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Bad Research Paper Example

Critique of a Research Article

The goal of this activity is to give you an opportunity to apply whatever you learned in this course in evaluating a research paper. Warning!!!!You might have done some article summaries or even critical evaluation of some resources. However, this activity is unique because you evaluate a research article from a methodology perspective.

For this assignment you briefly summarize and extensively evaluate the attached educational research article (If you cannot download the article please go to BeachBoard/Content/Articles to download the article). 


This assignment should be done individually. In the summary section, you should write a brief (up to 500 words) summary of the article in your own words. Don’t use copy and paste try to rephrase. This will be a good practice for your final project’s literature review. In the critique section, you evaluate the article using the following grading criteria.

Grading criteria for research critique

In your summary, you should identify main elements of the research including

1.        Research problem

2.        Research goal

3.        Hypothesis

4.       Research Questions

5.       Research Method (briefly explain)

6.       Sample (participants)

7.       Variables

8.       Tools (instruments, tests, surveys)

9.       Main findings (brief summary of the results)

10.   Conclusion

The critique part should be 2-3 pages (1000-2000 words) and include to the following sections. Your critique should be longer than your summary and you pay special attention to the design and procedure. Your grade on this assignment is based on your answer the following questions.

There is a long list of questions. You don’t have to address all questions. However, you should address highlighted questions. Some questions are relevant to this article some are not. I listed so many questions simply because I’d like you to learn what to look for in evaluating a research article.

The format of your paper should NOT be like a Q & A list. Instead, you should integrate your answers into an essay format similar to the given examples.



1.     Is there a statement of the problem?

2.     Is the problem “researchable”? That is, can it be investigated through the collection and analysis of data?

3.     Is background information on the problem presented?

4.     Is the educational significance of the problem discussed?

5.     Does the problem statement indicate the variables of interest and the specific relationship between those variables which are investigated? When necessary, are variables directly or operationally defined?

Review of Related Literature

1.     Is the review comprehensive?

2.     Are all cited references relevant to the problem under investigation?

3.     Are most of the sources primary, i.e., are there only a few or no secondary sources?

4.     Have the references been critically analyzed and the results of various studies compared and contrasted, i.e., is the review more than a series of abstracts or annotations?

5.     Does the review conclude with a brief summary of the literature and its implications for the problem investigated?

6.     Do the implications discussed form an empirical or theoretical rationale for the hypotheses which follow?



1.     Are specific questions to be answered listed or specific hypotheses to be tested stated?

2.     Does each hypothesis state an expected relationship or difference?

3.     If necessary, are variables directly or operationally defined?

4.     Is each hypothesis testable?


1.     Are the size and major characteristics of the population studied described?

2.     If a sample was selected, is the method of selecting the sample clearly described?

3.     Is the method of sample selection described one that is likely to result in a representative, unbiased sample?

4.     Did the researcher avoid the use of volunteers?

5.     Are the size and major characteristics of the sample described?

6.     Does the sample size meet the suggested guideline for minimum sample size appropriate for the method of research represented?     


1.     Is the rationale given for the selection of the instruments (or measurements) used?

2.     Is each instrument described in terms of purpose and content?

3.     Are the instruments appropriate for measuring the intended variables?

4.     Is evidence presented that indicates that each instrument is appropriate for the sample under study?

5.     Is instrument validity discussed and coefficients given if appropriate?

6.     Is reliability discussed in terms of type and size of reliability coefficients?

7.     If appropriate, are subtest reliabilities given?

8.     If an instrument was developed specifically for the study, are the procedures involved in its development and validation described?

9.     If an instrument was developed specifically for the study, are administration, scoring or tabulating, and interpretation procedures fully described?

Design and Procedure

1.     Is the design appropriate for answering the questions or testing the hypotheses of thestudy?

2.     Are the procedures described in sufficient detail to permit them to be replicated by another researcher?

3.     If a pilot study was conducted, are its execution and results described as well as its impact on the subsequent study?

4.     Are the control procedures described?

5.     Did the researcher discuss or account for any potentially confounding variables that he or she was unable to control for?



1.     Are appropriate descriptive or inferential statistics presented?

2.     Was the probability level, α, at which the results of the tests of significance were evaluated,

specified in advance of the data analyses?

3.     If parametric tests were used, is there evidence that the researcher avoided violating the

required assumptions for parametric tests?

