Monthly Archives: February 2017

3. Research Questions

NOTE:  Assignment 3 is the gateway assignment for the rest of the course.  This means that you must write a research question that I accept to pass the rest of the course.

You will get to revise if you need to.  

TOPICS – you will need to develop a topic related to Old World (Europe, Africa & western Asia) ancient history between about 4,000 BCE and 700CE.  This gives you a lot of possibilities:  Greek sages, Roman generals, Byzantine emperors (and empresses), Franks,   Nubians, Carthaginians, Persians,  Harappans, climate change as the reason the Roman Empire fell, new theories on how the pyramids were built,  and many, many more .  NO VIKINGS AND NO CELTS.*  

HISTORY MAJORS:   can choose any historical time and any place to write about EXCEPT  Vikings & Celts.

You cannot use any topics I use for examples for your own research question.  Since I’m using less common topics, it shouldn’t be a problem.

*Why no Vikings or Celts?  Mostly because I’m tired of seeing them abused.   The Vikings and their history are much more complicated  (and interesting) than the History Channel’s fictional show.  And there’s a lot more to the Celts than the Druids; plus, there are more groups of Celts than the ones that end up in Britain and Ireland.

Okay, if you absolutely have to write about Celts, you can write about the Galatians or the Celtic attacks on Greece and Rome.

NOTE:  want to write on a religious topic?  READ:  Since this is a library science course on history,  you have to use historical standards of evidence.  For this class, that means you must use evidence that someone who doesn’t share your beliefs will accept.

For example:  you’re interested in miracles.  You cannot write that miracles are proof of Jesus’ divine nature, because there isn’t  evidence that a non-believer would accept.  However, you can write that people who followed Jesus believed in miracles because there is evidence that would be acceptable to non-believers.


One of the goals of this course is to teach you ways to find better information (i.e. the types of sources your instructor wants) with less work.  You have to have a good research question to accomplish this goal.

Most instructors have their own definition of research question.  Some prefer that students do complex research questions while others (like me) believe a simpler question is more useful.  For the purposes of this class, a research question is a way of focusing and simplifying your topic to make it easier to find appropriate sources.

A research question is NOT:
  • A thesis statement
  • An explanation of what you expect to find
  • An introduction to your paper

Writing a good research question is not as easy as it sounds.  You need to walk a fine line between a question that is too general and one that is too focused.  There are different ways to do this.  One way that I’ve found useful is to start by determining the topic, writing a core question and then using the core question as the basis for a research question.

Writing a research question:

        1. Topic
                   1.   If you have an assigned topic or theme, you need to decide how you’re going to approach the topic  –  this class falls here.

        2.  You need to choose a topic that fits the instructions your professor gave

                  No clue about a topic?  Check out your textbook, Wikipedia,  magazines or journals, ask a librarian, Google it, etc.

       2.  Core question
1.    The core question is a focused version of your topic in question form.

2.  A core question serves as a draft version of a research question.

At the core question stage, you need to have the basic components of what you want to research figured out.

For example:  topic = the later Roman empire

For the core question, I need to decide what about the later Roman Empire I’m interested in.

For example:  I decide that I’m interested in the role of women in the later empire.  This is too broad, so I decide to look at the role of royal women.    Still too broad, so I consider adding the term “Christian;”  however, all the royal women in the later Roman empire are at least nominally Christian, so that doesn’t help.  I decide to look at the role of royal women in the evolution of Christianity in the later Roman Empire.  This is much better, but there were a surprising number of empresses, queens, sisters and daughters, who fit into this category, so I  decide to focus on Galla Placidia, who unlike the other queens and empresses , was active in the Western Empire and a support of the papacy.

You may be wondering how I came up with this information.  In my case, it was easy:  course work, teaching and I read a lot.  I would expect you to start narrowing down on topics you don’t know a lot about by using Google, Wikipedia, an encyclopedia or something similar.

So, my core question might be:  what role did Galla Placidia play in the Roman Papacy?

I don’t need to add a time period because we know when Galla Placidia lived and was active in church matters, plus there wasn’t another person with that name.

