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.

Elusive allusions

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

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

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

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

The first two paragraphs read: Continue reading

Nice like you, Ivi … Part 3

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

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

The search for Ivi

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

Not so new news

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There’s an interesting article by Denny Carter in eCampus News, July 14, 2014.

Headed The top 10 ways college students plagiarize, it reports on a Turnitin study which reveals, that’s right, the top 10 ways college students plagiarize.



According to the article, Turnitin’s study was released “this month,” and there is a link to the Turnitin White Paper The Plagiarism Spectrum: Instructor Insights into the 10 Types of Plagiarism.

Carter also mentions (on page 2 of the article) “research conducted at Continue reading

Wrong to be forgotten?

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The ECJ ruling that individuals be allowed to request that search engines remove links to web pages which mention them, the so-called “right to be forgotten,” has come in for a lot of support and a lot of criticism. It raises a lot of questions as to whether the law is enforceable.

Some of the biggest criticisms raise notions of censorship and attempts to change history and the historical record. One of my biggest concerns is that the search engine company is judge and jury, and the “defendant” – the person or organisation behind the “offending” page – is not informed of the request unless and until the request to remove Continue reading

Its ugly head

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Once again the specter of plagiarism is sighted, broadcast in shock-horror headlines:

Plagiarism on standardized tests three times higher in New Orleans schools than rest of Louisiana (The Lens, May 21, 2014).

As you read the story, you will find some good news, it’s not all bad. The number of tests voided for suspicious erasures fell between 2012 and 2013 across the State. In New Orleans, the number of tests voided for suspicious erasures was zero in 2013, according to The Lens’ report. Cause for celebration.

But the percentage of plagiarized standardized tests in New Orleans 2013 was three times higher than the rest of the State.  That is worrying.

It is worrying for two reasons. Continue reading

Thinking thoughts

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Today’s GuardianOnline includes a possibly misleading article.  Today is 1 April*, and the article is headed :


Jane Goodall blames ‘chaotic note taking’ for plagiarism controversy
Scientist revises her book Seeds of Hope after allegations 12 sections were lifted from other websites


My first thought was of the date, April Fools’ Day.

My second thought was, “Not again?” – for I recalled that Goodall had been involved in a plagiarism controversy last year.

My third thought was the date again…

It was not an April Fools’ joke. But Continue reading

More misleading headlines

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It’s a good-news-bad-news situation. Taking the same government statement, the UK tabloids Daily Express and the Daily Mirror have two very different takes on the same story:

(Screengrabs taken from BBC News : The Papers, 3 February 2014)



The Daily Express story concentrates on government plans to raise the basic rate of pensions year on year over the next six years.  The Daily Mirror story features the current benefits and perks that pensioners enjoy which they will lose in order to pay for the promised increase in basic pensions.   Whether pensioners will be better off or not over time is not clear, and may depend on how long they live, on whether pensions continue to rise in line with inflation or the cost of living after the six years of guaranteed rises, and many other factors. On these bare stories alone, it pays to keep an open mind, and to seek further, dig deeper. Continue reading

Studies in Statistics 2

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(This post leads on from the last blog post, Studies in Statistics.)

Headlines can be so misleading.

Hundreds cheating on University of Wolverhampton courses, shouts the Express & Star. The subhead tells us more: Hundreds of students have been caught passing off other people’s work as their own.

It’s a shock-horror headline for sure.

The story, as so often, may be a little less dramatic than the headline suggests Continue reading

Remember the coffee study?

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(Spoiler alert: I succumbed!)

You surely remember the coffee study? I posted it only last week, Memories are made of this…

Okay, the study was actually on the effects of caffeine on the memory; Michael Yassa and associates were looking at how a dose of caffeine taken after a learning experience affected memory (even if the volunteer participants were not aware that they would be tested the following day on what they had remembered seeing during the “learning” experience).

My post was not about Yassa’s study itself; it was about the number of differences in press reports of the study: reports disagreed as to the number of volunteers Continue reading

Memories are made of…

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The headlines say it all:

Coffee boosts memory retention, study says (
Coffee a memory enhancing drug, say boffins (Register)
Coffee boosts long-term memory (Financial Times)
Study: coffee enhances long-term memory retention (
Caffeine pill ‘could boost memory’ (BBC News)
Researchers Find Coffee Enhances Memory, Good News for Seniors (
Caffeine has positive effect on memory, Johns Hopkins researchers … (The Hub at Johns Hopkins)
One or Two Cups of Coffee Improves Short-Term Memory, Study (University Herald)
Daily Coffee might Help Memory (Onlymyhealth)
Drink two espressos to enhance long-term memory (New Scientist)
Scientists reveal caffeine provides huge boost to your short-term memory (

This is a selection of headlines found in a Google Search for [coffee memory] on 13 January.  It looks like good news, strong news, positive news, doesn’t it?

Though, a moment’s careful looking might suggest a discrepancy or two… Continue reading

Help the reader!

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One of the reasons for citing and referencing our sources is to help the reader judge the authority and the currency of other people’s work, especially when we use it to support our discussions and our arguments. What’s more, the interested reader can follow up a reference, chase it down and find out more. Citing and referencing is not just a matter of respect for those whose work we use, it is respect for those who read our work as well.

Curiously and perhaps ironically, it was an article on the front page of Ethos (June 2013), a monthly newsletter published by the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI), which set me off on this train of thought

The Ethos article reprints the first part  of Cheating Epidemic, Continue reading

Rewriting history…

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First, let’s be clear: this is NOT a piece on Margaret Thatcher’s place in British or world history.  It is a piece on journalism, and the rewriting of, if not history, then at least a rewriting of the record.

Let’s start with the story. While writing to an American friend, I wanted to give her a link to the debate over the BBC’s dilemma as to whether to play “Ding-dong! the witch is dead” on its weekly top of the music charts radio programme this week.  “Ding-dong…” is a short number from the 1938 musical The Wizard of Oz, and has been adopted as the anthem of an anti-Thatcher FaceBook group. Since Thatcher’s death earlier in the week Continue reading

Flattering flaws

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It’s ironic that I have to thank Turnitin for bringing Retraction Watch to my attention.

Retraction Watch is a blog written by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky. It aims to report on retractions made in science journals.  Scientific knowledge is not static, but it does tend to develop slowly. New knowledge is gained as connections are made, Continue reading

Getting it wrong…

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The strange story of Hamilton Naki

A strange story, and a strange journey too. This post is not just Naki’s story, strange as that is.

We visit Wikipedia (and wonder if teachers who forbid its use might want to think again), touch on journalistic ethics, have a quick look at the online citation generator EasyBib, and finish at the gates of Turnitin, the software which will “check students’ work for improper citation or potential plagiarism” (Turnitin OriginalityCheck). Continue reading