Monday, October 8, 2007

Bringing Academic Integrity to the Web

The internet has opened up a whole new arena for historians and public historians to disseminate knowledge. Academic journals, online classrooms, and hobby sites are everywhere on the web and seemingly, no matter what your historical interest, you can find something to read. And, with each year that passes, more and more undergraduate students instinctively want to turn to these websites to do research, but, while each passing day brings flashier graphics and more entertaining interactive content, few websites incorporate formatting styles that allow undergraduates to properly cite what they find.

Books, on the other hand, make citation simple. If I use the paper version of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, I can tell you that he teaches us how to make a crude, rather foul smelling explosive on page 193; I could properly cite this paraphrase using the Chicago Manual of Style guide in my footnotes as:

[1] Abbie Hoffman. Steal This Book. (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002), 193.

This has all the important information: author, title, publishing info, and page number. Anyone could, in theory, find the exact paragraph that I used to assert this claim and see that I did my research well.

If I try to do the same, using a website that contains the entire e-text of Steal This Book in one 67,538 word chunk – without any page numbers, all I can tell you is that my source is.

[2] Abbie Hoffman. “Steal This Book”

Since I paraphrased in this instance, it wouldn’t even be possible for my reader to find the proper point in the text and check my reference. Websites like this necessitate the writer to use direct quotations else the reader is left crippled to verify the source. While this may seem wonderful to undergraduates who havn’t done their homework well and who stuck in a made up source to appease the professor, this undermines academic integrity.

Now, the Steal This Book website is very old – I read the book on this same webpage almost ten years ago and it hasn’t changed since then. But, even though most new websites break up content into more manageable chunks, they often still neglect offering the tools researchers would find in a printed book.

Page numbers are an excellent example of this neglect. Page numbers are almost unheard of on a webpage, unless the site is offered in PDF format. I would argue that by being transparent with how many pages your site has and showing your reader how much of the content he or she has already read, it would make it much easier for a reader to make sure they have not missed important, relevant content. Imagine reading a book or journal article in which you could not be sure you had found all the pages. As a bonus, they also makes it much easier for a researcher to cite you as a source.

Footnotes are another essential element of academic writing. On the internet, they are slightly more common than page numbers, but still many webmasters shy away from them. Perhaps they fear, as in publishing, that footnotes will scare away non-academics and shrink their readership. But, there are so many ways a designer can hide the footnotes from anyone uninterested in or bothered by them. They could appear as endnotes that could be easily linked to using HTML tags such as this 1. Or, they could appear in a frame at the bottom of the screen, as in A.M. Syverson’s template for how to present an academic paper on the web, created way back in 1996. 2. A savvy web designer could even give users an option of hiding the footnotes frame by clicking a

Syverson also tells me other important information about her site: where it was published (The University of Texas), and when (1996). Almost like a book, isn’t it?

The Footnotes appear in the frame at the bottom

While, admittedly, Syverson’s eleven year old template is not as attractive as newer websites, that need not be the case. I’m not suggesting web designers abandon pretty pictures or interactive interfaces; I’m no Luddite and I like shiny objects as much as the next guy. But shiny objects are no trade for academic integrity.

Now, I’m not saying if you make your website more academia-friendly, it will increase your readership or fool people into believing your website has solid content. And if your site is dedicated to funny pictures of your dog, by all means format your page as you please. But, if you have created a website dedicated to knowledge that you believe to be true and a good source for undergraduates and academics alike, use the tools the publishing industry has developed over the past four hundred years to provide integrity to the academic system. It has worked so well and there is no reason a change from print-based to electronic-based media should result in its demise.

Perhaps if more people had followed the model Syverson posted in 1996, we would be in a position where academics esteem web-publishing, rather than warn their students against using websites. Had the author of the Steal This Book website taken the time to include these important pieces of information, the same citation that provided nearly no direction to a reader could have been cited:

[3] John Doe. “Abbie Hoffman: Steal This Book” (Chicago: 1998), 193.

And that would be a good step towards reconciling the internet and the inhabitants of the Ivory Towers.

1 Click me again to go back to your point in the text.

2 A.M. Syverson. “Sample of a Conventional Academic Paper Using Frames.” University of Texas: 1996.

1 comment:

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