If it’s on the internet, it must be true: Part III

I’ve been on a treasure hunt for the source of a “fact” on the internet:  that 75% to 98% of college students cheat.  These numbers appear on numerous websites, if in slightly different forms:  they refer to college students cheating in college or high school or both.  Where did this come from?

As I’ve written previously, a principal source seems to be a campaign, Cheating is a Personal Foul, that was run by the ETS and the Ad Council in the 1990s.  One page includes this:

According to Stephen Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas: “about 20% of college students from across the nation admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940’s. That percentage has since soared, with no fewer than 75% and as many as 98% of 8,000 college students surveyed each year now reporting cheating in high school – and the majority admitting doing it on several occasions.”

Professor Davis retired over a decade ago, but I was able to get his email address from Emporia State and wrote him to ask for the source of his information.  He couldn’t be much help–this was a while ago and, well, he’s retired–but he did lead me to an article from 1941 that he thought could be the basis of the assertion that 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940s, but in fact it did not.  I’m not sure it’s worth it to keep looking.

A significant problem with any discussion of cheating among students is the difficulty in coming up with a verifiable measure of prevalence.  That’s the topic of another discussion.

For now, the point is that the internet allows data to leap from place to place and leave a trail of connective tissue.  Before you know it, someone’s sloppy or selective reporting morphs into truth.


If it’s on the internet, it must be true: Part II

Patrick M. Scanlon

While scouting around the internet for data on academic dishonesty in universities last week, I kept landing on the claim that 75 to 98 percent of college students have cheated. Often a link would take me to the same page: Cheating is a Personal Foul, which was part of a campaign by the Education Testing Service and the Ad Council to discourage cheating among middle school students.

Cheating is a Personal Foul appears to have gotten off the ground in the late 1990s and come back to earth soon afterward. All the links are broken, and when I dialed the phone number, 1-888-88CHEAT, a recording asked me to take a survey on a Caribbean vacation. However, you can still view some of the television spots produced for the campaign.

In a previous post, I mentioned finding a newspaper article including this:

In 1940, just 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number ranges from 75-98 percent, according to Michael Hartnett, an English professor at Long Island University whose research led to his writing the book, “The Great SAT Swindle.”

I contacted Mr. Harnett, who in fact is a high school English teacher who has done some adjunct teaching. In an email, he wrote that he had lost his notes for that book—which is a novel—but he did send me a couple links. These went to the same lists I began with.

One of those lists by Cheating is a Personal Foul included something interesting:

According to Stephen Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas: “about 20% of college students from across the nation admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940’s. That percentage has since soared, with no fewer than 75% and as many as 98% of 8,000 college students surveyed each year now reporting cheating in high school – and the majority admitting doing it on several occasions.”

Davis is a credible source whose work I know. He’s retired, but I’m in the process of getting his contact information from Emporia State. I hope he can clear some of this up.

But in the meantime I pulled up one of Davis’s publications: Davis, S. F. & Ludvigson, H. W. (1995). Additional data on academic dishonesty and a proposal for remediation. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 119-121. The authors report that in a survey of college students, 71% to 79% of each sample reported cheating in high school. Also, “Virtually all (98.64%) students who reported cheating on several occasions in college had also cheated on several occasions in high school.”

These numbers (I can imagine someone splitting the difference on the range to come up with 75 percent) seem too close to be a coincidence. So, my theory so far: Davis has been rather badly misquoted.

The hunt continues.

If it’s on the internet, it must be true



by Patrick M. Scanlon

10371526_10202689615496391_6476564143098151997_nI’m on a research treasure hunt.  It began when I came across an online claim about college-student cheating that seemed a bit hard to believe.  The search so far says something about how rapidly a contention becomes an oft-cited fact on the internet.

According to Education Portal, “75 to 98 Percent of College Students Have Cheated.”  As the source of that assertion the article cites NoCheating.org, an address that takes us to the website of the Educational Testing Service, where I can find no reference to those data.  I emailed someone at ETS about this but haven’t gotten a reply yet.

The original (I think) page with these numbers is titled “Cheating is a Personal Foul:  The Educational Testing Service/Ad Council Campaign to Discourage Academic Cheating.”  That page consists of a long list of bad news about cheating, including the high percentages that originally caught my eye.

So I plugged “75 to 98 Percent of College Students Have Cheated” into a search engine and received millions of hits. One after another of the linked pages included those percentages, often with a link back to “Cheating is a Personal Foul.”  One page cites Stanford University as the source of the data.

I also landed on a newspaper article, in the January 28, 2012 issue of TimesDaily.com (Florence, Alabama), “Educators see cheating epidemic,” including this: 

In 1940, just 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number ranges from 75-98 percent, according to Michael Hartnett, an English professor at Long Island University whose research led to his writing the book, “The Great SAT Swindle.”

