November 17th, 2010

Writing, publishing, education: What is real?

First brought to my attention by David Rothman over on the FriendFeed Medical Librarians group about nursing students then again on Twitter by Jack Bullion, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an opinion piece written under a pseudonym of Ed Dante of The Shadow Scholar: The man who writes your students’ papers tells his story.

I am reasonably confident that the Chronicle wouldn’t offer to host a live online chat with him at noon Eastern time today (Wednesday, November 17, 2010) if he and his story were not for real.

None of us are surprised by plagiarism or the existence and use of online paper mills. 105 years ago college students were encouraged to sell copies of lectures & old tests to raise money to pay tuition, after all.

The ‘wow’ factor (literally, this the most frequent response when I shared the link on my Facebook page) is the true scope and depth of academic ghostwriting as portrayed in this article.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

What library’s resources is he tapping for his work? Nobody’s.

I haven’t been to a library once since I started doing this job. Amazon is quite generous about free samples. If I can find a single page from a particular text, I can cobble that into a report, deducing what I don’t know from customer reviews and publisher blurbs. Google Scholar is a great source for material, providing the abstract of nearly any journal article. And of course, there’s Wikipedia, which is often my first stop when dealing with unfamiliar subjects.

Why did he write this?

Yet there is little discussion about custom papers and how they differ from more-detectable forms of plagiarism, or about why students cheat in the first place. It is my hope that this essay will initiate such a conversation.

Consider this my contribution to opening up a discussion although there are already over 300 comments on the main article page. There are so many different angles one can approach the story with that I find my focus changing each time I reread it.

Comment 3 on the live chat page by nursekitty concurs with what the author shared about nursing students with a perspective about online graduate education that is troublesome.

There are no original thoughts, no critical thinking, or any contribution to real discussion. Everyone agrees with everyone, even when wrong. Pharmacology students incorrectly identify medications as being appropriate and everyone politely agrees because they haven’t read the material either. Professors of these on-line courses only look at formatting. If the student is able to place a running head at the top of the page, the student is guaranteed a master’s degree. What a shame…I was hoping there was something more to achievement.

scienceguy comment 7 on the live chat page asks what I & others want to know

I would like to know if Mr. Dante has ever ghost written a paper that was later published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Oh, and speaking of those hallowed peer-reviewed journals (again)…

There is an online-only article in the Journal of Medical Ethics that Science Daily covered entitled US scientists significantly more likely to publish fake research. This sounds alarming, as most headlines do, and only covers a drop in the bucket of total research articles published but is still worthy of attention.

The study author searched the PubMed database for every scientific research paper that had been withdrawn — and therefore officially expunged from the public record — between 2000 and 2010.

A total of 788 papers had been retracted during this period. Around three quarters of these papers had been withdrawn because of a serious error (545); the rest of the retractions were attributed to fraud (data fabrication or falsification).

The highest number of retracted papers were written by US first authors (260), accounting for a third of the total. One in three of these was attributed to fraud.

The fakes were more likely to appear in leading publications with a high “impact factor.” This is a measure of how often research is cited in other peer reviewed journals.

Among the 243 articles published in 10 years that were retracted due to fraud I’m not sure if they include each of the Elsevier* and the pharmacy ghostwritten Australasian Journal series articles. I can’t wait until this moves from online-only to publication for more details since I currently can’t access it.

One has to wonder how many articles based on false research and/or ghostwriters still remain in publication, undetected, and the implications of them though.

I consider myself to be reasonably intelligent, have 1 graduate and 2 undergraduate degrees, yet not once in the entire time I was a student was I aware of the writing centers at campuses 1, 2 and 3 despite the fact they are all at campus libraries, which I did use. I highly doubt most (any?) of the students who are Mr. Dante’s clients are aware of them either.

Writing is a very complicated cognitive process involving skills not easily assessed in our society’s increased reliance on standardized testing in K-12 education. Our son, a third grader working on 4th-5th grade curriculum, struggles greatly with writing yet our efforts to seek additional help for him are met with statements like “Oh,  he’s still young. He’ll ‘get it’ in the process of classroom learning.”

I’m not convinced of this.

Posted at 07 33 AM | 3 Comments » | print this post

3 Responses to “Writing, publishing, education: What is real?”

  1. RachelW says:

    I never really had a clue that writing centers could be of huge help to me either, even though I knew they existed. I also had no clue how helpful librarians could be for a long time. I didn’t know what I was doing *wrong* when writing papers because nobody ever really taught me how to do it *right* – I think there was so much focus on, “Write a 5-paragraph essay, with this structural form, with these specific types of sources, on this topic” without teaching on the whys and hows or the critical thinking bits. I had professors in college who required us to go to writing groups for our papers for class, but never explained what we were supposed to get out of that beyond it being a hoop to jump through. Maybe I should have known, but I think the focus on the hoop-jumping obscures what should be the real educational goals.

  2. […] Check out Nikki Detmar's take here: […]

  3. Nikki Dettmar says:

    Rachel, I agree that the focus seems to be on hoop-jumping or items easy to check off on a rubric too.

    I may schedule an appointment at the writing center here to find out more about their services and think about ways we as librarians can encourage their use. The centers are so often hosted at libraries (or at least down the hall in the same building) that this should be a natural partnership!

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