|Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;
Larry Hardesty, University of Nebraska at Kearney; Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia;
Steven Bell, Philadelphia University; Kathleen Hoeth, Florida Gulf Coast University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
|Vol. 26, No. 5||May 2006|
and Respect for Research
by William Miller
“Anthropologist at German University Resigns Amid Allegations that He Falsified Data”
“British Student Says University was Negligent for Not Stopping His Plagiarism”
“Canada’s Simon Fraser U. Suspends 44 Students in Plagiarism Scandal”
“Are More People Cheating?” — the headlines go on and on.
Even prominent historians seem to be playing fast and loose with attribution, and famous scientists are not above faking results to maintain funding. Can anything be done to stem the tide of academic dishonesty, and shore up slipping standards? The academic library could be a key to helping instructors take action to address this problem.
Anyone teaching undergraduate courses and assigning papers during the past decade could not help but notice an atrophying of undergraduate research skills, and the notion of academic honesty itself is now only a hazy one to many, and perhaps to most students. The reasons for this are not far to seek. Most immediately, research and the writing of papers are not much taught in high school any more. When papers are assigned, human nature has frequently asserted itself in taking the easy way out, through purchase from term paper services online, or through cutting and pasting, or even lifting material in its entirety from online sources, without attribution. Information via Google may or may not be valid, or current, but it is undeniably quickly and easily available, and easily cuttable and pastable.
The resulting volume of plagiarism because of this and other factors has increased so markedly that it has elicited the creation of a new electronic journal, Plagiary. The faking of scientific research by prominent scientists around the world suggests that such behavior is not limited to undergraduates, and is no doubt a reflection, in part, of the pressure that scientists now find themselves under to publish and announce successful results, but it is also part of a broader societal trend to refuse to engage in honest inquiry, or to consider oneself above and beyond the rules; this phenomenon has so disheartened many faculty members that they have ceased to call for papers from undergraduates altogether.
Coarsening of Attitudes and Behaviors
Beyond the obvious lies a complex of other factors, which could be summarized as a coarsening of undergraduate attitudes and behavior, observable in such things as talking while the instructor is talking, walking into class half an hour late, rudeness and cursing outside of class (and occasionally within it), a failure to turn in required work with no sense of guilt or obligation, and inability to see the connection between work done and grade received. Rowdiness abounds. Temple University’s basketball coach John Cheney felt called upon recently to go out onto the court in the middle of a game and berate students for throwing things onto the playing floor, and being unwilling to stop others from doing so. Such behaviors have always existed, of course, but they are becoming more and more prevalent, as Student Affairs staff will attest; they are concerned from their vantage point about the way students treat each other, and about what values they are bringing to and learning from their college experience.
One major factor, of course, is the commercial transaction model which students bring with them; they want what they are paying for, which is, in this order, (1) a good time, and (2) a degree, which will lead to (3) a good (i.e. well-paying) job. Learning is too often far down the list, if it is even on the list; Bruce Wilshire commented on this more than 15 years ago in his book The Moral Collapse of the University:
I thought more about the ideology of consumerism as a reason for their numbness and detachment. After spending their lives barraged by images equating buying with goodness, they seemed deeply to believe (if they believed anything deeply) that anything good can be bought . . . . A college education meant a degree, and this is a commodity which can be bought by paying fees and serving time. The possibility that knowledge could only be earned through diligent and at times drudging effort to come up to standards native to the enterprise of knowing itself, had apparently never entered most of their minds (1990, 13).
This crassly commercial attitude toward education, referred to as “Greed” in Thomas H. Benton’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece “The Seven Deadly Sins of Students,” joins with a variety of other ills such as “Anger” [at professors who dare to give challenging assignments and fail to give high grades] and “Envy” [“the feeling that no one ‘earn’ anything because there are no objective criteria of accomplishment,” so that “success and failure seem to be based on political and personal preferences”].
Addressing What Can Usefully be Addressed
The list of societal ills outlined above is daunting. Yet, it is precisely what faculty must be fighting against as they attempt to create the next generation of educated students, not to mention creating the succeeding generation of scholars. We cannot magically wipe away all of society’s impact on our students, but while there may not be a lot that faculty and staff can do about consumerism, or about the ability to plagiarize if one is intent on doing so, there really is something which faculty, in conjunction with librarians, can do about student awareness of and appreciation for research and the scholarly enterprise: we can consciously and carefully teach students what research is, and what the scholarly method is all about.
“...instruction in how to do research in a discipline is just as important as a knowledge of the discipline itself...”
The simple fact is that, all too often, we are no longer even bothering to try to teach students what research is, what academic honesty is, or indeed what the entire academic enterprise is all about.
