VP of Academic Affairs

» SPSU Home / Vice President Academic Affairs / The Weekly Blab / The Weekly Blab 4.17

The Weekly Blab 4.17

The Weekly Blab

Volume 4, Issue 17—June 3, 2010


Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, here’s a summer special issue of the Weekly Blab.  Looking at my recent evaluations, it seems that a lot of folks like the Blab, and some were even crazy enough to ask for it to continue over the summer.  I’ll try to do a couple of issues.


Academic Integrity Update

The Academic Integrity Committee is continuing to meet over the summer, with a current schedule of every other Wednesday (when the Deans Council isn’t meeting).  We hope to have a website up soon, so that people can follow our progress and see the deliverables as they are drafted, since so many people have expressed an interest in this topic.


At our last meeting, we talked about some of the stickier issues involving academic integrity, trying to see where a consensus existed and where it didn’t.  Some examples of the kind of questions we were dealing with:

  • Should there be a difference in penalties between cheating on “big” and “little” assignments?  For example, should cheating on a homework assignment be treated differently than cheating on a final?   The consensus was yes—the penalty should be harsher for the more important assignment, but that the course instructor needs to decide which assignments are “big” and which are “little”, since this varies from course to course.
  • What are the degrees of plagiarism, and how does one tell plagiarism apart from citation error?  This is a really tricky area, since students are woefully ignorant about what plagiarism is and isn’t.  For example, many students believe that if they paraphrase someone else’s work, they don’t need to cite it.  Others believe that if a reference is given in the References Section of a paper, they don’t need to cite quotations or other uses of that reference in the body of the paper.  So, when this sort of thing occurs in a paper, is it evidence of plagiarism or is it citation error?  The former is an ethical breach that often carries a heavy penalty, whereas the latter is a technical fault for which points should be deducted.  The committee decided that a “preamble” was needed, describing what plagiarism is, identifying where the slippery slopes are, and suggesting ways that faculty can help their students to avoid them.


Anyway, this is interesting stuff and I’ll try to keep you informed of our progress.  


Politics and Science

We like to think that science is above politics, but we all know that it isn’t.


An article appeared in a recent Chronicle about a recent investigation by the Virginia attorney general, Kenneth Cuccinelli II.  Mr. Cuccinelli has requested information, using Virginia’s “Fraud Against Taxpayers Act”, about research work and communications by Dr. Michael Mann, a well known climate researcher.  The idea here is that Cuccinelli is concerned that Mann might have knowingly used false climate data in applying for grants, which would constitute improper use of the taxpayers’ money.  Since Cuccinelli is a conservative who is on record as not believing that global warming is real, there is concern (and not just among liberals) that this investigation is politically based.  The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of University Professors, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, and the Union of Concerned Scientists have criticized the investigation, saying that Cuccinelli hasn’t provided any evidence that any investigation is warranted, and that this will have a chilling effect on research.  Originally, a wide range of material was demanded under this civil investigation, but after some pushback by the University of Virginia, the scope has been narrowed.


A few days after the Chronicle article appeared, Ronny Richardson was kind enough to forward an article on the same subject that appeared in Slate.com entitle “Jefferson v. Cuccinelli”.   Here, the authors, Dahlia Lithwick and Richard Schragger, ask the question:  Does the Constitution really protect a right to “academic freedom”?  There are two interesting aspects to the article.  First, they cite various case law where the topic of academic freedom is touched on, although they note that it has never been legally defined.  The good news is that the Supreme Court has weighed in on the topic in the past.  Quoting from the article:


“In perhaps the most important academic-freedom case, Sweezy v. New Hampshire

, decided in 1957, the high court stated that "the essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident." In 1967, in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, the court declared that "the university is a traditional sphere of free expression ... fundamental to the function of society." Writing for the court, Justice William Brennan stated, "Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent freedom to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment."”


Second, the Slate.com article casts huge doubt on what Cuccinelli is doing, pointing out that (a) he never explained why he was seeking the documents (as he is required to do by the statute he is using), (b) the statute requires a fraud to have been perpetrated on Virginia citizens, but all the grants in question except one are federal, and (c) the one non-federal (state) grant was given before the law became effective.  Most importantly (according to the article), Cuccinelli says “he wants to explore allegations that Michael Mann falsified data in his scholarship”, i.e., he wants to review Mann’s scientific scholarship.


This is scary stuff.  There’s no question but that the attorney general of a state has a responsibility to investigate fraud, but there first needs to be some evidence that fraud has actually occurred—I don’t think we want any government official conducting a fishing expedition into our research (or our private lives).  I have no way of knowing whether there is some evidence of Mann having done something scientifically wrong, but the key thing is that Cuccinelli hasn’t provided any such evidence, which casts serious doubt on this investigation, and in any event, a state’s attorney general is not the one who should be deciding what is good research and what is bad research.  That’s up to the funding agency, the journals, and the universities.


All of this comes as a result of the so-called “Climategate” issue, where some emails from a British climate researcher were hacked and made public.  The global-warming skeptics side sees some of the emails as proving that some climate research had been cooked, and that the pro global warming side is preventing the skeptic side from being published.  Mann is one of the researchers who features prominently in the emails.  There was an article in Spiegel Online on May 17, that I think provides a reasonably evenhanded overview of “Climategate”.  [Der Spiegel, for those who don’t know, is the most widely-read news magazine in Germany, and probably in Europe.]


I’d be interested in hearing comments on this situation.