  1. Research question
    1. A research question is your core question rewritten using appropriate (usually = academic)  keywords and phrases.
    2. You need to choose the best keywords and key phrases for the particular type of information that you need to find:
      1. If you use informal keywords & phrases, you will find more popular sources such as newspapers and magazines.
      2. If you use more formal, academic and/or technical terms, you will find more peer-reviewed and scholarly sources.
      3. NOTE:  In history you may need to use the same or similar  words to find popular and scholarly sources.  However, the language in the scholarly sources will be more formal.
        1. For example:   you’re interested in what kids were expected to do at home in the 1950s
          1. To find popular sources, use a research question like:  What kinds of work did kids do around the house in the 1950s?
          2. To find scholarly sources, use a question like:  What chores did children do in the 1950s?  
          3.  So, for scholarly sources use children instead of kids and chores instead of work around the house.  NOTE:  using the word chores will usually limit you to work around the home, but if not, try a phrase like:  household chores.
  2.  Be as concise as you can be while including all of the concepts you’re researching.

It isn’t always clear in history what is scholarly and what is not.  We’ll look at additional ways to tell  later in the class, but for the purposes of writing a research question, think in terms of using more formal, academic language.  More formal, academic language does not mean sounding like you swallowed a dictionary – that’s bad formal/academic language.

Example 1: (examples are  not limited to history in order to give you an idea of how the process works in all subject fields)

Assigned topic:  childhood obesity  (I must find both popular and scholarly sources.)

My approach to the topic:  the relationship (if any) between time spent on a computer and how much a kid weighs

My core question:  Does too much computer time make kids fat?

My research question:  Does computer use promote obesity in children?
(I am using more formal language because I need to find scholarly sources.  These terms will probably find some popular sources as well.)

Example 2:  

A topic I chose:  Was there an ocean in Kansas?

My core question:  What is the fossil evidence for an ocean in Kansas?

My research question: (Because of the technical vocabulary, the difference between popular and scholarly topics in scientific fields is more defined than in other areas.)

I need mostly popular sources with a few scholarly sources

  • I’ll use my core question for my research question:  What is the fossil evidence for an ocean in Kansas?

I need all scholarly sources:

  • My research question:  What is the vertebrate evidence for the Western Interior Seaway in late Cretaceous Kansas?  (I’ve limited the type of fossil (vertebrate) and the time period (late Cretaceous) and used one of the technical terms for the ocean (Western Interior Seaway).

HINT:  as you research, keep a list of keywords and key phrases you find in your sources – different library and web sources may use one term instead of another and there may be different terms for the same subject.  For example:  the Western Interior Seaway can also be called the inland sea, the Cretaceous Seaway and a couple of other names.   Keeping a list also keeps you from repeating searches because you can’t remember what you did earlier.

Also keep a list of where you’ve searched.  More on that in another reading.

Common problems with research questions:

  1. Topic is not appropriate for assignment
    For example:  You try to turn in a topic on Vikings for this course.  OR  You want to do a very current topic, but need 10 pages and scholarly sources (see below.)
  2. Question is not written in language appropriate for the assignment (you need formal, academic and/or technical language to find scholarly sources.)
  3. Research question is too unfocused/broad
  4. Research question is too focused/narrow
    1. Topic is too local – Usually, you can only find popular sources, such as newspaper articles and local TV websites,  on local topics.  You can do local topics, but expect to do oral interviews, use archives, etc.  Often, there are no scholarly articles on a local topic.
    2. Topic is too current – Usually, you can only find popular sources such as newspaper articles, CNN, etc.  It can take a year or more for a scholarly article to get published, even online.)
  5. Questions that can be answered by
    1. Yes/no
    2. A number
    3. A fact
      These types of questions don’t give you anything to research
  6.   High School questions –  these are very general questions such as “compare the Romans and the Greeks.”  These are okay in high school  because they’re trying to get you to learn about content and writing about the differences between Greeks and Romans helps you learn that information.   As a rule, you will not find these types of questions acceptable at the university level.
    1. If you do find these questions at the college level, it’s usually for one of two reasons:
      1. You have a brand new instructor who’s just learning
      2. Your instructor has an ulterior motive of some sort.  I had an instructor once who asked us to discuss the Bronze Age.  He wanted people to take one focused aspect (I did trade routes) and show how the chosen aspect  fit into the idea of a global (- the Americas) Bronze Age.