Providing a model for students. Students, in fairness to them, are caught in the middle. If we do not provide them with a clear model, can we really blame them for falling back on the only model they know, which is essentially a model that they have taught themselves? Not being born with a knowledge of the academic world, or of academic disciplines, and not having been taught much about research in K-12 classes, they simply and quite honestly do not know what it is. How would they ever learn it, unless our faculty teach it?
On its web page, Plagiary announces its focus on “serious violations of scholarship norms,” but what are those norms, and how would a typical college student have a clear understanding of them, or even rudimentary knowledge of what they are? In the absence of such knowledge, how can they really be blamed for taking the easy and obvious road toward completion of assignments?
Libraries and their holdings are essential to the work of scholars, but they are only essential to the work of undergraduates if we bother to make it so. Much scholarly information continues to be created only in print, or in online resources which libraries pay dearly for to make available to students and faculty. However, students do not know that. They see what is most easily and obviously available–i.e. what they can find at home, quickly and for free, in Google–and they content themselves with what they find, with no wish to go beyond it. Nor have we helped ourselves by making our indexes and catalogs as visible and as easy as Google to use, and we have not often enough instructed students in the difference between junk vs. quality resources, in terms of authority, accuracy, credibility, objectivity, currency, and coverage.
Glossing over instruction. Just as importantly, we have tended to gloss over the absolute necessity to take the time to instruct students in the reasons for research, the structure of literatures, the way that knowledge builds on previously recorded knowledge, and the necessity for distinguishing clearly between one’s own work and the work of others. Research methodology is a standard component of Freshman English textbooks, but such extensive approaches to research are, as Shakespeare said, honored principally in the breach rather than in the observance. In any case, most instruction in such methodology is typically given short shrift; yet a knowledge of how to conduct research is later assumed, by faculty in all disciplines, and students are held to account for their lack of familiarity with it. Typically, research instruction might not occur again until the graduate level.
Instilling a belief in the scholarly record. One could argue that instruction in how to do research in a discipline is just as important as a knowledge of the discipline itself, and that the conduct of such research is probably the best way to teach a substantive knowledge of the discipline. Underlying all of this is the need to instill in students the belief that what exists in the scholarly record is important and valuable, and that they themselves are intellects, who could have something to say that someone else might conceivably care about, that they are part of a continuing process of knowledge transmission and creation, and that they themselves could have a future role to play in such a process.
This teaching and socialization mission is crucial. If students do not understand what the system is, or see themselves as part of it in some way, then they have no incentive to learn, support, or advance it; they only need to play the game called “fake it till you make it.” This game inevitably leads them to ask questions like “what do I have to do to get an A?” or “how can I cobble together something that looks like what the instructor might want?” or “what do I have to do to convince the instructor that I have actually thought, and done original work, even though of course I have no intention of doing so?” rather than the questions we would prefer to have them ask, such as “What do I really think about this matter?,” “has my idea been explored previously?,” or “what can I teach my readers [and myself] that they do not already know about this topic?”
The Role of Librarians in the Teaching Process
Libraries have much to offer faculty in the disciplines, in terms of helping to move students in the direction of a more reflective attitude toward research, and the resulting behavior will almost certainly result in some amelioration of the other socially dysfunctional behaviors described earlier. For the past 30 years, academic librarians have been developing the concept of instruction in the use of library resources, now broadened to “information literacy.”
It is a major part of the mission of the academic library to teach and help students use our resources, both in printed form and in online form, and to integrate the use of the two worlds during the research process. This instruction is most effective when librarians are taken into the course structure as partners whose efforts are perceived by the students as important to the primary instructor, integral to the course, and crucial to their success in the course.
Rethinking Instruction for Research
In an understandable effort to encourage true research and try to eliminate the ersatz, slipshod electronic equivalent, it is common today for faculty to instruct their students to go to the library and do research, but forbid them from using anything electronic. What they do not realize is that much of our research material today is electronic, and that students can hardly do real research now without using electronic resources, which may even include free web sites. The electrons themselves are not the enemy; the enemy is failure to do a thorough search for information, in all formats; failure to consider and mine all available resources; failure to examine sources carefully; failure to evaluate information and ideas; and failure to think.
Involving Librarians. Librarians can help with all of these issues, and are available and disposed to do so. Actually, that very fact is an important one to convey to students, who are normally afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, and who believe in large part that "research," as they conceive of it, is so quick and easy that they should be able to conduct their research themselves; this belief is part of the junk research/disintermediation process fostered by dependence on Google and its cousins. As a result, students either fail to ask for help at all, or wait until much too late in the process, wasting time and experiencing much unnecessary frustration. Finding ways to introduce students to librarians, either in the classroom or in the library, is one way to break down the barriers that prevent students from seeking qualified help when they need it.
