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, an opinion article by Dr Michael Kerwin, originally published by – or on – DenverPost.com. Kerwin, newly appointed to the executive board of ICAI, bemoans the lack of academic integrity displayed by many students today, and remembers the unproctored examinations he took when a student: the Honor Code was respected and (probably universally, he suggests) observed. In the original full article, he goes on to discuss integrity and honor codes, along with some stratagems that instructors can use to  encourage honest behaviour and to reduce “need” or opportunities for plagiarism and other forms of cheating.

Below the article is a set of somewhat sensational statistical statements regarding cheating and attitudes, along with a list of sources.

I would probably not have given the article, or the statistics, a second thought had it not been for the second of the sources mentioned. It jumped out at me: CollegeHumor.org.  There is nothing in the article, nor in the list of statistics, which immediately strikes as CollegeHumor material.  And this is where the chase begins in earnest.

It is not immediately clear whether the listed sources informed the article itself, or just the statistics.  There are no citations in the text, no numbers leading to footnoted references. It is just a list of sites and organisations (but not of titles or pages within those sites), and no telling which source provided what information or statistic.

That is frustrating.  If you accept that there are forms of presentation in which academic standards of citation and referencing are not necessary, then this does not qualify as plagiarism.  I am thinking of journalism, fiction, speeches, movies, and similar non-academic forms of presentation.  Acknowledgements and credits and other non-academic forms of attribution demonstrate honesty and respect for the audience, but citation MLA or Chicago or APA style is not expected or necessary when it is not an academic paper. But it is frustrating for those who want to find out more.

And I wanted to find out more, in particular, where CollegeHumor comes into the picture. I quickly found out that the list of sources refers only to the list of statistics.   The article itself is mainly personal opinion, reflection and advice, and there is no reference to any of these statistics in the article itself.  Given this, and the fact that the list appears below a short statement about the author, I suspect that Kerwin did not provide the list, but that it was appended by a DenverPost staffer.

I said “I quickly found out…”  It was so quick, it took just one search on Google. I had not come across “the Ad Council and Educational Testing Service” before.  ETS, yes, but not in connection with the Ad Council. So that was where I began.

 

The first four hits listed were all on the site glass-castle.com, the fifth hit was for oedb.org, the eighth hit (below “the fold”) was for the Ad Council (with a note of a campaign in conjunction with ETS – the Educational Testing Service).  I did a Ctrl+F search amongst the first 100 hits for CollegeHumor, but the only find was a hit for the DenverPost article. A similar Ctrl+F search for ets.org  found just one hit for this site, half-way down the page of 100 hits.  But I had enough to get started.

And finished.

The first two glass-castle links took me to two pages headed “Academic Cheating Background” and “Academic Cheating Fact Sheet,” copies of pages apparently published by ETS and/or the Ad Council. They looked useful, full of statistics and other data from various studies and surveys, including a research project these two organisations had carried out together.

Visits to and searches on both the ETS and the Ad Council sites failed to find the original versions of these papers: “No results were found for your search,” they said. But … back on the glass-castle pages, at the end of both pages there is the date: 1999.  The data, the statistics, the research are all a little old and probably out-of-date. Indeed, the pages have disappeared from the original site/s and we have to thank Glass-Castle (whoever they are) for preserving them for us.

It is the next  hit that brought solid gold – tarnished gold, as we shall see.

Google’s OEDB.org hit took me straight to 8 Astonishing Stats on Academic Cheating.   Written by OEDB Staff (and dated December 2010), the page lists 8 statistics, each of them giving details about the statistic and the research behind it, and including statements of  and links to the original, or in some cases to secondary, sources.

(The secondary sources include a link to a page no longer available on the original site, but still available on the Internet Archive. This is a story by Mark Muckenfuss, which includes extracts from the (unreferenced) CollegeHumor survey findings, the chasing of which set me off on this goose-chase in the first place.)

 

What I find sad is that the DenverPost’s shock-horror list is all culled from the OEDB list, in almost exactly the same order of presentation, and often using the same words and phrases.  The DenverPost journalist appears to have done a lot of research – but in fact found all the material including sources claimed in just the one place, the OEDB page.

 

The DenverPost “researcher” (I am assuming that this is not Dr Kerwin’s work) might have gone to the original studies and articles – they are all linked from the OEDB page – but I suspect not.  Apart from using the statistics in almost the same order, DenverPost states

“8,000 hits a day to SchoolSucks.com, a top paper mill website.”

The OEDB compilation (from which the DenverPost researcher obtained the stats) states

“ETS and Ad Council’s research quotes SchoolSucks.com founder Kenneth Sahr as stating that his website receives around 8,000 hits a day.”

But the original ETS/Ad Council page (as on Glass-Castle) in fact says

“Numerous websites are dedicated to helping students cheat. According to Kenneth Sahr, founder of School Sucks, a website providing free term papers to students,
his site has averaged 80,000 hits per day.”

There is a typo in the OEDB listing, and DenverPost has copied it.

This is not good academic practice, where we advise our students always to go to the original, to check that the representation of secondary information is accurate – and then to use and to cite the original source.

This is not good scholarship, taking someone else’s list of sources and giving the impression that you have done all the research yourself.

And while I would hesitate to call this plagiarism, given the journalistic context, it is surely sloppy research, sloppy journalism, it is definitely misleading – and worst of all, it does not help the reader.

References

ETS / Ad Council (1999). Academic cheating background. The Educational Testing Service / Ad Council Campaign to Discourage Academic Cheating. Retrieved from http://www.glass-castle.com/clients/www-nocheating-org/adcouncil/research/cheatingbackgrounder.html

ETS / Ad Council (1999). Academic cheating fact sheet. The Educational Testing Service / Ad Council Campaign to Discourage Academic Cheating. Retrieved from http://www.glass-castle.com/clients/www-nocheating-org/adcouncil/research/cheatingfactsheet.html

Kerwin, Michael W. (2013, June 2). Cheating epidemic? DenverPost.com. Retrieved from http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_23361569/cheating-epidemic

Kerwin, Michael W. (2013, June). Cheating epidemic? Extract from DenverPost.com article reprinted in Ethos. Retrieved from http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/assets/EthosJune2013.pdf (subscription required).

Muckenfuss, Mark (2007, June). Academic cheating appears to be on rise among college students. The Press-Enterprise. Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20070622040002/http://www.pe.com/lifestyles/stories/PE_Fea_Daily_H_cheat18.d9f54f.html

OEDB (Open Education DataBase) (2010, December). 8 Astonishing stats on academic cheating.  OEDB. Retrieved from  http://oedb.org/library/features/8-astonishing-stats-on-academic-cheating/

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