Not sure what to write on? 

  1. Scan magazines and/or journals in the topic area
  2. Ask your instructor
  3. Ask a librarian
  4. Ask friends
  5. Try a Google search
  6. Check out Wikipedia

Assigned topic?

  1. Do a Google Search
  2. Check out Wikipedia
  3. Remember, you can almost always manipulate an assigned topic into something you’re interested in:
    1. Have to write on geometry?  Do a paper on geometry and hair styling or geometry and baseball or geometry and snowboarding.
    2. Remember Barbie dolls fondly?  Write on the evolution of the Barbie doll as indicative of the role of women in American society.
    3. Still have scars from the very existence of Barbie dolls?  Write about the influence of the unrealistic proportions of Barbie dolls on female body image in the United States.
    4. Want to write about hunting for a history class?  Write about the role of hunting in the development of wildlife conservation legislation or the role of hunting in Britain’s royal families.
    5. Need a new and different topic for a presentation in automotive technology?   Research all the things that were developed because of cars (traffic lights, traffic police, driver’s licenses, license plates, car seats for children, seat belts, good roads, motels, truck stops, rest areas . . .)


Effect vs. Affect

You need to be able to tell the difference between these two words.  Using the wrong word often means you will not find what you are looking for.


  • almost always used as a noun
  • means result or consequences
    • the effects of flooding on the town…


  • almost always used as a verb
  • means to influence, to have an influence on
    • the flooding affected the town…
  • exception:  in psychology affect (as a noun) refers to emotional states or the lack thereof
    • serial killers often have flat affects

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Information types & formats 1: sources classified by audience

Why do you need to learn about types and formats of information?  Well, for one, it’s one of the learning outcomes for this class.  More importantly,  the inability to find and use the right kinds of sources is one of the major roadblocks between students and good grades on history papers.  Finally, the more you know about finding the right kinds of sources, the easier it is to find and identify them.

This reading introduces the main types and formats of information in all fields, including history.  As you’ll discover later in the reading,  history sources are not as easy to distinguish as those in other fields.  Future readings will look at more specific types of sources.

Information Formats

Let’s start with the easy part:  formats.  The word format has a number of meanings; for this post, we’re looking at the format or makeup or composition of something.  The most common formats you’ll deal with doing academic research are print and online; however, there are others such as  CDs, DVDs, streaming music & videos, and microforms.

Most instructors accept a variety of formats as long as you choose relevant sources of the correct information type.

Information Types

There are three basic ways to divide information types for academic purposes.  These are:

  1. sources classified by audience
  2. sources classified by closeness
  3. sources classified by quality measure

These classifications refer to non-fiction (with a few rare exceptions.)

Sources classified by audience

The three main types of sources classified by audience are:

  1. popular
  2. scholarly (also known as peer reviewed or refereed)
  3. trade

Popular sources are those that are created for the general public.  They may be any format:  print, online, DVD, etc.

Popular sources:

  • are written in every day language; if there are technical or unusual terms, the terms are defined & examples given
  • are often written on broad topics or as an introduction to a topic.  Usually  written by journalists or freelance writers  or “anonymous” (usually an editor or staff writer.)
  • rarely have notes or bibliographies (reference lists).  Some will have lists that contain suggestions for further reading and/or notes that provide more information on the content
  • are often very colorful with a lot of illustrations and photos
  • are found in grocery stores, bookstores and airports in addition to libraries.  Many are also available on the web.
  • may be print or online books, magazines, and newspapers, or general websites.


Scholarly sources are those that are created for experts and for students studying the subject area.  They may be any format:  print, online, DVDs etc.

