  The anonymous guest contributor claims that Article Rewriter will take text and rewrite it so that the content is totally original and plagiarism-free.  It is recommended for Continue reading

Transferable skills

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If you were hoping for more thoughts on footnotes and endnotes this week, my apologies. The thoughts I had in mind are still to come.  This post is still about footnotes, but not quite what I thought I’d be saying.

The IB has begun posting the May 2018 DP subject reports in the Programme Resource Centre and I have spent some time this past week looking through them.

This is not something I do as a matter of course. I do look at the Extended Essay reports for all subjects – and eagerly await publication, they must surely be posted any day now. But I don’t follow the subject reports that carefully.

My look at the subject reports was impelled by a comment made in a workshop I led last week – a history teacher insistent that the subject guide for History says that students are required to use footnotes.  I was sure that the subject guide says no such thing; IB allows the use of any documentation system as long as Continue reading

Cite check

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I’ve just finished an online workshop for librarians. Good fun as usual and very worthwhile. The participants made really great strides over the four weeks and they knew it, they had so much new awareness by the end of the month.  it was very encouraging.

Many went beyond the bounds of the workshop readings to find information and opinion elsewhere, the spirit of inquiry was strong.  Many quoted from the articles they found – great!  Quite a few copied graphics and images from articles and other materials found – and most did not need to be reminded to cite the sources of those graphics as well as of the text.

But … perhaps because there were larger numbers of newcomers to librarianship on the course than usual, there seemed to be a rash of participants who would simply cite their images as “Google” or “Google Images” or present the Google image search URL.

That’s not helpful and it’s not right either. I would send a personal message Continue reading


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On 19 April 2016, Kendra Perkins wrote an article for the RefME blog with the title The CRAAP Test: An Easy & Fun Way to Evaluate Research Sources. RefME was taken over by Chegg and subsumed into the Cite This For Me service in 2017 and her original post is no longer available. Fortunately, you can still find the original post, preserved by the Wayback Machine (the Internet Archive).

Kendra had long been a fan of RefME and frequently recommended it in librarian listservs and forums such as iSkoodle. Towards the end of her RefME blog, she declared that she had compiled her list of References using the RefME referencing generator.

A year later, May 2017, Kendra posted an article in her own blog, The Inspired Librarian, a piece with the title Cite This for Me Changed my RefME Blog Post. Here she relates how her RefME post had been reposted on the Cite This For Me site. Her article now read: Continue reading

Guilty by association

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A month or so ago, an incident at Ohio State University made headlines. One or more students had posted information on business course assignments in a GroupMe study group.  The type of information shared violated the University’s code of student conduct.  As a consequence, more than 80 students – all members of the GroupMe group – were charged with cheating.

GroupMe is a free group messaging app, widely used to send messages and documents simultaneously to all members of a group. Members of educational GroupMe groups often use it to share dates due and study tips and readings. When collaboration is permitted, this kind of app can be a great boon in assisting collaborative work. In this particular case, however, some users had overstepped the mark and had posted suggested answers to homework assignments. Legitimate collaboration had become illegitimate collusion.

By and large, the headlines (of which this is just a small selection) seemed to get more dramatic Continue reading

APA mythtakes

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We don’t take note of non-coincidences, do we? It’s different when two similar events happen close to each other. Wow! we say, what are the chances of that happening twice in the same day? Coincidences stick in the mind, single events do not stick so readily. (This one stuck so solidly that it pushed me into blogging again.)

A recent EasyBib blog post was one half of such a coincidence. Michele Kirschenbaum’s blog post Video Lesson: In-Text Citations had upset me on two counts. Although published on 29 September 2017, my Google Alert did not pick it up until last week.

Count #1: the video gives the impression that in-text citations and parenthetical citations are one and the same

This impression is confirmed in the text of the blog where we read “We think this video, which provides an introduction to in-text, or parenthetical citations, is a great addition to your classroom resources.”