4.     Are the tests of significance described appropriate, given the hypotheses and design of the


5.     Was every hypothesis tested?

6.     Are the tests of significance interpreted using the appropriate degrees of freedom?

7.     Are the results clearly presented?

8.     Are the tables and figures (if any) well organized and easy to understand?

9.     Are the data in each table and figure described in the text?

Discussion (Conclusions and Recommendation)

1.     Is each result discussed in terms of the original hypothesis to which it relates?

2.     Is each result discussed in terms of its agreement or disagreement with previous results

obtained by other researchers in other studies?

3.     Are generalizations consistent with the results?

4.     Are the possible effects of uncontrolled variables on the results discussed?

5.     Are theoretical and practical implications of the findings discussed?

6.     Are recommendations for future action made?

7.     Are the suggestions for future action based on practical significance or on statistical

significance only, i.e., has the author avoided confusing practical and statistical


8.     Are recommendations for future research made?


Make sure that you cover the following questions in your critique even if you have already covered them in your crtique.

1.   Is the research important? Why?

2.   In your own words what methods and procedures were used? Evaluate the methods and procedures.

3.   Evaluate the sampling method and the sample used in this study.

4.   Describe the reliability and validity of all the instruments used.

5.   What type of research is this?  Explain.

6.   How was the data analyzed?

7.   What is (are) the major finding(s)? are these findings important?

8.What are your suggestions to improve this research?



Here is a hint on how to evaluate an article.

Use this resource for writing and APA style.

Examples (please note some examples are longer than what is expected for this article)

·         Good example

·         Poor example

More examples

·         Original article

·         Article critique


Research Papers

Jim Moore, Anthropology, UCSD
In the unlikely event that you're another
teacher and would like to use this, please -- be my guest!

Research papers are not essays or reports. This handout addresses 4 important subjects:

1) What are they?
2) What are they good for?
3) How does one locate and cite references?
4) How does one avoid plagiarizing references, once found?
plus some miscellaneous useful information. Click here to skip ahead to sections on plagiarism and a set of thumbnail examples of research papers that illustrate the good, bad and ugly of what gets handed in.

1) What are they?

"The style for research papers emphasizes the unambiguous, easily understood presentation of information and ideas, rather than the expressive use of evocative, complex, and richly ambiguous imagery and symbolism. In other words, research papers require an expository, not a literary, style. ... A term paper is not a 'report' of the kind often assigned in high schools, which meekly repeat information found in one or two sources. Nor is a library research paper similar to a lab report, or a report on the results of an experiment. It is never merely the presentation of a set of data [pieces of information that can be used in analysis]. Writing a term paper requires a good deal more intellectual involvement and commitment than writing a report does.

Then what is a term paper? Like a report, a library research paper presents data and ideas (which are, however, typically drawn from several sources). Unlike a report, a research paper presents your analysis and interpretation of data and ideas found in a survey of the ... literature relevant to the topic of your paper. Analysis is the process of organizing and summarizing data and ideas in order to answer a question. Interpretation refers to a discussion of the meaning and implications of your answers for the issues, ideas, and problems that your paper addresses."
(Parish, 1981: 2-3)

2) What are they good for?

Research-paper writing skills and citation formats may seem picky and arcane. Is this a case of academics trying to perpetuate a style and foist it off on students who will never need what they learn? No (trust me...); research papers are central to a variety of fields:

First, research papers are what academia is all about. If you plan to go to grad school & on in academia, you have to speak the language.

Law: The whole game is based on research and critical written analysis presented in a format that justifies each element of an argument and illustrates where each came from.

Conservation: Many BioAnthro and EBE majors are interested in conservation, ecology, the state of the world. One important way to have input into that state (and to get jobs in those fields) is through research papers on topics such as, e.g., rates of species loss under different land-use schemes in a tropical forest habitat. Such reports don't often convince people in charge to act ("Oh, gee, I didn't realize our oil well was going to do that--we'll tear it right down...") but they are vital ammunition in the legal maneuvering that ultimately leads to change. We hope.

Basically, any profession in which you are

(a) trying to arrive at An Answer
along with a number of colleagues (so it is important for all of you to be able to reconstruct logical/analytical chains leading to each conclusion, so that (i) every link is carefully checked and (ii) if you run out of air while SCUBA diving at 200' your colleagues can build on your ideas afterward; or
(b) trying to convince an educated person
(believe it or not, this includes politicians) of a position on a technical issue (and almost every issue has a technical side). Your target may decide the issue emotionally anyhow, but in our culture the strength of supporting/opposing formal arguments plays a critical role in how far policymakers can really act on their emotions.

