Monday, May 7, 2012

Setting an Example for Academic Research

In March I was adding the book, Introduction to International Disaster Management / by Damon Coppola[1] to our library catalog. Generally librarians do not read every book that is added to collection and the cataloger does not need to be an expert in every single subject represented in the collection.

Earth from outer space.
In a random flipping through the pages I noticed a chart, “Select Maritime Disasters…” on page 99 with Wikipedia listed as a source. First using Wikipedia as a source is a red flag.   We teach our students to use all the tools to discover information, but no teacher will allow an article from Wikipedia as a source for an academic paper.[2]    The chart on page 99 is for maritime disasters. It includes ships that were sunk as a result of accident, weather, and acts of war. I would not call war an accident. If one checks the full reference in the back of the chapter on page 137, the author claims the title of the article checked was "List of epidemics." Maritime disasters are not epidemics. When I checked the Wikipedia article on maritime disasters, I found many discrepancies between the facts in the book and what is in the article.  If the author searched news and other accounts of the disasters and made his own charts no references would have been needed. [3]

There is a place for reading and learning from general encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. A law professor friend used Wikipedia to help provide references that he knew as common knowledge, but his publisher wanted a published source. Students may use an encyclopedia to learn general facts that help shape and focus their research.  They could also find sources and ideas more efficiently than some other kinds of searching.  Scholarly encyclopedias are written by top people in their field and the articles included are the equivalent of publishing in a scholarly journal.  These scholarly articles include bibliographies and are signed.

I did not review in detail all the sources in this book. The lists of references have a pattern of sloppiness and failure to understand the process of gathering and assimilating information to turn it into knowledge.  This is enough for me to put this book on the not recommended list. In general the citations in this book are imprecise and possibly wrong.

The author does not have the correct author format in most of the citations without personal authors.  For example he confuses concept of corporate authors and publishers. In other citation he fails to find the personal authors when they exist in the document. 

On page 134 of the list of references (2006) Cyberterrorism. Web site:

“” is a publisher.  On page 125 of the text the author quotes the FBI’s definition of cyberterrorism and the source is “”  This quote has been widely published and could almost be considered common knowledge. The author possibly could have paraphrased the idea without recognizing a source. This quote is in Denning, Dorothy E. “Activism, Hacktivism, and Cyberterrorism: The Internet as a Tool for Influencing Foreign Policy.” Info War Online. 4 February 2000; from  The original source was an article by Mark M. Pollitt,  “A Cyberterrorism B Fact or Fancy?” published in  Proceedings of the 20th National Information Systems Security Conference, October 1997, pp. 285-289. If Mr. Coppola wanted to give an adequate citation, he would have tracked down the quote as I did. 

Mr. Coppola’s second reference:

Air Safe. (2003) Top ten airline safety questions.”  

 “” not “Air Safe” is the name of the organization publishing the web site.  The author’s name is Todd Curtis.  Coppola not only didn’t record the correct author but did not even record the correct name for of the publisher. He also got the date wrong.  At the bottom of the web page is: “Copyright © 2011 – 2012” This is not 2003 as Coppola records.

The fourth reference:

Associated Press. (2005) Some deadly train disasters since 1900 (July 12).

The Associated Press is a distributor of news stores, not an author.  MSNBC as a subscriber choose to publish this story.  Since MSNBC does not have stable URLs, URL listed above no longer works.  Fox News on their web site (,2933,154497,00.html) has an article “Fast Facts: Deadly Train Disasters” dated April 25, 2005 that is sourced from the Associated Press.  The article is also published by High Beam Research (, but it is behind a pay wall. CBS News published the story and put the information in a chart form. ( They could possibly be the article Coppola is referring the reader to.  Since news media may give wire service articles their own headline and title, it is impossible to be certain what article Coppola is referring to the reader.  That is why quoting from an online news source is difficult or imprecise and needs a date of retrieval.  It is better to quote an article from an outline database because the reader is better able to check it.

A list of facts or a directory is not protected by copyright (see footnote 3).  The arrangement on the page may be protected, but the facts are not.  Coppola could have gathered the information and not credited any source.  His chart would be protected as part of the book, but not the actual fact.

Coppola’s list of references has several ways of recording of URLs for web sites -- sometimes it uses “www;” sometimes http://, sometimes both and sometimes neither.  While most of the time the “WWW” may be optional when typing a URL in a browser address line, if one makes a mistake between “HTTPS://” and “HTTP:// “ the user will get an error message. To help the reader who is copying and pasting, the URL’s correct protocol should be recorded. Evidently the copy editor missed this inconsistency. 

I don't even need to check every citation to see many more mistakes. "n.d." meaning "no date" is not acceptable for a citation While APA style allows “n.d.”; it is ill-advised.  . One can always make an educated guess for a date.  There are ways to make estimates of dates.

Coppola has one reference entered under “U.S. Government Accountability Office.”  The correct name is: “United States. General Accounting Office.”

Since web sites can change at any given moment, it is important to include a date of retrieval. If needed the searcher could use the Wayback Machine (Internet Archive  to view an older version of the web site.  It is always better to use stable sources so that the reader can do his/her own checking or follow up.  APA style does not require retrieval dates for articles from databases since one may also check print sources or another database.

On Apr 26, 2012 I heard from Pamela Chester, the acquisitions editor from Butterworth-Heinemann, an imprint of Elsevier, who acquired this textbook.   (I numbered the paragraphs and corrected her mistakes for easier reference.)  

1.  “I would like to set the record straight. The use of Wikipedia is not "forbidden" in academic publishing, as Dr Stuhlman contends. While it is not a source we recommend for high-level scientific or technical information, for facts that are common knowledge like historical events (including the list of selected maritime disasters this review refers to) there is no hard and fast rule about what source to cite, if any. It could be argued that no source is even necessary for such facts.

