The memory hole gets deeper

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The news that the respected Forbes magazine published an opinion (op-ed) article by Panos Mourdoukoutas, Chair of the Department of Economics at Long Island University, with the title “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money” a few days ago is hardly news any more. It has been shared widely and commented on in the mainstream media and in social media too. It’s old news.

Mourdoukoutas’s argument is studded with dubious and irrelevant claims and arguments such as


(“Third places” like Starbucks) provide residents with a comfortable place to read, surf the web, meet their friends and associates, and enjoy a great drink. This is why some people have started using their loyalty card at Starbucks more than they use their library card…

Then there’s the rise of digital technology. Technology has turned physical books into collector’s items, effectively eliminating the need for library borrowing services…

Amazon Books is a chain of bookstores that does what Amazon originally intended to do; replace the local bookstore. It improves on the bookstore model by adding online searches and coffee shops. Amazon Go basically combines a library with a Starbucks…


The article concludes

At the core, Amazon has provided something better than a local library without the tax fees. This is why Amazon should replace local libraries. The move would save taxpayers money and enhance the stockholder value of Amazon all in one fell swoop.

Thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, responded in those various platforms, mostly – but not all – crying out against the views expressed; Amazon’s physical bookstores are not the same as a library, they are not a substitute for a library, libraries offer so much more than any physical bookstore, even Amazon’s.  The outcry was not just in Forbes’ comment column nor just on social media.  The world’s mainstream media took up the story too, few of the publications or those commenting on them showing any support for the notion. The UK Guardian newspaper headlined its report on the Forbes’ story “Twaddle.”

Not everyone commented adversely. There are many who feel that libraries – especially public (publicly funded) libraries – are an anachronism, no longer needed or used in the 21st century, that funds could be better spent elsewhere and/or that taxes can and should be reduced, that local community initiatives will suffice.

Dawn Finch, a past-President of CILIP, the UK’s professional association of librarians and information professionals, is reported in The Bookseller as describing Mourdoukoutas’s piece as “dripping with privilege.”   Coincidentally, just a few weeks before the Forbes article, Finch posted an article What is a library? in her blog A Medley of Extemporanea.   Hers is a passionate piece which answers the Forbes article before it was ever published, including evidence that the cost-benefit or return of investment from libraries is generally four or five times the amount invested in them – and perhaps even more (see the Arts Council England’s report: Evidence review of the economic contribution of libraries).   The pennies we might save in taxes would cost us big in so many other ways.

Forbes deleted the post from its website just a few days, possibly just a few hours, after posting – but this is not news either.  The deletion may have been reported even more widely than the original article – and is still being reported as I write.  A Quartz writer, Thu-Huong Ha, cites an unnamed spokesperson for Forbes as explaining:

Forbes advocates spirited dialogue on a range of topics, including those that often take a contrarian view,” a Forbes spokesperson says in a statement. “Libraries play an important role in our society. This article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise, and has since been removed.
Forbes deleted a deeply misinformed op-ed arguing Amazon should replace libraries

It is easy – and common – for posts to be removed from FaceBook,  Twitter, and other social media.  It seems to be the trend. No apology necessary, just do the damage and escape.

Forbes magazine is NOT social media. Deeply embarrassing for Forbes as Mourdoukoutas’s piece might be, its deletion raises questions.  The article existed, it was on the record. Copies of the article abound on other sites, screenshots of the top-screen abound and don’t go away.

Not so with the Forbes website.  Follow the links to find the original (it was posted at and you get a wry touch of humour, not really funny in this circumstance.

I can’t help thinking that, instead of claiming that “We can’t find the page you requested,” it would be far more honest of Forbes to admit that the page has been deleted – and preferably include a statement as to why it has been deleted.  Maybe something more convincing than the “article was outside of this contributor’s specific area of expertise” – or failing that, an explanation as to why the piece was commissioned in the first place, why the editor accepted it, and especially, why they think matters of public taxation are outside the expertise of a university professor of Economics?

Or perhaps – and maybe even better – an explanation that they are deeply embarrassed by the article and responses to it; they could even publish a responding op-ed?

After all, isn’t the point of an opinion piece that it is a matter of opinion, however slanted and minority that opinion might be?   Unless it is so outrageous that it cannot be published at all.  It was published. Forbes cannot do themselves any good blaming the professor for allegedly writing outside his area of expertise. How many newspaper and magazine articles published every day, written by people writing outside their areas of expertise?  If there is blame, it has to lie with the editor, has to lie with the magazine.

The memory hole

Just as serious a matter to my mind, the record appears to have been removed from the Internet Archive as well.  The IA’s Wayback Machine did manage a few snaps

– but then it started getting those 4-0-Forbes error messages, the page could not be found. Trouble is, the original snapshots have disappeared too. Almost. Click on the snapshot and briefly, very briefly, the page as captured appears – and then disappears. See for yourself.

Now it’s there:

and less than a second later, it’s gone:





Who “disappeared” these first captures? Did Internet Archive get a request from Forbes itself?  Is it possible to hack into the Internet Archive/Wayback Machine and to change the record? Here too disclosure would be good.

Fortunately, the Internet Archive is not the only cache machine available. Here is the Googlecache capture:The article existed. It was published. It is a matter of record, however much the publishers wish it wasn’t.

It is dangerous stuff, this playing with history, this change of the record…  It is another form of manipulation.  It’s far too common, and this is not the first time I have commented on the issue (see, for instance, The memory hole and Wrong to be forgotten?