3) How does one locate and cite references?

Location: MELVYL is great, but the subject/author searches only cover books. The majority of the information you need for a research paper is in journal articles. How do you locate relevant articles?
  1. Ask me, another student, or the reference librarian for suggestions.
  2. Use the CC, MAGS, PE and MED databases on MELVYL in addition to CAT. The command EXP CC [or whichever] will EXPlain. Find a recent review article and look at its reference list (use EXP PT in the CC database to find out how to specify reviews!).
  3. Go to one of the periodical indexes/abstracts: Zoological Record, Biological Abstracts, etc.; the reference librarians can show you how to use them.
  4. Use MELVYL to look up a recent book on the subject; read the relevent bits paying special attention to where the references cited are from. This should give you an idea of which journals publish relevant articles. Find them on the shelves and browse.

Citation: The most obvious advice here is LOOK AT HOW THINGS ARE CITED IN THE ARTICLES YOU READ. For clear and explicit instruction, see (Parish, 1981).

There are two elements to citing your work: (1) the in-text citation where, in the body of your paper, you tell the reader where you got an idea or quotation, and (2) the reference to that work in your bibliography. BOTH are important. NOTE: Your bibliography should include ONLY items discussed in the text (if you must list other things you read but did not cite, do it as a separate "Additional Reading" section).

In-text citation format varies across disciplines; it is your responsibility to conform to the norm of the one in which you are writing. For most natural science formal writing (and this includes biological anthropology), the norm is simple: give author and year of publication, e.g. (Parish, 1981) or, if you want to emphasize that Parish said it, "According to Parish (1981)..." is equivalent. If you are citing a short article that's all you should put. If you are quoting a passage in a long work like a book, or citing a minor idea in a book, then give the page number -- e.g. (Parish 1981: 32). Whether you include a "," or write instead (Parish 1981, p. 32) is not important, but be consistent.

If you are citing a chapter from an edited book, cite the author of the chapter, not the editor of the book!!!

For example, if you read Jim Moore's chapter "Inbreeding and outbreeding in primates: What's wrong with 'the dispersing sex'?" that appears on pp. 392-426 in the book The Natural History of Inbreeding and Outbreeding: Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives edited by Nancy Thornhill, and you wanted to say in your paper that some really dumb things have been written on the subject, you might write "some really dumb things have been written on the subject, except of course for Moore (1993)" -- you would not say "except of course for Thornhill (1993)" unless you were willing to defend the assertion that all the chapters in the book were as insightful as mine. (Since this medium isn't great for nuances - yes, this is irony ;-) Also, if you read several sources that make basically the same point (good, you can be confident the point is valid!), do not review each one in slightly different words; combine them..

Do not write the same thing over and over (Smith, 1918). Jones (1935) cautions against repetition. According to Ndwiamo, "redundant sentences are a plague in college papers" (1967: 25).
When writing a research paper, avoid needless redundancy (Smith, 1918; Jones, 1935; Ndwiamo, 1967, p. 25).

Bibliogaphy format also varies, but the main goal remains the same: convey to the reader the author[s], title, source and date of the publication. Publication sources include

a) Periodical -- give name of journal (often abbreviated), volume number, and pages of article
b) Book -- name of publisher and city of publication
c) Edited book -- title of book, names of editors, pages of chapter, plus city and publisher
Speth, J. D. (1989). Early hominid hunting and scavenging: the role of meat as an energy source. J. Hum. Evol.18: 329-343. {i.e., volume 18 of the Journal of Human Evolution)

de Waal, F. B. M. (1989). Peacemaking Among Primates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Strum, S. C. & Mitchell, W. (1987). Baboon models and muddles. pp. 87-105 IN Kinzey, W. G. (Ed.), The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models. Albany: SUNY Press.

You would reference the book itself if you had said in your text "several fine books are available on the subject (e.g., Kinzey, 1987)" and in that case, in the bibliography it would appear as

Kinzey, W. G. (1987), The Evolution of Human Behavior: Primate Models. Albany: SUNY Press.