Here’s where it gets interesting.  “The Great SAT Swindle” is a self-published novel.  I found the author’s website with a blog and contact information. I just sent off an email to Mr. Hartnett, who actually is a high school teacher who has done some college adjunct teaching.

It could turn out the percentages are from a legitimate survey, but so far I cannot identify what that might be.  But the comment about 1940 is suspicious because the first reliable, multi-campus study of academic honesty among college students—a landmark study well known among scholars of the subject—is “Student dishonesty and its control in college,” by William Bowers, published in 1964 and based on data from the early 1960s.

On its face, the 75-to-98-percent allegation looks like a low-profile meme, a factoid with legs.  We’ll have to wait to hear what ETS and Mr. Hartnett have to say.  Stay tuned.

Suicide Contagion and Responsible Reporting

“Contagious” brings to mind the common cold, influenza, and, recently, the Ebola virus. But suicide?

Taking the death of Robin Williams as its jumping-off point, an article in today’s New York Times, The Science Behind Suicide Contagion, by Margot Sanger-Katz, describes how suicide can spread like a communicable disease, particularly due to sensationalist news stories. Reporting about suicide thus becomes a matter for responsible health communication and journalistic ethics.

Sanger-Katz points out that high-profile suicides, such as those of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain, often lead to a temporary spike in suicide rates.

“Publicity surrounding a suicide has been repeatedly and definitively linked to a subsequent increase in suicide, especially among young people,” writes Sanger-Katz.

This link has led to a set of guidelines for news media coverage of suicide deaths published by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

For example, the recommendations advise reporters to “inform the audience without sensationalizing the suicide and minimize prominence.” Rather than the headline “Kurt Cobain Used Shotgun to Commit Suicide,” write “Kurt Cobain Dead at 27.”

As Sanger-Katz points out, such advice can seem unrealistic. Some details are so much a part of a story that leaving them out would be irresponsible. That Robin Williams killed himself IS the story.

But journalists will benefit from studying the guidelines, among which is a recommendation to include, in any story about suicide, information about suicide hotlines as well as other resources.

What the Times story brought home for me is how journalism can be implicated in health communication, unintentionally or otherwise.

Read “Into Africa” to see journalism in its heyday

downloadI’ve just finished reading Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone, by Martin Dugard. The book recounts legendary British explorer Dr. David Livingstone’s nearly life-long (and ultimately failed) quest to locate the source of the Nile river, his disappearance for about five years, the frantic search to find him, and his celebrated “discovery” by American journalist Henry Morton Stanley. At the time, in the late 1860s, this was the story of the century and was covered avidly by newspapers in the US and England.

In fact, that Stanley—who actually wasn’t American, but you’ll have to read the book to learn about that angle—was looking for Livingstone at all had less to do with his own adventurousness than with the hard-charging entrepreneurship of his boss, James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the rich and brash editor of the New York Herald.

Into Africa is as much about journalism in its heyday as about African explorers. Editors on either side of the Atlantic hunted for scoops just as avidly as the tabloid journalists of today and often with just as few scruples. Bennett, a tycoon and political operative, was a sort of Gilded Age Rupert Murdoch. He didn’t want to save Livingstone; he wanted to write screaming headlines.

And he got his wish. England had practically held its collective breath awaiting word about its beloved hero, Livingstone. Imagine Bennett’s delight, and the Brits’ dismay, that the world learned of the rescue from an upstart American newspaper.

Finally, I learned that Stanley, at least according to Stanley, really did say, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” That this greeting is recalled today is one measure of just how big the story was.

Academic Freedom Isn’t Just for Academics


A couple weeks ago RIT philosophy professor Larry Torcello published an essay on the website The Conversation titled Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?  Perhaps the essay’s argument is now less significant than the reaction by many who refute the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming.  Since the essay—or, more to the point, misrepresentations of its content—went viral, Torcello has been attacked in print, hounded by phone and email, and even threatened.  (Google “Torcello global warming” to get a sense of the ugliness.)

One way to see this as yet more proof, as if we needed it, that reasoned discourse has gone the way of the dodo.  Rather than engage those we disagree with in debate, we behave like guests on Jerry Springer.  And, of course, the Internet is like a strong wind behind a brush fire.

But at the heart of this controversy, and at the core of supportive responses, is the principle of academic freedom.  The idea is fairly simple but, I think, widely misunderstood and underappreciated.

The business of universities is the creation and dissemination of knowledge and art, work that benefits everyone, everywhere.  For that activity to flourish it must be unfettered.  That is, we as a society gain, ultimately, by allowing faculty and students to follow ideas wherever they lead, to take intellectual chances, to challenge the status quo.

