Monday, February 06, 2006

Honesty in your work at university

Honesty, logic, and rigour: the basis of academic excellence

Honesty in academic life comes first – and for a very good reason – if you are dishonest in your writing at university, it will come to be your downfall.

Plagiarism – copying or borrowing without acknowledging, or quoting without referencing the author is theft. If you were to publish something under your name with someone else’s work between the covers without mentioning your sources, you would be breaking copyright laws and be prosecuted in a court of law.

However, even though you may never publish your academic work, plagiarizing someone else’s ideas, discoveries, inventions or even their thoughts written down is still theft – you can be removed from university for it.

• Logic: arriving at sensible and correct reasoning and including such reasoned arguments in essays is at the heart of academic life. Students are called upon to ‘defend’ their dissertations for the award of PhD; if the logic of their argument is flawed in any way, they will be asked to remedy it.

• In undergraduate life, the logic of students is tested every time they write for their lecturers. If anything is not logical, the person reading the paper will spot it and marks will be deducted on the basis of the inconsistency of the argument.

Rigour, defined as strictness and thoroughness in research, is essential in any form of academic pursuit.

In academic life, a lack of rigour in research can defeat the argument being put forward – there must be no exceptions to the points being argued, or if there are, they must be explained.

Of the three; honesty, logic and rigour, it is logic that causes the most problems and has to be learnt.

Failures in logic are more forgivable, particularly early on in life as a university student.

Here are some typical errors to avoid in your thoughts and arguments.

o False cause
This type of error in reasoning comes about because two things that happen sequentially are imagined to be causally related, when in fact they are not. (Sequence is not necessarily causation.)
o Confusing causation with correlation
This is closely related to the first; again, what comes first doesn’t necessarily cause a later event.
o Causal reductionism
This error is perpetrated when a person tries to explain something using one cause when in fact there are several causes.
o Appeals to widespread belief
This error in thinking is of the type; “If everybody thinks so, it must be true.” What everybody thinks is not always correct. The golden rule at university is not to take anything for granted in an argument, and particularly in your own.
o Fallacy of division
This is close to over generalization; assuming that what is true of one item is true of the whole population of items.
o Argument by repetition
Saying something over and over again does not make it true. Unfortunately, if we say something often enough, we sometimes come to believe it.
o Argument by generalization
Again, this is similar to the fallacy of division; it is the error of drawing broad conclusions from a sample too small to be representative of the whole population.
o Argument by prestigious jargon
Trying to sound like an expert by using long and complicated words.

It is inevitable, particularly in your first year at university, that your essays may contain one or more of the errors in judgment and reasoning outlined above.

Your lecturers will help you to avoid any such errors by pointing them out to you. Using them on purpose is a far more serious affair. It pays to be honest, as they say.
Robert L Fielding


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