If you cite a book review, cite the review (not the book!):

Daegling, D. J. (1993). Book review of Big Footprints: a Scientific Inquiry into the Reality of Sasquatch, by G. S. Krantz. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol.92: 124-126.

The WEB: citation formats for Internet/Web materials (includes email, gopher, FTP, etc) are still being standardized; see NCHS (1996) for some recommendations. Basically, author, title, URL, and date. Note that I strongly disagree with one of the recommendations at that site, namely, that you list only the date of your visit to the site (you wouldn't cite "Marx, 1997" if that was the year you read Das Kapital, would you?). If available, give the last update date; only if that's not available, give your visit date (and identify which it is!)

NCHS (National Center for Health Statistics) (1996). How to cite electronic media. sitelec/citelec.htm [updated 11/7/96]


A small thing that is starting to drive me buggy: In-text citations are part of the sentences they appear in; they do NOT belong after the period.
CORRECT: ... papers are educational too (Parish, 1981).
WRONG: ... papers are educational too. (Parish, 1981)
It's not a big thing, but since NO published material that I'm aware of does it the "wrong" way, I keep getting astonished by students who make that mistake. Learn by example! I mean, we all know active instruction is only marginally successful...
1999 addendum: OK, a friend recently told me that in fact there are some genres in which the citation floats around after the period, and that this is commonly taught in high-school. All I can say is, I've never seen it in natural or social science writing; whether I'm parochial or K-12 teachers need to get with the program, you decide. If you're writing for a natural/social science audience, put the period after the citation until told otherwise.

A last minor point: NUMBER YOUR PAGES !! Geez, like I can't count? It helps me when I make comments ("on p. 3 you said X, on p. 5..."). I have actually done statistics on papers handed in; students who write papers near the limits of an assignment (too short, too long) are significantly more likely not to number their pages than those in the middle of the suggested range. Hence, as soon as I see a paper without page numbers, I assume something's wrong with it--not numbering backfires.

Examples of typical research papers:

Subject: What color is the sky?

Back to contents

1) I think the sky is blue. The end.
BAD: no research; all opinion. We do value your ideas and opinions, but school is all about learning how to learn more than what you already know/think. (An "essay")

2) Jones (1984) says the sky is blue. The end.
POOR: There is almost no subject on which everyone agrees in every detail; as presented, this indicates you didn't put much effort into research OR thinking about it. If it were Jones (1984), Wong (1985), Dagosto (1985), and three or four others, and all said exactly the same thing, then OK (though you picked a dull topic!)--but you know someone is at least going to suggest a different reason for blueness... This is a "report," basically a dressed-up set of notes.

3) Jones (1984) says the sky is blue. I think this is wrong because it looks kinda grey to me. The end.
POOR: While the student is reading critically and is not afraid to disagree with the author, no real supporting evidence or detailed argument is presented to support that disagreement; just one person's opinion. This is close cousin to "Jones says it's blue, but it might be grey. The end." Arguments need to be supported by data and/or explicit logic.

4) Smith (1902) says the sky is yellow. Jones (1984) says it is blue. The end.
BAD: no attempt at resolution of obvious conflict; no opinion. (Another "report")

5) Smith (1902) says the sky is yellow. Jones (1984) says it is blue. Obviously this is a complex question and researchers will someday come up with the answer. The end.
Formally OK: This is a common one, and you get a common grade for it. The student read the material in enough detail to recognize the conflict, but "further research needed," by itself, is wimpy. At the very least, make some specific suggestions about where the further research should go--e.g.,
"Since most people think the sky is blue, perhaps the answer to this problem has more to do with the writers than with atmospheric optics; future work should focus on what was wrong with Smith."

6) Smith (1902) says the sky is yellow. Jones (1984) says it is blue. Experts disagree, but that can be explained because they were writing 82 years apart. The end.
Formally OK: The student recognizes the conflict and attempts to resolve it by saying that if it got into a journal/book, it must be true; therefore, any resolution of the conflict, no matter how far fetched, that lets everyone have their way is OK. As I said, this is formally OK but makes the student look pretty silly. The sky was yellow in 1902? One learns lots in classes (maybe); one hopefully is also bringing knowledge, experience into them. Use that.