Scholarly sources:

  • are written by experts in the field
  • are written for an audience of other experts (and students who have to learn the information)
  • are usually peer reviewed or refereed
    • this means they been judged by a panel of fellow experts and found worthy of publication
  • have notes and a reference list or bibliography
    • in some history and arts and humanities sources, there is no bibliography or reference list.  All the necessary information is given in footnotes.
  • are often published by, or in conjunction with,  universities, museums or other institutions
    • they may also be published by specialty academic publishers such as Oxford, Wiley or Elsevier
  • most common types are: journal articles and books, either print or online
  • there are also a few scholarly websites

 All scholarly sources have the things listed above in common.  However,  there are differences between scholarly sources in the sciences, technology & engineering, social science and professional fields and scholarly sources in history and the arts & humanities.

Scholarly sources in the science, technical, social science and professional fields (health, business, etc.)

  • Report on experiments, studies or research performed by the authors
  • Are usually written about a very narrow, focused topic
    • literature reviews are an exception:  they review previous research on a topic
  • Use technical language with a lot of specialized words

Scholarly sources in history and the arts & humanities

  • are written about original research on an historical, literary, artistic or performance topic
  • are usually focused, but occasionally cover broad topics
  • rarely use technical language; instead, they use formal, academic language


Trade sources are written for practitioners in a field.  They focus more on “how-to” information.  They may be any format.

Trade sources:

  • contain practical, how-to information as well as information about the field, such as best practices, finding a job, rules and regulations, etc.
  • may have some scholarly research articles, but focus is practical
  • use language and terms specific to that field 
  • are often produced by professional associations or publishers who specialize in the field

NOTE:  the line between scholarly, popular and trade can be hard to determine.  In some fields, such as health science, education and criminal justice, an instructor may allow you to use a well- researched trade article in place of a scholarly article – ASK FIRST!


Other types of sources classified by audience

  • Textbooks
    • are usually in a category by themselves
    • are closest to trade, since they are teaching students about a field
    • as a rule, you should not use textbooks as a source for academic research
  • Newsletters
    • news about a subject or profession
    • can be very general: for example, news about science
    • can be very specific: for example, news for passenger airline pilots
    • always popular or trade, never scholarly
  • Reviews

    • opinion pieces about books, movies, music, plays, etc.

    • can be found in scholarly, popular or trade publications in print and on the web
    • b

      ook reviews in scholarly journals are NOT scholarly

    • Use reviews for background information, do NOT use them for academic research

      • Exception: people researching performing arts productions often use reviews of productions

  • Editorials, opinion pieces, letters

    • o

      pinions by different people on a variety of subjects

    • c

      an be found in scholarly, popular or trade publications in print and on the web

    • c

      an be used as examples in academic research – not as articles

    • t

      hey are popular or trade even if they appear in a scholarly publication

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Information types & formats 2: sources classified by closeness

From the first post:
There are three basic ways to divide information sources for academic purposes.  These are:
  1. sources classified by audience
  2. sources classified by closeness
  3. sources classified by quality measure

These divisions refer to non-fiction (with a few exceptions.)

Sources classified by closeness
The second way to classify academic sources is by closeness.  Closeness to what?  Closeness to the original event, original time period, original research, or original idea.
The two main types of sources classified by closeness are:
  1. primary
  2. secondary

This classification usually refers to non-fiction, but does occasionally include fiction (for example:  using a Greek play as a primary source for a history article.)

Primary sources are those that are closest to an original event,  original time, original research or original idea.


  • An eyewitness account in print, audio or video, including oral histories.
  • An original document such as letters, contracts, deeds, and even an early graphic novel written in Greek about the labors of Hercules.
  • A YouTube or news video shot by someone who was there (or by security cameras, CCTV, etc.)
  • Memoirs and autobiographies
  • A report on research written by the people who did the research, usually published as a journal article, but sometimes published as a monograph.
  • A news or documentary photograph
  • An object, such as a mummy (from the Louvre Museum, Paris), a painting, or an old car

Primary sources can be popular, scholarly or trade, but in history, they are often popular.

