Sopoforic Agents in Childhood

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Archive for April, 2008

Academics vs. Wikipedia, again

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 14, 2008

I’ve just come across a fairly annoying little article about the use of Wikipedia by students, written by Rodney Gedda and focusing on criticism of Wikipedia by Sharman Lichtenstein, associate professor of information systems at Deakin University.

If you are faced with the prospect of having brain surgery who would you rather it be performed by – a surgeon trained at medical school or someone who has read Wikipedia?

That’s the view of Deakin University associate professor of information systems Sharman Lichtenstein, who believes the popular free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is fostering a climate of blind trust among people seeking information.

Dr. Lichtenstein has some fairly odd ideas, though, in my opinion. For example, she is said, in the article, to be leading a team of researchers looking at how Wikipedia operates, but she is then quoted:

“People have invested a lot in becoming an expert and they are trying to earn a living and you can’t expect experts to contribute without pay.”

I wonder how she and her team of researchers missed the large number of experts that we do have contributing–without pay, even. Perhaps she blindly trusted some critics of Wikipedia, rather than checking it out for herself.

The article refers to Wikipedia as a “‘web of trust’ network”, which betrays a misunderstanding of either Wikipedia or the meaning of ‘web of trust’. Fortunately, we have an article to help them out.

Too, she seems to believe that Google is going to put articles from Knol at the top of searches:

“Google Knol is supposed to be a competitor to Wikipedia that will involve experts, and because it’s Google, search results will appear above Wikipedia entries which are quite often the first result,” she said.

I do not know in what world she lives that it could be considered a good thing for Google to give preference to its own products in search results, but fortunately it is not the same world that I live in.

She also seems to think that Wikipedia editors are some sort of elite group, and that our notability policy promotes discrimination and elitism. Well, the whole point of the notability policy is to discriminate among possible topics for those which ought to have articles, and as for elitism…

There are quite a few other odd bits in the article, but I’ll leave finding them as an exercise to the reader. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

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On citations and plagiarism

Posted by Tracy Poff on April 1, 2008

A class today brought to my attention the fact that most college students don’t appear to have a very clear idea of what plagiarism is, or why citations are needed in scholarly work. This is unsurprising, given that studies show that high school English teachers, who are meant to be instructing them on just this topic, seem to have a fairly shaky idea of what constitutes plagiarism, too.

First, it is my observation that students seem to equate plagiarism with copyright violation. While it’s true that some cases of plagiarism involve copyright violation, the relationship isn’t so simple.

A copyright violation is an act which violates a specific legal code–in particular, USC Title 17 in the United States, though the particular infringing acts are likely to be infringing in most countries due to international treaties. Plagiarism, on the other hand, is a violation of moral principles–a crime against academic integrity. It’s more like trademark law, really, than copyright law. Plagiarism occurs (broadly speaking) when one misrepresents another’s work as one’s own. While this could be done by simply copying parts of others’ work verbatim, even paraphrased work, which would not violate the copyright of the original author, ought to be cited properly–paraphrasing work does not make it your own, after all.

Today I heard students suggest that using a figure (e.g. XYZ Movie grossed USD 50 million in three months) without citation was plagiarism. Not so. Failing to cite a fact like that is sloppy work, but not plagiarism. The key element is that this fact does not involve any sort of creative work or any significant original research to discover. It’s like listing a person’s (well-known) date of birth; nobody would think that you were the one who originally discovered this fact, so by failing to cite it you do not mislead anyone into believing that it is your own work.

This isn’t really a topic I can get terribly worked up about, though. I shall, perhaps, in the next few days, write a post describing my opinion of students’ knowledge of copyright law, which should be more interesting.

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