7) Smith (1902) says the sky is yellow. Jones (1984) says it is blue. Doe (1967) describes a rare neurological disorder affecting people who spend too much time on Black's Beach. This disorder reverses colors so that one perceives "yellow" when looking at blue objects. Since Smith lived in La Jolla (Who's Who in LJ, 1910), it is reasonable to suggest she was suffering from this syndrome, thus resolving the apparent disagreement. The end.
GREAT: Presented with a paradox, the student dug into the subject, found extra relevant material, integrated it in a reasonable package, and suggested (not "proved") a resolution. That's an A paper.

A word about references:

Not all sources are created equal. Most of the best-known journals are refereed. This means that when an author submits a manuscript for publication, the editor sends copies of it to between 2-5 (normally) other researchers in the same field, who do their best to tear it to shreds. Based on their reviews, the editor either accepts, accepts with modification ("OK, but change the following..."), or rejects the article. The author never (officially) finds out who the reviewers were; cloaked in anonymity, normally they don't hold back. What this means to you is that anything you read in a refereed journal has at least been heavily screened by a couple of independent experts on the subject. The data and ideas in it may not be sound and/or correct, but at least there are not likely to be serious, basic flaws.

This is NOT SO for many non-refereed journals or books. In those cases, the decision to publish is made by a single editor or publisher, who maybe asked a friend about the article. I have a ca. 200 page monograph, Original Report Number XV of the Okamura Fossil Laboratory, entitled New Facts: Homo and all Vertebrata Were Born Simultaneously in the Former Paleozoic in Japan. It looks very impressive and scientific. It is written by Chonosuke Okamura, who has discovered that if you look very closely at various rocks, you can find microscopic fossil fish, reptiles, dinosaurs, dragons, and people--all less than 2-3mm long, and dating from paleoaeozoic rocks. With all respect to Dr. Okamura, I suspect that he's been looking through the microscope for too long; "eccentric" is about the kindest way of putting it. Point is, it is published and has an official sounding title and all that. READ CRITICALLY. Journals usually indicate somewhere if they are refereed (e.g., instructions to authors will say "submit 4 copies for review").

TEXTBOOKS are another issue. They are handy for background, but do not use them as sources in research papers. The purpose of a research paper is to teach you to cope with primary sources, with conflicting interpretations of data and with mutually exclusive theories--i.e., to challenge you and make you think for yourself [the procedure is a bit like tossing nonswimmers into the deep end of the pool]. Since textbooks are designed to smooth out all the controversies and difficulties so that you can just "learn the facts," relying on texts would miss the whole point. You can identify textbooks pretty easily; "Introduction to..." or titles that are fields ("Psychology") are giveaways, as are introductions directed "to the student" or review questions at the ends of chapters. If in doubt, ASK.


So remember why the good lord made your eyes,
And don't shade your eyes,
Only, please, to call it "research."

--Tom Lehrer
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These lyrics are from a Tom Lehrer song about a nineteenth-century Russian mathematician who got caught plagiarizing. Unless that's how you want to be remembered ("Oh yeah-- Debbie--she's the one who plagiarized her term paper"), it is worth going over just what plagiarism is.

At the end of my first 2 years here, EVERY time I'd assigned a research paper to a class, I CAUGHT SOMEONE PLAGIARIZING. At the start of the quarter I ask, "Everyone know what plagiarism is and that you shouldn't do it?;" everyone looks extremely bored and says yea, don' bore me, mon. Three months later, one of them is explaining to a dean "But I didn't think that was 'plagiarism'." So far the "guilty" students have ranged from freshmen who clearly hadn't a clue what the problem was, to graduating seniors (who--eventually--did graduate) who claimed to be clueless. Hence this handout; I hope never to catch anyone again (seems to be working, the rate is way down).

Which raises point number one: it is extremely difficult to establish intent to plagiarize ("guilt" in the moral sense) in most cases. On the one hand, this means that swearing innocence usually works to convince a prof (me, anyway) that the event was accidental. On the other hand, because it can be so hard to know the truth, my standard policy is to pass the student along to the academic dean of his/her college anyway. Report'em all, and let the admin sort'em out. "The recommended minimum administrative penalties are probation for the first offense and suspension or dismissal for a subsequent offense", with "Dismissed for Academic Dishonesty" noted on the student's transcript (UCSD General Catalog 1996-97, p. 72).

What is plagiarism?

"Plagiarism is the use of someone's work without acknowledgement--as if it were your own. If in your term paper you were to use someone's data, ideas, or words, without documenting that use with a citation, then you would be guilty of plagiarism" (Parish, 1981).

