Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Plagiarism in web analytics academia


I have been tutoring the UBC Award of Achievement in Web Analytics program since 2007 - 700 students and counting. Add another 100 in the new graduate-level online analytics class I'm teaching at Laval University (Quebec-city) and my own experience as a student.

Think of students ability to become analysts as a normal distribution. You get a couple of students who are really outstanding - I would hire or recommend them anytime. At the lower end, there are a few students who are struggling - not because they can't do it, but maybe because they lack some experience, rigor and discipline, or their profile is radically distant from the online world. Some are in this program to understand WA but not actually do it i.e. their job requires that they can work with web analytics but it is not part of their job responsibilities – sometimes this is the reason they are on the low potential: that is not what they want or ever will do as a career. Then, in the middle, you get the majority of students who have the potential to become good analysts.

Picture from annaOMline at stock.xchng
Then there are the "others" - those who are not only outliers, but are liars to themselves. Over the last couple of months I have seen the plague of plagiarism spreading.

The "easy now" syndrome

In "Undermining our future as web analysts" I was referring to a study highlighting the neurological changes happening in our brain as a result of quick problem solving abilities. I mentioned the following:
"In our search for immediate gratification we are quickly going into the tactical and forgoing the strategic aspect of analytics and longer term business optimization."
Some students are pretty efficient at conducting online "research" - finding relevant resources from blogs to support their argument - this is fine and valid. However, the "easy now" syndrome makes it sound like a couple of Google searches and a couple of well selected ctrl-c/ctrl-v can do the trick - this is called "plagiarism". The quick tactic to deliver an assignment is the wrong strategic choice for your career.

What is plagiarism?
UBC's Faculty of Arts has a great article on the topic entitled "Plagiarism avoided: taking responsibility for your work". From this article:
"Plagiarism is a form of academic misconduct in which an individual submits or presents the work of another person as his or her own (UBC Calendar, 44). Simply put, plagiarism is taking the words or ideas of another person, and submitting them without the proper acknowledgement of the original author."
They distinguish two forms of plagiarism - "complete": entire essay is copied from one or multiple authors, and "reckless plagiarism is often the result of careless research, poor time management and lack of confidence in your own ability to think creatively".

What I see - and the consequences

Academic rigor: Assignment quality varies a lot - a long litany of words without any document structure or formatting is much more susceptible to improper citations and references. I constantly remind students to carefully read the assignment guidelines and start with an empty skeleton with a cover page, an intro, each of the assignment points to be addressed, a conclusion and room for bibliography.

In this case, a strong warning is often sufficient and I consider it to be part of the learning process. Plus, if you can't structure your work and clearly communicate, how will you perform as an analyst?

Wait a minute! There are those phrases you read and you think "wait a minute, there's something odd here" - the writing style is too different, or it reminds me of something I've read somewhere else. Picking a couple of phrases at random, a quick Google Search, and bingo! I can very easily find the reference. As Michele Hinojosa mentioned on Twitter, "Does it not occur to them that you've probably read everything they could plagiarize?"

When grading an essay, especially when there is no clear right or wrong answer, I look at the thought process, arguments and supporting references, as well as overall quality.

Is it a single occurrence of a phrase or short paragraph wrongly cited, or is it a blatant and significant appropriation of someone else's work? I have no pity for the second scenario - automatic 0, advise the student so he/she can explain, and refer the situation to a formal review committee within UBC.

The consequences: The obvious consequence is failing the assignment or the whole course. Depending on the circumstances we can give the opportunity to do a make-up project. The extreme case is being suspended from the program and having a note of misconduct put on the student's permanent transcript.
"Plagiarism is a serious issue at the university and will not be taken lightly should it occur."
Winnie Low, Program Leader
Techonology, Media and Professional Programs
UBC Continuing Studies

Plagiarism and the WAA Code of Ethic

While we are pushing for a WAA Code of Ethic, every resurgence of plagiarism is painful - not only as someone involved in academia, but also as an analyst endorsing ethical beliefs of privacy, transparency, consumer control, education and accountability. If, as a student, they play the "easy now" game, what can we expect of liars and cheaters when they become analysts?

Plagiarism in the web analytics industry: how many times did I see my work being ripped off my blog - there is a level of acceptance. What about my Excel dashboard sample or the Online Analytics Maturity Model being repurposed by unscrupulous freelancers and agencies removing credit and charging their clients? Plagiarism or fair use?

Don't hesitate to share your thoughts - have you played the "easy now" game? Do you think plagiarism is a serious issue?

Other resources:
UBC Regulation on Plagiarism