LINGUIST List 6.1373

Sat Oct 7 1995

Disc: Self-censorship on the list, Cheating?

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. , Self-censorship on the list
  2. Nick Reid, Cheating?

Message 1: Self-censorship on the list

Date: Thu, 05 Oct 1995 13:40:00 Self-censorship on the list
From: <>
Subject: Self-censorship on the list

This message concerns use of the Linguist list as a means of doing
research and recommends that posters self-censor.

I have noticed over the past year an increase in the number of
posts to the list of the form,

"I am interested in finding out about X. Can anyone out there tell
me how to?

where X is some language or property or other of languages. What
I find objectionable about many of these queries is that they could
be answered by simply going to the nearest library; that is, the
special expertise of subscribers to the list is not necessary in
order to find out the answers to many of these questions.

 Even worse, from summaries and ensuing discussion of the
responses I've seen, I fear that people posting these queries
actually treat the responses they get from subscribers as
sufficient answers to their questions, rather than as a stimulus to
genuine research in such traditional settings as libraries. The
virtue of the information sources available in these more
traditional settings is that they presumably have been vetted for
accuracy and completeness, a virtue unattainable for posts to the

 I suspect that what prompts these queries is many cases is how
convenient it is to post to the list. In some other cases, it is
clear that the poster is new to the field and genuinely needs help
just finding out how to get access to whatever information is
available. These latter posts are, I think, entirely legitimate
uses of the list. However, in many cases, it appears that such a
person is posting to the list at the recommendation of an
instructor, i.e. someone who presumably does know how get such
access. These posts are quite objectionable, as that instructor is
passing off his/her responsibility to teach the student how to do
research to the list subscribers.

 As we cannot ask Helen and Anthony to censor these sorts of
messages from the list, what I urge subscribers to do is pause
before posting, to think whether the answer cannot be obtained in
another way, perhaps just not as conveniently.

 A final argument: we have to sift through so much
informational chaff every day to find the wheat that we need or
want, that any efforts to limit its mass should be appreciated.

 I invite discussion on this point.

John Kingston
Linguistics Dept., South College
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003
(413) 545-6837; fax -2792

 [Moderators' Note: I just wanted to thank John, on behalf
of the LINGUIST staff, for bringing this up for discussion.
Use of the Net to find easy answers seems to be increasing
(see message below). We try to filter out obviously naive
queries ("What is language?" "Has anybody ever written
anything on Latin?"), but it is a thankless, and rather
difficult, job. Often you don't recognize an obvious
question if it isn't in your field. So any self-censorship
subscribers can do will be much appreciated. -Helen]
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Message 2: Cheating?

Date: Thu, 05 Oct 1995 10:19:23 Cheating?
From: Nick Reid <>
Subject: Cheating?

I'm writing to report on a use of the Internet that strikes me as cheating,
and to enquire whether any Linguist List subscribers have encountered
similiar problems, and what you've done about it.

I recently set a 'mini-grammar' assignment for a course in descriptive and
typological linguistics, giving my students a 90 sentence data set from an
'unknown language' (Bugis, in fact). To constrain the form of their
solutions, I additionally provided them with a series of guiding questions
to be answered.

Shortly afterwards I received an email from Chris Culy (Department of
Linguistics, University of Iowa) to query the legitimacy of a request that
he'd received asking for assistance in analysing data from an unknown
language. It appears that a student of mine has used the Internet to access
the Iowa Linguist's Dept's Web page, got Chris' address, and mailed him
requesting help in doing my assignment. The request, as received by Chris,
looked like this:
Dear Sir,
> I was wondering if you would be able to give me some information
>on a language spoken in South-East Asia. The name language is unknown to
>me, but I do have some examples:
>1. laoka? ki marege? => I am going to Marege?
>2. laoki? ki marege? => We are going to Marege?
>3. polei taue => The man is coming.
>4. pole bosi rajae => Heavy rain came.
>5. ri barugai lab(backward e)dde =>Beddu is in the meeting house.
>Could you please help me with the verbs and nouns. Are you able to
>descibe the allomorphs and their conditioning please. Also if you have
>any information of the verbal construction of intransitive and transitive
>verbs etc it would be great.

Pretty desperate stuff, I'm sure you'll agree, but this raises some real
When we set 'unknown language' assignments, there is always a temptation
for students to try grammar browsing. In my experience it usually gets them
nowhere, and in fact (especially where we simplify data) it can actually
trip them up. However this kind of direct appeal for help in analysing data
falls clearly into the category of cheating in my book, and I'm sure that
it would be classified as 'improper conduct' according to the rules of my

In this particular case, the issue is further clouded by the use of an
intermediary. The original request comes from a student email account
holder at my university, but this student is not enrolled in my course. I'm
guessing that some student of mine is just using a friend's account to
access the Web. I'm currently working out the best way to 'flush out' the
identity of the person who initiated the request. Meantime, I have a couple
of questions.

* Did any other Linguist List subscribers also received this request?

* Has anyone encountered similar attempts by students to use email to get
assignment help?

* If so, what did you do about it?

Please direct responses to these questions directly to me at;
I'll post a summary, if appropriate.

* Generally speaking I believe that legitimate queries for information on
the List are fairly readily distinguishable from blatant requests for
people to 'do work for you'. Nevertheless, it may be worth while making it
a clearly stated component of our List etiquette, that we treat iffy
looking requests with due suspicion. I would never have discovered this
attempt to cheat if Chris Culy had not bothered to chase up my departmental
address and query the legitimacy of the meassage he received.
And I suspect that this is not the first and last time that email, the
List, and Web sites have been used in this way.

Please address any discussion about this final point to the List.


Nicholas Reid
Dept of Linguistics
University of New England

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