August 30, 1999 -- Newsletter #43

By Joe Burns

August 30, 1999 -- Newsletter #43
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Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors,

I wanted to let you know that there's a plan to put together one of the largest surveys of the Web and its uses to date. This will be a year-long process resulting in a book that will offer more help and information than anything I've seen on the market. Watch for the surveys after the first of the year. We're doing prep work now.

Did you hear...

>Have you gotten VBS.Monopoly yet? It's a new virus that works much like Melissa, but uses VBS script rather than Macros. The subject line reads "Bill Gates joke." Inside, the message "Bill Gates is guilty of monopoly. Here is the proof. ;-)" and an image of Gates' face on a monopoly board pops up. However, bettering Melissa, this virus sends information about your computer to set mailboxes along with the list of e-mails already in your Outlook address book.

>Still think Y2K will be little or next to nothing in the grand scheme of things? According to Cap Gemini America Inc. in New York, a company doing a survey of businesses, over 75% of all companies have already experienced some form of year 2000 concern. The majority (92%) of the malfunctions were financial miscalculations. Oh boy...

>A story by Danny Rimer asked why some Internet software succeeds while some does not. His answer? "The Web is just one big popularity contest." Welcome to high school... Internet style!

Now onto today's topic...

School Day, School Days.

Dear old Golden Rule days,

Surfin' the Net for a homework part

Not doing work because Springer's on...

My first class was August 23rd, my first 8AM class ever. I'll get up, but will the students?

And what does this have to do with the Internet? Plenty. This year the vast majority of research will take place on the Internet. University students all over the world will forego the walk to the library in exchange for sitting at their Ethernet-driven dorm computer and surfing for stuff to plug into that five-page paper the teacher assigned three weeks ago that is due tomorrow.

Don't tell me you've never thought about it! I've graded so many papers that were put together this way that I, along with many of my colleagues, have taken steps to curtail it.

Here's the premise: Your paper on Mars is due tomorrow. You plop down and enter "Mars" into Yahoo! and bingo! there's a list of URLs a mile long. Now, this would be a useful if you actually read the content and evaluated whether or not it was worth citing. But I ask that we all be honest with each other here: You probably don't, unless a quote is needed, right? Then it's a simple copy-and-paste into the paper. Add a few words here and there and poof! a five-page paper.

Of course, the font size is set to 14, margins set to two inches all around, lines are set at triple space, and the fifth page has a couple of lines on it.

Am I right? Huh? I'll bet many of you can see your own paper in that little rant. Now, I agree that there are those of you out there who really do work hard to use the Internet correctly when performing research. But the real comedy comes from those who shoot to fake it. For instance...

A student handed in a paper to one of my fellow profs. There were 40 (or so) cites, all Internet addresses. The prof did the unthinkable: She looked the URLs up on her computer. None of them existed. When questioned, the student replied that the URLs didn't exist because he hadn't created them yet.

Another student handed in a paper that cited a link to a pornography site. No, he didn't want that in there, he had just copied and pasted the wrong address. Oops.

One student handed in a paper with a cite from a fake version of a page she wanted. When I asked her about it she admitted that she thought it was strange that the information had all changed when she went back the second time.

The funny thing is, this doesn't stop with students. Professors have also run into Internet concerns. When the Internet first came out, I remember posting all of my conference papers and publications online. Many professors did the same. It would be a free flow of ideas and allow us to possibly get cited in others' work more often. A good idea, right? Not according to the American Psychological Association (APA), who set the standards for APA style, which is a popular method of citing material in research papers.

The APA said that posting a paper on-line was akin to publication, and once a paper is published, it cannot be submitted to a conference or published anywhere else. So, basically, if I write a paper and post it online then, according to the APA, I've published a paper.

Woo hoo! Usually, universities require a professor write one publication a year to be considered viable for tenure. One a year? Heck, I can do 10 before lunch if all I have to do is post it online!

You can see that this was a poor decision and from what I understand, it has quietly gone away.

But let's get back to those pesky students!

So, how do we, the nasty professors, deal with students who hand in papers riddled with nothing but Internet citations? I require "traditional media" equal to every Internet cite. Any good Internet cite can be substantiated through another form of media; that is, if you cite, I also want a cite from Newsweek, or the New York Times newspaper, etc. Quotes? No more than two in a paper and never more than 30 words each.

But those parameters only set students in a battle of wits with professors. If I tell you what you can't do, I am not telling you what you can do. The Web is a stunning research tool! I usually devote an entire class to applying critical thinking when researching on the Web. Telling students how to use the Web correctly goes much further than simply telling then not to use it at all.

I like following the thoughts from Jan Alexander and Marsha Tate of the Wolfgram Memorial Library at Widener University. They've laid it out pretty plainly. There is more than what is listed here, so take a look:

When you log into a page looking for support for your paper, you must evaluate each page with five criteria (taken from the page listed above):

>Criterion #1: AUTHORITY

1. Is it clear what individual is responsible for the page?

2. Does the individual responsible for the page indicate his or her qualifications for writing on this topic?

>Criterion #2: ACCURACY

1. Are the sources for any factual information clearly listed so they can be verified in another source? (If not, the page may still be useful as an example of ideas of the individual, but it is not useful as a source of factual information.)

2. Is the information free of grammatical, spelling, and other typographical errors? (These kinds of errors not only indicate a lack of quality control, but can actually produce inaccuracies in information.)

>Criterion #3: OBJECTIVITY

1. Are the person's biases clearly stated?

>Criterion #4: CURRENCY

1. Are there dates on the page to indicate:

a. When the page was written?

b. When the page was first placed on the Web?

c. When the page was last revised?

2. Are there any other indications that the material is kept current?

>Criterion #5: COVERAGE

1. Is there an indication that the page has been completed and is not still under construction?

If the page you have logged into doesn't meet the majority (if not all) of these criteria, don't use it.

Each page will carry its own beliefs and bents and must not be cited alone but in association with the other pages you are citing. For example, a page from the NRA site probably meets most of the criteria above. The information is may be well-authored and heavily supported. However, Criteria #3 might not be met. The NRA page is pushing a specific political ideal. Simply citing the NRA alone does not keep objectivity. You'll need to make a point of finding an opposing viewpoint in another page. It would be the same if you were citing PETA or the Republican party page. Following me?

I am requesting that students check Criteria #2, Objectivity, when they need to find a second source outside the Internet. Past this list, I tell students to be sure to print the page when they cite it. Pages die. They go away. Get a hard copy with the URL printed on it in case the prof checks and you're left without a page.

I urge you to see the Web Evaluation page above if you're a teacher or a student. It will help you put together better papers using the Web. During my second year in graduate school, I wrote a paper using nothing but the Internet as source material (a novel concept at the time). I presented it more because of the process than the topic (paying for the Web). It would have been nice to have had these criteria when I wrote it.

So, here's to grading lots of papers. This year I urge all students to make a point of writing for the sake of learning. Your paper was assigned so that you could stick some information into your brain, not so you would finish it in record time thanks to Yahoo!


And that's that. Thanks again for reading.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: White chocolate is made up of around 30% vegetable fats, 30% milk solids, 30% sugar, and a bit of cocoa butter. You know what isn't in it? Chocolate.

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