But this was published in a week when an article in BBC News Vote Leave’s targeted Brexit ads released by Facebook  reported on how FaceBook was used to provide advertisements targeted to particular groups of people in the Brexit campaign before the referendum in June 2016. Many of the advertisements were distortions of the truth, some downright lies and fabrications.  Not everyone got to see the messages.  They were aimed at sympathetic individuals to reinforce beliefs, to play on fears and to cement prejudices. Truth did not matter, the advertisements played on feelings, and powerful they were.

[The interim Report on which the BBC’s article was evidently based, part of a Parliamentary investigation into the use and misuse of fake news, targeted advertising, misinformation and disinformation, is just published: Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report.]

One problem with targeted advertising, a real problem when the information carried is manifestly untrue, is that those with different views have no means of knowing what is being said, they cannot refute the claims.

There is nothing new here – the dangers have been known and discussed for years.

In 2014, Robert Epstein told us in USNews, How Google Could End Democracy : Research suggests that Google has the power to manipulate elections around the world and Jonathan Zittrain told us in the New Statesman that Facebook could decide an election without anyone ever finding out Only we are finding out.

In 2011, Eli Pariser’s book The filter bubble and his TED Talk Beware online filter bubbles made us aware of the dangers of group-think and manipulation and targeted information.  And before Pariser, warnings and signals aplenty.  Well before the internet, we were warned of the dangers of subliminal advertising and other subliminal techniques.

Just as it is difficult (= impossible) to argue against information (or misinformation or disinformation) of which you are unaware, it is difficult to argue against information which has disappeared.

The Forbes article has not completely disappeared; it has been too well spread.  It does make one wonder …

It’s a dilemma. We don’t want mistakes to be erased, just because they are mistakes. They are part of the record.  But at the same time, we don’t want misinformation and disinformation left available to infest and infect impressionable minds. And who is to say?

One part of me says we need “health warnings” – statements of retraction or objection on articles such as the Mourdoukoutas article; we need “disinformation warnings” on the fake news, the information posted with malicious intent, once it is discovered.

“Discovered”?  We tell our children to beware people who say, “Let’s keep this our secret.”  It’s a danger signal that something is wrong, that we don’t want others to find out. Perhaps it’s that targeted advertising we need to eradicate – making information available only to a certain people, certain sections of society.

The Parliamentary Committee may come up with recommendations on how to curb targeted misleading misinformation.  Maybe it is too late to stem the tide.

It behooves us not to take anything on trust, not unless we really can trust the source. In the meantime, keep digging, don’t stop thinking.

It takes time

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One of the basic tenets of this blog is that we do students a disservice when we give them the impression that the main purpose of citing and referencing is to “avoid plagiarism.”

The way I see it, “avoiding plagiarism” is at best a by-product of citation and referencing. It is a long way from being the main or the only reason for the practice. It makes for angst (“what if I get it wrong?”) and it leads to confusion. Because of the nit-picking demands of getting one’s references absolutely perfect, it can lead to boredom. It leads to taking short-cuts, to avoidance of using other people’s work in support of one’s own ideas and statements, to a loss of the writer’s own voice and ideas.

At the same time, as demonstrated by repeated uses of Jude Carroll’s Where do you draw the line? exercise, there are wide differences between what different teachers class as plagiarism. This serves further to confuse, as when a student who has had work long accepted finds her standard practice is suddenly condemned 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

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

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

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

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

Not just honesty

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I am loathe to accuse anyone of plagiarism, especially a fellow-professional, but sometimes it is a close call.

In the case of the two sites I am looking at in this post, it is a very close call. In one case, it’s not a call, it’s a shriek.

I have mentioned my alert before, my Google alert for the phrase “every written assignment they complete” (see Thirty percent).

My alert came up with two hits today. One was a Prezi with the title “Effective Research and Avoiding Plagiarism” and the other is a blog, “How to avoid plagiarism…“.   If my suspicions are correct, Continue reading


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Last night I sat through two webcasts promoted as part of Plagiarism Education Week, promoted and hosted by Turnitin. One of the two webcasts was, I thought, spot-on, encouraging, helpful. The other was … disappointing.

In Tweets from the French Revolution? Using What Students Know to Promote Original Work and Critical Thinking, one of the speakers described a research study he had conducted.  For the first part of the study, 20 adult English learners were given an assignment : write an essay on a historical event or figure. After they had written their essays, the adults were asked two questions: (1) had they found the assignment difficult? and (2) had the assignment helped develop their critical thinking skills?

Most declared they had found the assignment easy, and most said that it had not required critical thinking.  Meanwhile, a check revealed that every single student had plagiarized. Let’s make that Continue reading

A Matter of Definition

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In my last post, I admitted to uncertainty with regard to Jane Goodall’s unattributed use of other people’s words and thoughts: is it fair to call this plagiarism, when the faulty passages were discovered and corrections made before the book was actually published?

The situation is more complicated in that Goodall’s poor note-making and attribution practices were uncovered by a reviewer for a national newspaper, not by Goodall, not by her co-author, not by her publishers. It is the fact of pre-publication that gives me pause. It doesn’t help, though it might, if we were told if the reviewer was reading a galley proof or a pre-publication copy, or if it was the final printed hardback that he was reading. The revelation was made 4 months before the expected publication date, so it may well have been a review/proof copy.

I am inclined to think that would make a difference.  I think of schools in which Continue reading