Adapted primary sources

Adaptations of primary sources include photographs and  reproductions of original objects, and translations from an original language.  Adapted primary sources provide access to primary sources such as paintings, mummies, manuscripts, statues, Greek inscriptions, and buildings that are inaccessible for a variety of reasons.

Adaptations usually count as a primary source, but check with your professor to be sure.
HOWEVER:  you must use adapted sources  produced by reputable groups such as museums, universities, respected publishers and so on.   For most undergraduate research, you can use Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons,  and Flickr Creative Commons for images IF the image includes source information and shows copyright information.

Examples of adapted sources:

It’s still best to look at the original source if you can, because:
  • when you adapt or reproduce something, you change it
  • you can’t tell what the original is made of  or how it was made
  • in the case of photographs and 3-D objects, you can only see one side

Virtual reality techniques provide 3-D views, but still don’t capture information such as texture, ink composition, material, and rarely show pen marks, chisel marks, etc.

When using translations, either use critical editions or choose reputable publishers such as university presses and other academic publishers.  (In critical editions, the translator tells you why s/he made the choices s/he did in when translating the text.)
Secondary sources are further away from the original event,  time, research or idea.  They may be::

Primary & secondary works can be popular or scholarly or trade.


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Information types & formats 3: sources classified by quality measure

From post 1:

There are three basic ways to divide information sources for academic purposes.  These are:

  1. sources classified by audience
  2. sources classified by closeness
  3. sources classified by quality measure

These classifications refer to non-fiction.

Sources classified by quality measure:

  • Peer reviewed / Refereed
  • Edited
  • No determination

Peer reviewed & refereed

Peer Reviewed and referred mean essentially the same thing:
  • An article is submitted to a journal or a monograph to a book publisher.
  • The editor sends it out to a 2-3 anonymous reviewers making sure the author  is anonymous too.

    • In very specialized fields, reviewers & authors may know or guess each other’s names, but they’re still supposed to be objective.
  • The reviewers are experts in the article or book’s subject area.
  • They review the information and send back comments for the author.
  • The author fixes any problems and eventually the information is published.
  • Sometimes the problems are too severe to fix or the author chooses not to fix them and the information is not published.
The review of the information by other experts helps to ensure that most information in scholarly journals  or in monographs is of high quality.  In general, the process works well; however, it can sometimes  make it difficult for new ideas to get published.  Occasionally, bad information makes it into publication.  Often, this is because more recent information renders the older information useless. Sometimes, there is fraud on the part of the author.   Fortunately, this is rare.  If fraud or significant error is discovered,  the publisher retracts the article or book.  One famous example is the article that first claimed vaccines cause autism and bowel disease.  After numerous studies, no supporting evidence has been discovered.  What has been found is that the author fabricated data and was involved in a scheme to make money on testing for people bringing court cases.
With edited sources, an author turns in work to an editor, who then suggests changes if necessary.  Edited sources include journal, magazine & newspaper articles, and books.  Websites, newscasts and blogs often have editors as well.
  • An editor for a journal or magazine or newspaper or book looks over the information.
  • It may also be looked at by a fact checker, who makes sure the author’s claims are factually correct, and a copy editor who reviews for grammar, spelling, etc.
  • The information is published.
  • Usually, the review is not as rigorous as that done by peer reviewers or referees; however,  many edited sources are of excellent quality.  Often, editors are experts in a specific field.    Such articles in journals may be considered scholarly or academic, but not peer reviewed.
  • Researchers may have problems evaluating an edited source because it is difficult to judge the ability of the editor.
  • Most edited sources are popular. 
    • Exception:  books of essays by experts in the field can be scholarly or trade
No determination of quality
Often, especially on the web, there is no determination of the quality of an information source by outside experts, either peer reviewers, editors,  or other experts.   For example: many blogs and personal websites fall into this category.
 In some cases, editing is done, but it difficult to determine the quality of the editing from the information given.  Wikipedia is a good example.  Most articles are edited by whoever wants to do the edits.  The featured and good categories of articles do have higher standards of editing, but even in those two instances, you don’t know who the editors are or what their expertise is.