The key to avoiding plagiarism is simple: correct documentation of any use of sources. IE, citation format and when to use it. Parish (1981) is a simple, clear, and useful guide to citation format. The bookstore usually carries it (about $3.00), and I have loaner copies; alternatively, just click here to open the online version in a new window. The following is quoted from Parish (pp. 21-23).

A quotation, the use of someone's words, not only requires a citation, but must be set off from your writing by quotation marks or by indentation and single spacing. This is true of phrases as well as of whole sentences and passages. Consider the following example from African Religions of Brazil by Roger Bastide. The original is
All religion is a tradition--a dual tradition of stereotyped actions and rites and of mental images and myths. It has often been claimed that the two elements are inseparable, myths being a definition or justification of the ceremonial action (Bastide 1970:240).
And here is the same passage plagiarized almost word for word in a student paper. (The paper is hypothetical. If a student did this, he'd find his graduation getting pretty hypothetical too.)
This religion is a dual tradition, like any other; a tradition both of stereotyped actions and rites and of psychological images and myths. The two elements are inseparable, with myth being the definition of ceremonial action.
Only a few, very minor, changes have been made; essentially it consists of Bastide's words. Here is an example of how to use this passage properly:
According to Bastide, "all religion is a tradition" and as such consists "of stereotyped actions and rites and mental images and myths." He notes that it is possible to view ritual and myth as a unitary phenomenon in which myth is a statement of the purpose or meaning of ritual (Bastide 1978:240).
It is clear that Bastide is being quoted, so a single citation at the end of the passage does the trick. Remember: it is still plagiarism even if you put someone's thoughts or data into your own words (in a paraphrase or summary) and do not acknowledge that use with a citation. Plagiarism occurs whenever a citation is required, but is not given, whether for quotes or paraphrases, ideas or data.
Parish goes on to point out that poor note-taking is one of the major causes of accidental plagiarism; you scribble something on a piece of paper, then weeks later you try to remember where it was from, or whether what you scribbled is a verbatim quotation or not. TAKE GOOD & CAREFUL NOTES.

Now: when writing a research paper on, e.g., the hominid hip joint, it is hard to paraphrase sentences like "There are nine joints or sets of joints in the lower limb: the sacroiliac joint, hip, knee, ankle or talocrural joint, intertarsal joints, tarsometatarsal joints, intermetatarsal joints, metatarsophalangeal joints, and interphalangeal joints" (Shipman et al. 1985). Put it in your own words-- right. And yet, if you put "" around everything the paper starts to look like an exercise in cut-and- paste, and the reader starts asking rude questions like "are you quoting so much because you don't understand what you read?"

This is known as being between a rock and a hard place, and there is no easy answer. Nor is there a formula (that I know of) for the maximum length of a phrase that you don't put "" around. Discussing the above, it is pretty clear that you wouldn't come up with the 2-word phrase "talocrural joint" out of thin air, but in a research paper you obviously wouldn't put quotes around every use of a technical term. There are lots of gray areas, and all I can say is:

  • Whether you use quotations or not, be sure to cite the source.
  • If you take a set of words from a source for their effect--because they go well together--use quotes. If you liked the phrase enough to want to use it as such, the author probably liked it enough to want credit for it.
  • Even if it is pretty mundane, use quotes if you take any chunk more than a sentence in length.
  • Ask your instructor if you have any questions. That is what office hours are all about, and we want to help. I certainly didn't take this job for the pay...

Why is it wrong?