2. This reviewer is completely mistaken in his comments on Damon Coppola's use of the APA reference style, which is what we required for this book. If you consult any guide to this reference style, you will see that the abbreviation "n.d." (no date) is mandated for an undated source. Similarly, dates are not part of the citation for websites in this reference style. Mr. Coppola has scrupulously followed the requirements of APA in his citations. The book was also professionally copyedited before publication to ensure consistency in the use of this reference style.

3. His final comment is puzzling. Is this reviewer suggesting that we exclude material accessed via the internet from scholarly publications? That position seems to me untenable when such a wealth of sources is available online.

4. I would urge that potential readers make their own assessment of this book's content. It would also be preferable if reviewers read the book-something this reviewer admittedly did not do-and check their facts before posting responses on Amazon. “

As a librarian in academia I can assure Ms. Chester that teachers do forbid the use of most general encyclopedias including Wikipedia as sources in academic papers. Many teachers will refuse to accept a paper if the student quotes or cites Wikipedia. It has taken me years to convince faculty that students should be allowed to look at scholarly encyclopedias. Some teachers erroneously tell student not to use the “Internet” and I translate that to, “don’t use unreliable online sources retrieved from the Internet or any other source. “ Most faculty don't forbid materials published on the Internet, but limit the use of all kinds of biased and unreliable materials and information sources. Most teachers will tell students to use a variety of materials such as web sites, scholarly articles, books, and magazines. Since student think using a web search is so easy and retrieves lots of hits, librarians and other faculty have to teach how to use the results as a part of academic research.  Most students do not realize web searches only find a small portion of published information. 

Just because APA style is followed does not make it right. APA style violates several principles of library cataloging and hinders library searching. Library catalogers would almost never leave a resource totally undated. The only time something would be undated is when the source had no internal clues, was sloppily prepared, or the publisher purposefully wanted the work to have an ambiguous or unknown date. Even if the cataloger only knew the century, this would be recorded. Since APA style violates the idea of name authority, checking authors and name sources is not always easy.[4] Name authority is essential for distinguishing one author from another. Publishers are not authors; yet Coppola’s list of references frequently confuses them which means he did not follow APA style (or any other style.)

The bibliography is a record of the foundation an author uses for his/her work. If one chooses solid sources it is as if he is standing on the shoulders of giants. If the sources are suspect or incorrectly documented, I can not accept the work as reliable or carefully prepared. If I am not an expert in disaster management, I can only judge the book by what I am an expert in -- bibliographic information.

I did consult other librarians about the concepts of bibliography and references and they concur. The author and editors obviously did not consult a librarian or college professor. Potential readers could follow Ms. Chester’s advice and view a selection of this book via Google Books.   Elsevier’s web page for this book reprints several reviews of this book.  They are all descriptive and they could have been written from examining the table of contents and skimming the pages.  There is not one sentence of critical analysis of the book and its topic even the sources could be considered written for the disaster recovery professional.

I am not going to remove this book from the library collection because that would be an act of unsupportable censorship, but I did make a note in the catalog record that the book may be unreliable. Since students may want to copy an idea or example from a book, we do need to be aware that some books and publishers are more reliable than others.  It is the job of librarians and other teachers teach the critical thinking skills that will make students into critical thinkers and life-long learners.

[1] Full citation: Coppola, Damon P. Introduction to International Disaster Management . 2nd ed.  Boston [Massachusetts] : Butterworth-Heinemann, an imprint of Elsevier, 2011.

[2] I consulted with other librarians and faculty on this.  They unanimously agree that Wikipedia is not a good source for an academic paper. 

[3]  In a previous blog article published on January 4, 2011, “What is Copyright? Part 4 : What can you protect under copyright law?”  (http:// I discussed the case of Feist Publication, Inc v. Rural Telephone Service Co  (499 U.S. 340 (1991))  This case  decided that the list of names and numbers in the form of a directory are not protected by copyright.  While the case was dealing with a phone directory, I believe that lists of facts that anyone could gather from publicly accessible sources are not protected by copyright.  Had the author taken the time to assemble his own list it would not require attribution or a footnote.  Only if he copied the exact list and format from another source would attribution be required.

[4] The example I give is I have two children with names that begin with the same letter.  I would never want anyone to confuse a work written by one for the other.

1 comment:

James Weinheimer said...

This shows the changes that are occurring now in the field of publishing and bibliography. I personally do not like some of these trends, but nevertheless, they are happening. Wikipedia is becoming an accepted and valued source, if not by academia, then by the world at large, and even by academia itself, as you mentioned.

There is no way to stop these trends and I don't think they are such bad ones. 30 years ago, if someone were stuck in a little town with a poor library--not only in the US but around the world--your options for information were very limited, but compared to today for those people, an entire world has been revealed. A lot of the scholarly tools are hidden behind pay-walls (that is, right now, but this too may change), so Wikipedia is certainly far better than a book written 25 or 30 years earlier, which may have been all that your library had. If that.

One task for librarians in their information literacy workshops for students is not to tell people only about what is available in the databases the library pays for but what is on the open web. Why? Because the students will leave someday, and relatively few will stay in academia. We don't want our students to be stuck high and dry without anything, and Wikipedia is certainly far better than nothing.

But there is much more than Wikipedia on the web, some very valuable open archives, some great book talks, entire conferences, think tank publications, and on and on almost without end. Google doesn't find a lot of these great resources since Google contains far from everything, and even if these materials are in Google you may not be able to find them unless you know how to search and consequently, you must have some skills. Better searching tools would help too.

There is so much librarians could do to improve matters today, but I don't know if it will turn out that way.