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Information Ethics — intellectual property rights

The post on cheating looks at  information ethics in terms of right versus wrong.  In this post, we’ll  look at information ethics from a legal as well as an ethical perspective.

Intellectual property rights are concerned with the ownership of created works.  Created works include, but are not limited to,  books, articles, music, movies, games, software, art,  and websites.  The owners of created works have certain rights unless s/he has signed away those rights.

Copyright is the most familiar of these rights.  Copyright is a legal concept.  The laws governing copyright vary from place to place and with different time periods.   In current U.S. law, the person who created the work automatically has copyright without registration or payment (this is a change from previous U.S. copyright laws.)

Under U.S. law, copyright holders have the right to determine how their work will be used, with the exception of fair use, which we’ll look at later.  Copyright holders may also assign, or give, their copyright to another person, or more commonly, the company or institution they work for.

Copyright infringement is the use of copyrighted work without the author’s permission.  Historically, this has been difficult to prove for books and other printed materials, although the web is changing that.  As with plagiarism, it is easier both to infringe copyright and to catch the infringers thanks to the web.     Most successful lawsuits these days are brought against those who use music and/or film without getting permission from the copyright holder.  The term piracy is often used when discussing copyright infringement of music, movies and software.

When you infringe copyright you are also usually guilty of plagiarism.  However, you can plagiarize works without infringing copyright.  For example:  most government documents are in the public domain, which means you don’t have to ask permission to use  the information in them.  However, copying the information without giving credit is still plagiarism.  (Caution:  some government documents are copyrighted.   Copyrighted works will generally say so – check the back side of the title page.)

You may not think of yourself as a copyright holder (or owner), but if you take photos, create art (and crafts!), write, etc.,  then you are.  If you post photos, art, writings, etc., online, you need to be  careful that you are not signing away your rights when you post on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Before you post, check out the terms of service.  Yes, terms of service are headache inducing, but Facebook, and more  recently Instagram, have included language in their terms of service that would allow them to use your works pretty much however they wish.  Public outcry forced both to back down, but they have not changed their terms of service. (Check out Facebook’s Terms of Service, especially Section 2, #1, last sentence.)


Right about now you may be asking yourself  “how can I write a paper if I have to ask permission to use everything?”  The answer is fair use.  Fair Use  is a limitation on a copyright holder’s rights.  Thanks to fair use, you can quote brief passages from books, articles, etc., copy articles for personal use, make a mix list from music you own legally, use images and charts for educational purposes, etc.  YOU MUST STILL GIVE CREDIT or you  are guilty of plagiarism.

Fair use is generally limited to educational uses such as research papers, class presentations and art projects.  Most plays and movies presented on campus do not fall under fair use.  In most cases, you must purchase the right to present plays or movies for any group larger than a single class, and always if you charge admission (you could probably get away with asking for cans for the Food Bank for a movie shown at your religious institution of choice, but not much more).  Fair use may also apply to not-for-profit groups such as scouts and churches if the actual audience will be small.

General rules for fair use:

Things are more likely to fall under fair use if:

1.  Use is limited (for example:  one class)

2.  Only a small portion of a work is used

3.  The purpose is educational

Public Domain:  Works in the public domain  either are no longer covered by copyright or were never copyrighted (for example, many government publications.)  For research purposes, public domain means you can use large chunks of information without asking permission.  HOWEVER, you still must give credit or you are plagiarizing.

Copyright Expiration:  Copyright is granted for a specific period of time, which varies depending on the location and the most recent law.  In the U.S., current law says that all works created before January 1, 1923 are in the public domain.  CAUTION:  Some works, such as Huckleberry Finn or Pride and Prejudice,  that are out of copyright, may be published in new editions, in which some (for example, an introduction)  or all (for example, notes throughout the text)  of which may be protected by copyright.

Works created between 1924 and 1964 may or may not be protected by copyright.  You need to check each work to be sure.  Want to know more?  Check out the chart by Peter Hirtle of Cornell University.  (There’s a reason why intellectual property lawyers make a lot of money.)