Me, I don’t think it such a great addition, not least because parenthetical citations are one kind of in-text citation, but not the only kind.

Other kinds are available, not least when the citation starts the sentence Continue reading

A gift that kept on giving…

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Regular readers will know my opinion of the (so-called) Harvard referencing, but in case you don’t, it is low. (If you don’t, then see, as instance, the three-part post which starts at Harvard on my mind 1.)

So there was some delight and much sinking feeling when my daily GoogleAlert for [plagiarism] today brought up the hit How to Reference Your Sources Using Harvard Referencing.

  The first line or so of the alerted post by someone signing in as techfeatured reads:

An article in the Sunday Times (Jones, 2006) claims that up to 10% of all degree level submissions commit some form of plagiarism – the act of …

It wasn’t just the mention of Harvard that set the alarm bells ringing and the red flags flying. It was the statistic itself, that 10%, and the ten-year old source. Surely there is more recent research, surely the rate is higher? What is meant by “degree level submissions”?

Today (as I start drafting this post) is Christmas Day Continue reading

Of honesty and integrity

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One of my favourite classroom and workshop activities is a “Do I need to cite this?” quiz. Those taking the test are presented with a number of situations and asked to choose between “Cite the source/s” and “No need to cite the source/s.” *

I like to do this using Survey Monkey – other polling applications will do just as well. It means that I can home in on any situation in which there is divided opinion, or which many respondents are getting wrong. There is no need to go through each situation one at a time if there are just two or three situations which need to be discussed.

Much of the time, the answers are clear: the situation is academic (a piece of work submitted for assessment) so should demand academic honesty, and most students and other participants get it right.

Some of the situations are less clear and lend themselves to discussion, considerations of common knowledge, learned expertise, copyright, credibility and reputation, honesty (as against academic honesty) and integrity.

One situation, for instance, presents Continue reading

Knowing how to write is not knowing how to write

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A month or two ago, but within the space of two weeks, three very different, very similar, situations:

Situation 1 : a student in a school in Asia wrote a comment on an earlier blog post, How Much Plagiarism?  asking for advice. She had misunderstood the instructions; she “forgot to include in-text citations” in the draft of her IB extended essay. All her citations were at the end of the essay. There was no intention to plagiarise.  Since this was a draft, the IB is not involved;  there was still the opportunity to put things right. But she was worried about her school’s reaction which could include note of her transgression on future university recommendations. Her question was, is this excessive?

Situation 2 : an inquiry on an OCC forum: it was the school’s deadline day for submitting final copies of extended essays.  One student, known for his dilatory habits, managed to submit his essay on time. Reading through before authenticating it, the supervisor realised that in the first half of the essay the student had included footnote references for each superscript number in the text. Then the student seemed to have run out of time or stamina, for in the second half of the essay the superscript numbers were there but with no footnoted references to support them. Would it be ethical Continue reading

A footnote on footnotes

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Just as a footnote to my last post, Yes and No – footnotes (in MLA8), there is now a post in the MLA’s Style Center which addresses this very question. I don’t think this page was there at the time I wrote my post, but I won’t swear to that.

The question asked was Are notes compatible with MLA style? – and the answer was much as I suggested: in the absence of specific guidance, follow the suggestions made in the previous edition, MLA7: you can use footnotes (or endnotes) to “offer the reader comment, explanation, or information that the text can’t accommodate,”  and you can make bibliographic footnotes in limited circumstances: “bibliographic notes are best used only when you need to cite several sources or make evaluative comments on your sources.” Footnotes are the exception, not the rule, not if you want to abide by strict MLA style.

[For the purpose of IB assessments, possibly other exam boards too, you should note that the first use is heavily discouraged: such footnotes MAY NOT be read but WILL count towards the word count.]


Readers might want to know that the latest edition, the MLA Handbook, 8th edition, is now available in Kindle format.


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 Continue reading

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 Continue reading

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 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

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

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