Librarians stand ready to work with individual faculty and their classes on all phases of the research process, in a wide variety of courses. Not every course is a candidate for a research component, of course, and the time commitment, if it is to be done right, is considerable, as well as the commitment of effort, on both the librarian’s and faculty member’s part. This work can involve extended, cooperative assistance over time, and should not be limited only to just one 50-minute session in class, or in the library.
Librarians can design an in-depth series of activities that take students through the sequence of work necessary to uncover resources/research relevant to a particular paper or assignment, and can tailor the inquiry to the specific discipline. A big part of this would involve having students search the indexes and abstracts, now primarily online, of the relevant specific discipline, and other more general but nevertheless academically oriented indexes, while at the same time searching Google and its cousins, and creating bibliographies of the works which result from this search. In this way, students come to realize that they can enrich the universe of what they find by more thorough and wide-ranging searches. No potential source of information is inherently bad, but some are more fruitful and trustworthy than others.
Critical evaluation. It is not enough, however, merely to turn up more sources. The material must be read, considered, evaluated. One good way to mediate this is to assign annotated bibliographies, done over a period of several weeks or more. There is no reason why electronic and free materials should be omitted from such bibliographies; format is not a relevant concern. What is important is critical evaluation. This assignment, as a preliminary step to a final research project, or even just as an end in itself, is a particularly good way to engage students in reading through and thinking about the materials which will (or could) underlie a research project, and assure that students have taken the time to assemble the necessary materials in advance, because much plagiarism results from panicked last-minute efforts.
The research project will be more satisfying to everyone concerned if it emerges organically, over time, as a result of a structured process. The results of taking the opposite approach will most likely be disappointing in many cases, and at worst will elicit the kind of antisocial and anti-intellectual responses discussed earlier in this essay. If we simply tell people who have no clue about what we want them to do, or how to do it, that a major research paper is due on X date, and that it must be 20 pages long, period, with no instruction in how to get from here to there, students will fall back, in many cases, on dysfunctional and unproductive approaches, up to and including gross plagiarism, that will make the instructor wonder why he or she had ever given the assignment to begin with, and wish that he or she hadn’t. Instruction for most students is a must if the product is to be worth reading, and worth creating at all.
In addition to working with specific assignments, librarians are available to discuss with students, and in particular with graduate students, the nature of the literature of specific disciplines, and how scholars in each discipline typically go about conducting research. Undergraduate students typically do not understand that fields differ in their literatures as well as their epistemological approaches. The chemist may feel it crucial for students to know about Chem Abstracts, and the English professor may think it crucial for students working on a particular author to look both at author-oriented web sites and the MLA Bibliography.
Faculty in different disciplines assume markedly different things about what their students need to know and do in order to conduct research, and one size or approach will simply not fit all. Students need to see their instructors valuing and reinforcing the norms of their discipline. They also need to practice the behaviors that someone in that field would exhibit, trying them on for size to see how well they fit. Thinking and working like a psychologist, like an accountant, or like a biologist, even on a small scale, could help a student decide on a career path.
Libraries as Places for Research
Beyond what librarians can do for specific courses or departments, librarians are restructuring their buildings and services to foster learning. Gone are the tomb-like, cloistered assumptions which ruled not all that long ago. Libraries serve as popular centers for student life and student learning. They still offer places for private study and reflection; increasingly, however, libraries are being restructured as well to accommodate group study and social interaction. Libraries are increasingly creating partnerships with writing and study centers to bolster the efforts of faculty attempting to foster critical thinking and a knowledge of the research process in the curriculum. Group study facilities in libraries naturally foster the kind of cooperative learning which would reinforce the best that students have to offer each other. A quality group project is worth more than several poor individual efforts, in most circumstances.
The Ultimate Role of the Teaching Faculty
Ultimately, instructors will want to take over much of this
instruction in the conduct of research themselves, and ideally make it an
integral part of their own courses. The reality is that librarians cannot
consistently inhabit all courses, and more importantly, students value the
suggestions and leadership of their primary instructors more than those of other
professionals. However, librarians can help faculty rethink and restructure
courses to enhance student respect for and understanding of research, which is
more important, in the long run, than the specific facts which can be imparted
at any one point in time. Such in-depth exposure to the discipline, when
integrated into a class, can revitalize teaching itself and show students why
they are really in the class, beyond simply logging the time and obtaining a
high grade. If students can be made to understand and appreciate the discipline
and what its aims are, many of the behavioral problems and plagiarism discussed
above will automatically disappear.
— William Miller
German University Resigns Amid Allegations that He Falsified Data”
“Are More People
“British Student Says
University was Negligent for Not Stopping His Plagiarism”
Fraser U. Suspends 44 Students in Plagiarism Scandal”
Bruce Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University, SUNY Press, 1990. p 13
Thomas H. Benton,
“The Seven Deadly Sins of Students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education,
April 14, 2006,
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