Blogs as Public Scholarship: An Academic Integrity Example

It’s that time of year again… performance reporting for academic staff at our university happens every two years, with reports due on June 30. There was an official communication that came out a few months back saying we would not have to submit our reports in the usual way, using the online portal system. (Thank God for that… Even with the new system we got a couple of years ago, it still takes hours and hours to fill to enter one’s activities. It’s maddening). But we still had to do a report.

In my case, I had to do two, because over the past two years I have spent half of my time in my home faculty, the Werklund School of Education, and the other half of my time as the inaugural Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning.

Earlier this year, the University of Calgary signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), which I was pretty excited about. It is part of an overall commitment to assess and value research and scholarly activity in a variety of ways, beyond the traditional peer-reviewed journal articles. Indeed, much of my work I share through public scholarship, including blog posts. Now, as long as I can show some impact from that work, it can be considered as part of my scholarship. That was not always the case.

I am not going to rattle off a whole bunch of numbers about how much I did of this or that (though let me tell you, I was exhausted after reading my own report). Instead, I’m going to focus on one blog post that a senior leader and mentor said in a personal communication “arguably may have been your most important public impact that you have made”. It was the blog post I did on April 3, 2021: Analysis of plagiarism in the draft Alberta K-6 curriculum.

Let’s look at the impact of this one blog post:

Total views: 36,000+

This single blog post resulted in more than 36,000 views (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Viewer statistics (n = 36,147) for “Analysis of Plagiarism in the Draft Alberta K-6 Curriculum. (Screenshot date: June 30, 2021)

That’s pretty good for a blog post — at least for me. I mean, I’m a professor who researches ethics and integrity. It’s not like my blog shows off the latest fashion or offers delicious recipes. This post was was — let’s be honest – as close to viral as I’m probably ever going to get.

Media attention

This analysis of plagiarism in the draft AB curriculum caught the attention of the media worldwide, with more than 60 news outlets globally reporting on it. (See details here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1GuyeKP26wnpFT3i0FD2ztoQOoitKbwHv6OdRVUkGLZE/edit?usp=sharing)

You can see my CTV news interview about it here: https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/examples-of-plagiarism-found-throughout-draft-curriculum-1.5378232

Political action

In addition, this work caught the attention of elected officials in Alberta, who shared news of the plagiarism in the draft curriculum on their social media platforms, such as this Tweet from the Hon. Rachel Notley, Leader of the Opposition. (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Tweet from Rachel Notley, April 6, 2021.

In case you missed it, I was the “academic” quoted in the media article that the leader of opposition Tweeted out.

On April 6, 2021, the Hon. Rachel Notley, leader of the opposition, questioned the Minister of Education, the Hon. Adriana LaGrange, about the plagiarism in the draft curriculum during the official question period in the Alberta provincial legislature, as documented in the official legislative Hansard.

Although dozens and dozens of teachers and other members of the public commented on social media about the plagiarized passages in the draft curriculum, it is fair to say that my analysis of the plagiarism had an impact on all of that. It is not an impact that is easily quantified, but it is reasonable to conclude that the analysis helped to inform a broader public dialogue about the (deeply flawed) draft curriculum, plagiarism, and the need to pay attention to ethics and integrity in K-12 education.

Collaboration Resulting from the Work

This work led to a collaboration with Carla Peck, Angela Grace and others, supported by our respective Deans of Education, called the Alberta Curriculum Analysis project. Through this project, we are documenting numerous analyses of the draft curriculum, from a variety of contributors with different academic and disciplinary backgrounds. This project has become an important public artefact and act of scholarly advocacy to help hold our government accountable, as well as to inform the public.

Completely non-academic (and a little cheeky) impact

There’s a small business in Edmonton, Canada, called Fehr Play Creative that creates all kinds of custom and novelty products. Not long after I did my analysis of plagiarism in the draft curriculum, they came out with their “Curwikilum” novelty mug. A senior leader at the university bought me one as a gift and it quickly became my favourite, as you can see in this photo:

Figure 2.

Curwikilum mug produced by Fehr Play Creative in Edmonton, AB.

I didn’t ask the good folks at Fehr Play Creative to make this mug. It was entirely their idea. They did a play on words with “curriculum” and “Wikipedia”, coming up with “Curiwikilum” and defined it as: “(noun) A program of study drafted in part by plagiarism from Wikipedia and then changed on the fly by anyone with editing rights”.

It’s the perfect social commentary about what was happening with the draft curriculum… Passages lifted straight from Wikipedia and then slightly altered on the official government website in real time. This “on the fly editing” not only happened with plagiarized passages, but also other passages that members of the public and experts flagged as incorrect or objectionable.

One mug literally said it all. And in terms of impact, what can I say? I mean, man alive – Merch! How many academics can say their work has resulted (directly or indirectly) in novelty merchandise?! I honestly don’t think I’ve seen any kind of mug prior to this that talked about plagiarism. I mean — come on!! This is the area I research — and someone made a frikkin’ novelty mug about it! How utterly cool is that?! It’ll probably never happen again for the rest of my career, so I enjoyed the moment while it lasted.

Was any of this published in a peer-reviewed journal? Nope.

Was any of it reviewed by a peer in any way before I published it? Nope.

Did peers review it afterwards (voluntarily) and offer their comments on it in public forums such as Facebook and Twitter? You bet they did. (And they were very nice about it, I might add.)

Can I prove “cause and effect” with any of this?

Nope – and nor do I want to. Public scholarship isn’t about taking individual credit for work as a sole author and saying, “Hey funders (or whoever), see this causal link between my work and this great discovery?!” I don’t know of anyone who engages in public scholarship who would do that because the very idea is ludicrous.

It is imperative to push back on the notion that “impact” must equate to “cause and effect”. It doesn’t. In some cases the very idea is so reductionist it is nonsensical.

It’s not about “if A (i.e., my research) then B (i.e., some great result)”. Public scholarship is about contributing to a broad public discourse in an informed way through scientific and scholarly inquiry. It is one contribution to a great big important conversation over which few individuals (if any) have direct control, but together, we can collectively make a difference. If I can make a difference with my work that puts the focus of education squarely on ethics and integrity, then it’s all worth it.

This is the kind of scholarship I am interested in now: the kind that makes a difference. Of course, I know I still have to do the peer-reviewed journal articles. That’s part of the job. But more and more I am realizing that peer-reviewed journal articles are, ironically, the kind of work that has the least impact.

So my advice to my fellow academic integrity and ethics scholars — and academics in general — is this: Do what you need to do because your job requires it, but keep doing your public advocacy work, your blog posts, and your public scholarship because it can – and does – make a difference.

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Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, and the Educational Leader in Residence, Academic Integrity, University of Calgary, Canada.

Opinions are my own and do not represent those of the University of Calgary or anyone else.

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