Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Leuven University Library, interior view

Science self-corrections, plagiarism, and the purpose of higher education

About this post: This is a summary of blog posts, articles and other content about Higher Education, language teaching and learning, and academic writing, which appeared online between 17th and 23rd February 2014.

This week’s collection of articles, stories and posts showcases examples of academic honesty at its finest and politics at what is perhaps not its worst, asks difficult questions about the purpose of ‘elite’ education and the role of academics, and invites reflection of what we might otherwise take for granted: our mother tongue…

Rethinking your own work

Academics often talk about how science self-corrects, even in the face of evidence that this is not always absolutely true. When the scientific record is amended, it is often done in an half-embarrassed, awkward way, but the case I wish to showcase here is different.

In an article titled 5 Psychological Studies that Require a Second Look: Lessons learned from unusual research publications from my laboratory,  Todd B. Kashdan, an associate professor of Psychology at George Mason University, takes a brutally critical look at five of his own publications. It’s a reflective piece of impressive candour, which deserves to be read in its entirety. Here’s just one of several highlights:

For those of you who aren’t scientists, you need to know an important truth. Just because research is published in a peer-reviewed journal by a reputable publisher does not mean the science is good. There are so many journals that exist. Any time a research study gets rejected, it can be resubmitted somewhere else, and if it happens again and again, scientists can keep on resubmitting until some horrendous outlet takes it (see Traumatology as an example of a journal that published papers that better outlets rejected until eventually everyone realized this and it folded). Think about this the next time you scroll random journal articles to find scientific evidence for your belief.

“I don’t think it’s hard to put things in your own words”

Moving from an example of commendable honesty to something more repugnant, the Huffington Post carried a story of how a US senator plagiarised several online sources, including a blog post written by a High School student in a legislative proposal. To make matters worse, the Senator seem to have sarcastically dismissed evidence of these ‘textual borrowings’ on Twitter before issuing an apology. I think that the following comments by Donald Rapier, the 17-year-old student whose prose the Senator’s aids found so appealing, are very apt:

“I’m glad they liked my article enough to use in a bill!,” said Rapier […] “I’m a little disappointed that they wouldn’t reach out to me or even cite me. I don’t think it’s hard to put things in your own words. […] I hope they haven’t plagiarized before.”

Read more: You may also want to read about how the incumbent Minister of Public Order in Greece helped himself to Wikipedia (!) content in one of his public addresses. 

Self-fulfilment vs. service: Contrasting the aspirations of ‘elite’ graduates

“What next?” is a looming question at the end of one’s studies. This LSE British policy and politics blog post reports on research describing how graduates from elite institutions in the UK and France think about their future. Interestingly, it seems that British graduates appear to be oriented towards a global career in pursuit of self-actualisation, whereas French graduates seem more committed to “a future in the public sector and the betterment of France”. Here’s how the author explains this finding:

The contrasts are also likely to reflect the different structures of opportunity for elite employment within the two countries. In the UK, successive neoliberal reforms have led to a ‘hollowing out’ of the state. Rather than going into the ‘old’ elites such as the armed forces and civil service, the ascendant new elites are in private sector occupations such as law, accountancy and corporate banking.  The civil service may be suffering the same fate as the Church, which saw a decline in the number of elite graduates entering the profession during the second half of the twentieth century as its level of power and influence lessened. In France, the public administration remains strong – not just in terms of numbers but in influence. Elite careers can still be found within the civil service. And while the winds of neoliberalism blow over France too, they have not penetrated as deeply into the functions of the state. The ideals of Rousseau’s social contract can still be found in the discourse of our young French graduates.

Building a career vs. advancing freedom

While on the broad topic of self-interest, I was intrigued by a post by Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College, and author of a book titled “Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges”. The thesis of the post, which is entitled We Have to Protect Ourselves, is that “faculty members should be a bit more paranoid about social media“. Here’s why…

Citing examples of cases where disciplinary action was brought to bear on academics for their public comments, Jenkins argues for a strict separation of ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ identities online. Some recommendations, such as not using university resources for personal blogging, and not listing blog posts as publications (!) are fairly sensible. Others, like the extract presented below, are perhaps more open to debate:

Let’s start with the classroom. Perhaps the simplest thing you can do to stay out of trouble is to teach your subject without injecting politics into class discussions where it has no relevance. If political issues are relevant to a particular discussion, then make sure students understand how. Try to discuss politics as dispassionately as possible so students recognize that you’re not simply trying to indoctrinate them into a particular point of view. Otherwise, you may find yourself starring in the latest viral YouTube video.

I leave it to readers to decide whether such advice is compatible with such civic responsibilities as academics might have, and whether we should more rigorously defend the role of a public intellectual or just abdicate it in the face of sustained neo-liberal pressures.

Read more: For additional context on encroachments on academic freedom, you may want to read the “Bullying tactics and free speech” section in this older post

What’s your mother tongue?

To change the topic entirely, the last entry for this week is inspired by the International Mother Language Day, which was observed on 21st February. In her latest blog post in Multilingual Parenting, Rita Rosenback reminds readers that defining a ‘mother tongue’ is not always very straightforward, and invites us to reflect on different definitions. Here’s an extract:

There is a wonderful proverb in Swedish “Kärt barn har många namn”, the literal translation being “A beloved child has many names”, which is very true for what is generally called the ‘mother tongue’. One of the definitions is that it is ‘the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood’. This is generally a viable definition, but what if you for example move to another language environment or get adopted and forget the language you spoke when growing up – are you then mother-tongue-less?

Read more: For additional thoughts prompted by the International Mother Language Day, you may wish to read this post of mine on linguistic human rights in Greece. 

This post was originally published on 24th February 2014. It was last updated on 18th March 2020 (new formatting). The featured image is by Marja Ligterink @ Flickr and shared under a CC BY-NC licence. 






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