Plagiarism:  using materials without giving proper credit (= cheating = unethical)

Falsification:  giving incorrect information, especially when giving credit  (= cheating = unethical)

Copyright Infringement:  using too much copyrighted material without getting permission  (illegal)

Fair Use:  The ability to use a small amount of copyrighted material for educational, or other non-profit purposes, without getting permission – if you give proper credit.

Public Domain:  a work  is in the public domain if the copyright has expired OR if the work was never copyrighted.

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Information Ethics — cheating

What do we mean by information ethics?  The short answer is:  it’s the ethical use of information.  The long answer is a bit more complex.   Joan M. Reitz, in her Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science, defines it as:   “The branch of ethics that focuses on the relationship between the creation, organization, dissemination, and use of information, and the ethical standards and moral codes governing  human conduct in society.”  (*

For students this means dealing with issues such as plagiarism, falsification, and intellectual property rights.   This post will cover cheating, the next post will look at intellectual property rights.

The Weber State University Student Honor Code (6.22.IV.30.2) details what the university considers unethical and what the results will be for students who exhibit such behaviors.  All students are responsible for knowing   what to avoid.  Ignorance is not considered an acceptable excuse.

What do you need to know?  The basic concepts relating to information ethics so you won’t accidentally do something that’s considered academic dishonesty.  If you do it on purpose – that’s on you.  For those of you who might be wavering, keep in mind that while it’s easier to cheat these days,  it’s even easier to catch someone cheating.

Plagiarism  – this is a term that covers several different types of cheating.  Basically, it means claiming someone else’s work as your own.  There are three important types:

  1. Direct plagiarism – this is what most people think about when they hear the word plagiarism.  It means copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own.
  2. Accidental or unintentional plagiarism –  there are several ways you can plagiarize accidentally.  These days, the  most common type of accidental plagiarism is when you give credit properly, but your source has plagiarized the information .  This happens when you use non-academic web sources (and it’s why you’re told to avoid them.)  Not giving proper credit and paraphrasing that are too close to the original are other ways people plagiarize accidentally.   I strongly advise you to avoid paraphrases – this is where most people have a problem.  Either do a direct quote or summarize.  Give credit to the author either way.
  3. Self-plagiarism is a related concept.  This is when you use part or all of a paper (or other assignment) that you did previously for a current assignment without indicating that you’re using previous work.  You can quote small sections (make sure to give yourself credit); however using long passages or giving a previously written paper a new title and re-submitting it are both considered cheating.

Even if you plagiarize accidentally, it’s still considered plagiarism and there are consequences if you get caught.  As I said above, ignorance is not considered an excuse.

Falsification – giving information that is false in some way.  The most common academic falsification is:   you can’t remember exactly where you found a quote.  The paper is due in one hour.  You guess and do a citation based on your guess.  You are wrong.  You’ve just committed falsification (also called misattribution.)  Falsification also includes activities such as falsifying data, making up sources and the like.

How do I deal with students who plagiarize?

First time:  you lose credit for the question and cannot revise.  I warn you about penalties if it happens again.
Second time:  in same assignment  –
     If I think it’s accidental (for example:  you confuse two citations but the rest looks good) – you lose points and can’t revise.
     If I think it was done on purpose (it’s an exact copy of a web source) – you fail the assignment and I report you to the Dean of Students. (NOTE:  the Dean of Students keeps a database of people who have been caught plagiarizing, cheating, etc.  Multiple incidents might result in academic probation or other penalties.)

Second time – different assignment – you fail the course, I report you to the Dean of Students.

The web makes it much easier to plagiarize either accidentally or on purpose.  It also makes it much easier for instructors to catch you.

How do you avoid cheating?  

  • Make the decision to do your own work.
  • Keep track of your research.
  • Avoid paraphrasing – it is very difficult to paraphrase without plagiarizing.  Summarize or use a direct quotation  instead.
  • Be very careful when you use non-academic sources on the web.
  • Give credit properly (we’ll look at this in the section on giving credit)

*I got the reference to this definition from the Wikipedia article on Information Ethics.  Finding useful sources is one of the ways you can use Wikipedia for academic assignments.

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