Sunday, April 20, 2008

Students plagiarizing blogs

Christie has had one of her blog posts used in a lab report by a student from a neighboring institution. She wonders what she can do, other than add a threatening notice in her sidebar. Check out her post for the discussion.

I've got a couple related questions.

1) If one were to, say, deliberately stick an oddball word into science-y posts to catch the attention of a grader, what would you suggest? Gnamma? Random use of British spellings (or American spellings for Chris, Julia, and anyone else who tends to use extra vowels)? Off-hand references to various offspring or to being born before Mt St Helens erupted?

2) Would you allow students to use blogs as cited sources in a paper? Under what circumstances? And how should a blog post be cited, anyway?

(My take on question #2: when I make my intro class do background research before field data collection, I'll let them use any sources. When my juniors are doing background research for their senior theses, however, I tell them that they can't use more than one internet source - though that doesn't count USGS open-file reports or open access journals or any other formal publication that happens to be on the net. The juniors are supposed to be learning to read and understand the formal scientific literature; I don't allow them to use The Roadside Geology of X as a major source, either.)


Ron Schott said...

I'll bite.

1) I wouldn't use anything special. The purpose of a blog post is to tell a story/educate - not to catch plagiarists. Besides, the cunning cheater will remove any catch phrases anyhow (making a search on these terms less likely to catch them). The lazy cheater will be easy to catch with or without "tells" because search engines do a great job of matching exact phrases.

2a) I wouldn't make a blanket policy about blog/web citations. Consider them on a case by case basis - if they're meritorious, then why not allow them to be cited? Likewise, not all print publications are reliable just because they're in print (or even in the library).

2b) How to cite web references? I believe that a URL along with a date of retrieval is sufficient. Additional reference material (author, title, DOI, etc. as available). I haven't investigated officially recognized citation formats, but would be interested to know if journals have established these.

It might be worth looking into better ways of preserving instantaneous content of a website for better referencing - like if you could save a snapshot of a website to the Internet Archive each time you cited information from it.

Christie Rowe said...

I have to agree with Kim, it depends on the context and level of the assignment, and its purpose. When I'm encouraging students to explore a topic and develop/follow their curiosity, I want them to do the same thing I do - search the web - a perfect medium for following a web of thought and finding surprising things. However, for upper level students writing essays or research papers, (3rd & 4th year) I hold their writing assignments to the same referencing criteria as a journal would. The function of the utilization of sources is different. Even if web searching might suggest ideas or directions for the essay, the information used needs to be substantiated in a meaningful way. Almost nothing you find on the web is a primary source, all the blogs, pop sci mags, etc. are all digests and rarely 100% accurate to the original source. So maybe that suggests a criteria for Ron's 2a)?

Regarding Kim's suggestion to mix English(/Canadian/australian/kiwi/southafrica) spellings with American - I've got it covered! I'm so confused myself, I'm ahead of the game. Maybe that's how this particular case came to light?

Christie Rowe said...

There is a tacit agreement among the universities who use it (mostly UC's) not to publish a detailed map of the Poleta Folds area in the White/Inyo Mountains, CA. A few exist and are closely guarded and rarely reproduced. I endorse this type of self-imposed censorship.

Chris R said...

My determined over-use of semicolons is probably idiosyncratic enough to identify any would-be cut-and-paster...

In more general terms, I would have thought that the somewhat informal style of most blog writing would make it quite easily spotted. But that's just a suspicion.

Elli said...

I think the question of whether or not you allow students to cite the web (and I'm a strong believer in having students list everything that they used for a lab report, homework assignment, paper, etc. because that was the law laid down by my first geology prof) depends on the project.

I'm currently teaching an intro volcanoes class, which has a few different kinds of assignments. For the weekly things, I've asked them to find news articles dealing current volcanic activity and then provide a summary & the weblink to the story. For the larger scale projects (they have an individual & a group project), I informed them that they could cite the internet as much as they wanted--but that they were required to have X number of "library materials." We then had a quick discussion of why the internet can be a screwy place to gather information (have you seen the fake site about the pregnant man? looks very scientifically real...)

In contrast, my petrology students were told that searching the internet is fine, but that their main sources of information should come from articles, textbooks, etc.

Maybe what we really need to focus on is teaching our students when it is appropriate to cite someone?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that it's appropriate to cite an anonymous blog because you cannot verify authorship. However, I do believe that it is fair game to look to blogs when looking essentially for Op-Ed pieces. Students need to know what sort of paper they are trying to put together.

Mathias said...

The last point you mention Elli is really important I think. At university we were never instructed or taught by anyone how and what to correctly cite, use for research, what is appropiate, etc.

It still gives me problems today (I'm about to start my master thesis soon) especially when having to cite information I could only find on the internet because I couldn't find other good sources (doesn't mean there aren't any just that they are not unaccesible for me) and also when I have to cite things I wrote, at least in parts, myself.

Nevetheless just plain copying from the net and pretending it's your own qualyfies for being plain stupid. Though still, esp. in first and 2nd year students, there is often no real sense, yet, of what's ok and what is not because no one really bothered to eplain the matter. At least that is my own impression and experience.

Arr Cee said...

The general policy I've always been given is that internet sources should not be used for written work, with certain exceptions, e.g. the ICS strat chart. I think this is a ood policy, as it has encouraged me to learn how to search for journal articles properly (I love my Athens account!), which is an important foundation for the next 3 years of my degree.

Julia said...

I agree with Ron - any tell could be picked up by all but the thickest students. However, most of us have a distinctive blogging style. I think my posts are very obviously British, and I'd like to think a teacher could spot where they're not quite right.

I cited a blog post in my recent Comment in Nature Geoscience, and it was simply referenced as the URL. But I'd prefer to put a name and year of authorship, and a date of retrieval.

Andrew Alden, Oakland Geology blog said...

I would think that plagiarizing a blog is less of a potential problem than plagiarizing a journal paper. Journal papers can't be searched, even though they can easily be accessed from libraries. Maybe journal papers should have tells! Maybe they do, though, in the form of all those source citations.

Kim said...

I generally agree with Chris - I think that a blogger's style will usually be different from the style of a student writing a paper. (The combo of an informal style with correct use of semi-colons or the subjunctive tense would certainly catch my eye.) The main reason that I would consider using some kind of "tell" would be to catch the grader's eye. (I don't know about everyone else, but I don't generally feed papers into Google to look for plagiarism. I'm usually tipped off by something odd in the writing - sometimes grammatical, sometimes jargon, sometimes a stylistic break that marks the beginning of the plagiarized section.)

As for journal articles - yes, it is more difficult to test plagiarism. However, if something isn't available online, the student usually needs to type it in. (This may be different at schools with electronic access to journals.) All that typing is a lot of work. (And the dense language of most journal articles would make me very suspicious.)

The question of whether to use sources without a clear author is something else, I think. There are situations (generally prep for senior thesis research) in which I allow students to cite equipment manuals, government documents, and internal reports, and many of them don't have their authors listed. And, well, this is science: what is said is more important than who said it, though one shouldn't go around stealing ideas (from anyone!) and passing them off as one's own.

(Also, I would argue that pseudonymous bloggers aren't anonymous - most have very distinctive voices. And I don't think they deserve more or less credit than people who put their names on their posts.)

Silver Fox said...

As an anonymous blogger, thanks for the vote of confidence. I do think there are things on any blog - anonymous or not - that should be referenced and cited, if used.