1) Cheating of any sort places honest students at a disadvantage, since most courses are graded on some sort of curve. Whether this disadvantage is unfair or not is culturally determined; you may have heard of serious problems at several universities in India, where students rioted (major riots, people injured if not killed) over the right to cheat on examinations. Such riots do have a certain logic: when cheating is common, students at a university that tries to crack down are at a great disadvantage on any standardized national test. Have you ever missed an "A" by a couple points? Ever think it might be because someone else in the class cheated & shifted the curve? Think. Logically, there are just a few possible alternatives:
  • -- Some cheat, some don't: nice guys finish last.
  • -- Everyone cheats: works in the short run, for individuals, but inevitably the system as a whole-- first the university, eventually the nation--degenerates. Do you want to be operated on by a brain surgeon who cheated in med school? Do you want national economic policy to be made by someone who graduated top of class but who can't really do the analyses? (well, maybe that one wouldn't make so much difference... but you get the picture). This sounds pretty melodramatic: western civilization isn't going to unravel next month if you crib a sentence from the encyclopedia. But you know what? Enough university students crib enough sentences, and in 30 years it might.
  • -- Nobody cheats: everything is great, hard work and ability are rewarded, everyone is happy except the lazy idiots and, frankly, if somebody has to be unhappy, better them than us. But this state is easily invaded by cheaters...
Hopefully the EBE majors at least can see what I'm on about--the analogy with genetical evolution of altruism is pretty obvious. For those who are thinking, "Yeah--and I can show mathematically that selfish genes will invade every time," let's discuss the naturalistic fallacy. If you want to have the ethics of a molecule, fine; don't be upset if you get treated like a molecule then (there are some interesting ideas about the evolution of moralistic aggression that seem relevant here...).

2) Plagiarism doesn't give the original author credit for the work/idea you are using (that includes the words used to express that work/idea, which can be a lot of work themselves). By now you probably know that teachers/academics don't usually get paid much: if you want to see how people like me stand in the world, tell your parents you have decided to become an anthropologist & study monkeys. They will immediately give you 35 or 40 excellent reasons for not doing such a dumb thing; at least 20 will be true. Recognition is about as concrete a reward as most academics hope for, and so failure to give that recognition strikes right at the heart of some very emotional issues for academics. There are practical reasons why it is bad practice (below), too.

3) Plagiarism obscures "paper trails"--making it hard to see precisely how an idea was developed, and upon which data it was based. This can cause all sorts of trouble. For example: say Ernie (1988) is writing about the human fossil record, and steals a section from Frank (1972), without citing Frank. You read Ernie's article, which states confidently that we have absolutely no idea how tall our ancestors were, 2-3 million years ago. Now, you, as a careful student, know that partial skeletons Lucy (found in 1974) and OH62 (found in 1986) both give a pretty good idea of stature. Obviously, Ernie in 1988 should know about these famous fossils, so what is going on? Is he saying that Lucy and OH62 are not ancestral to us (a position that some people believe)? Are you safe in concluding that, in your paper? You easily could spend hours trying to work out this rather odd passage--at least, if you cared enough (& most academics do)--all because Ernie didn't state that he was basing his conclusions on a 1972 paper (which of course clears up the problem). Bottom line: plagiarism can make life more difficult for readers of the plagiarised article.

4) A final problem with plagiarism is related, but affects the plagiarizer. Some things get published that are just plain dumb; others are OK when published but then completely outdated by a new theory or discovery a few years later. Using the example above: even supposing the plagiarism is not detected, since Lucy is pretty well- known for a fossil, Ernie comes out of this looking like a real idiot, an incompetent twit who just invents "facts" out of the air. If he'd cited Frank (1972), he wouldn't come off nearly so badly: we'd perceive that he didn't read enough, but at least he looked into the issue, recognized it's importance, and accurately presented the 1972 state of our knowledge.

Example #2: That monograph on microfossil humans, dragons, and other animals found in various rocks by C. Okamura (see under "research papers" above). It is either a terrific spoof, or the guy pushes the term "eccentric" boldly where it has never gone before. If you stumbled onto it and plagiarized from it for a paper on human evolution, I would fail you on the spot. I mean, this stuff is off the wall. If you said exaclty the same thing but cited Okamura, I would know that maybe we should talk about your credulity, but that in fact you had tried the assignment and simply stumbled onto a joker in the academic deck; undergraduates aren't supposed to know the field so well that they can avoid all those. So citing sources protects the writer--not only is credit going where credit is due, but so is "blame."

Okamura, C. 1987. New Facts: Homo and all Vertebrata Were Born Simultaneously in the Former Paleozoic in Japan. Original Report of the Okamura Fossil Laboratory No. XV (pp. 347-573).

Parish, S. M. 1981. The Overworked Student's Practical Guide to Writing Term Papers for Anthropology (and related subjects). Regents, University of California.

Shipman, P., Walker, A. & Bichell, D. 1985. The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

From an anonymous course questionaire, Fall 1989 :
What topic seemed least interesting, or relevant to what you wanted to learn?

What aspect of the course do you think was the most important/ educational?
Now you know what we're up against! ;-)

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