Often those ideas raise hackles—they should.  Professor Torcello’s essay was bound to make some readers uncomfortable or even angry.  Responding with misrepresentations, vitriol, and threats of violence—that does nothing to advance anyone’s argument.  Pretty much the opposite.

Everyone has a stake in academic freedom. Apparently there are many who either disagree or don’t understand.



Health Communication Improves, Save Lives


Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced, as reported in the New York Times, “a 43 percent drop in the obesity rate among 2- to 5-year-old children over the past decade.”  This is encouraging news because kids in that age group who are obese are five times more likely to struggle with weight as adults, with significant consequences for their health. 

The overall news about obesity is mixed—no one is claiming victory yet.  However, the data represent “the first clear evidence that America’s youngest children have turned a corner in the obesity epidemic.”

More to my point, the drop in childhood obesity suggests an impact by health communication efforts to encourage better eating and exercise habits. These include, most notably, campaigns by Michelle Obama and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. 

Yes, Bloomberg came across as quixotic and even a little nutty with his ban on big gulp sodas.  But his efforts may be part of a trend.  The CDC reports that children consume fewer calories from sugary drinks than they did a decade ago. 

I’m reminded of another health communication campaign that began in earnest 50 years ago.  In 1964, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General was published, officially linking smoking to a raft of health problems including cancer. 

In 1965, 42.4% of American adults smoked, according to the CDC.  Today that portion is 19%.

Of course, health communication is one cause among several that have produced these effects.  Still, it is no overstatement to claim that effective communication about health is a powerful tool in improving our lives.

The Department of Communication is getting in the game.  We offer a Health Communication track in the B.S. degree in Communication, an interdisciplinary Health Communication minor is in the works, and we are in the discussion stage of a master’s degree.  Look for more information about these efforts in future posts.



Book vs. iPad

Have you read a book so thick you were particularly proud of finishing it?  Say, Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment.  Maybe War and Peace?

Last summer I set myself the task of reading all four volumes of Robert Caro’s projected five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson, some 3,000 pages so far.  The fourth book was so hefty it was difficult to balance on my stomach as I read.  (I like to read lying down.)  Here’s a photo I took while reading by the pool.


Most of the time now I read books on an iPad (again, lying down), which is altogether a more convenient method.  No wrestling with a hefty tome, no turning pages, no, well, paper.  But when I’m done there’s no book to close and put on a shelf. There’s no monument to the work I put into reading.

I have a library at home, a room devoted to showing off my reading.  Here’s one wall:


The iPad I now prefer has me questioning the point of all that paper stuffed on shelves and taking up space.  Really, aren’t private libraries more boasting than indexing?  I can’t even take the time to organize my books.  When I want something I have to scan the shelves.  If I want to go back to a book on the iPad I can search electronically, effortlessly.

Still, I have a sentimental attachment to the big book, which is why I bought hard copies of Caro’s magisterial work.  But it sure was a hassle lugging those volumes around.

The ghost in the keyboard


I’m reading a novel, The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, by Katherine Pancol. It’s the story of a single mother in Paris who sort of ghostwrites herself out of poverty by penning best-selling fiction about what she knows, medieval Europe (she’s a Ph.D.) and allowing her sister to take the fame but none of the cash (she’s rich but needy). The story reminds me of another book I enjoyed, Author From a Savage People,  by Bette Pesetsky, also about a woman ghostwriter.  In both cases, the secret authors use their talents to wreak revenge on the men who use them.

I’m drawn to these stories because I, too, am a ghostwriter, although only for the money and not to get even with anyone.  I write mostly trade journal articles about science and technology for a corporation on a work-for-hire basis.  Someone in the company gets the byline, and I get the check.

This sort of writing-just-for-the-money arrangement that cedes authorship to a non-writer bothers some people.  They see it, I think, as a fraud or an insult to the art of writing.

A couple things about what I do.  I work closely with subject matter experts who become the “authors” of the articles whose content they provide and vet, and sometimes write in part.  If anyone wants more information on the topic, he or she will contact the expert, not me, which is exactly how it should be.  This sort of arrangement is rather commonplace in organizations, which hire writers to do the writing, others to be the authorities.  When an Op-Ed article by a CEO appears in the newspaper, odds are the CEO did not write it.  What  titan of business has time for that sort of thing?

This is not to argue that corporate ghosting is right because it takes place often.  It is to point out that in some settings writing is part of the division of labor and not something accomplished by a struggling artist.  That someone else takes credit is part of the deal.

Is it a fraud?  Well, think of how often we receive messages from someone who is not the author–for instance, practically every speech by a President.  The ideas are his (we certainly hope) but the phrasing and form come from ghosts.

In fact, it’s no stretch to imagine all manner of writing haunted by ghosts:  they’re called editors.