Monday, December 22, 2003
UPDATE: well, thank you Crooked Timber as well as various emailers. In sum, I think that nearly everyone in academia thinks this is a bad practice, although one or two people think it is no big deal. (In what follows, to bridge the anglo-american divide, one may read "reference" as "letter of recommendation", and "CV" as "resume", as preferred.) I remain of the view that even an academic who takes seriously the editing of a draft reference produced by a student is failing to follow a norm that the references they claim to write will be entirely their own work; arguments that the end result will be indistinguishable strike me as deeply implausible. There is a pretty clear distinction, also, between using a student draft for reference writing, and asking a student for useful information prior to reference writing - a CV, a copy of any application letters, anything else thought to be relevant.
I am also, in retrospect, surprised that this is not a professional issue. Over some similar questions (plagiarism, for example), people get into serious trouble. Over others, we seem to have decided that there is no problem - for example, implausibly multiple authorship of scientific articles. But I've never previously seen any discussion of this particular issue at all. Reference-writing, I have begun to think, is an under-thought activity within the academy. Indeed, when I first arrived at Oxford I had to undertake a compulsory review of my "professional development" needs, which involved a long conversation with someone for the Institute for Advancement of University Learning. I asked about various things - voice training, graduate supervision training, formative and summative assessment criteria, and the like, and seminars were mentioned and I was booked onto them, straightforwardly enough. And then I said something to the effect: I'm not really sure about my reference-writing - I want to make sure I'm doing it right - but for reference-writing, and only for reference-writing, there were no courses, seminars or leaflets available, nor any apparent demand. I still find that strange - reference-writing seems like a key academic activity. Perhaps the IAUL is unusual in not providing professional development on this issue.
In conclusion, the whole issue still seems problematic. Given that, it may be best to do two things. Firstly, on references I write, I'm going to try to make clear that I have actually written them. Secondly, I want to explore the question of whether universities seeking references can require the referee to sign a declaration of authorship, or otherwise indicate the full provenance of the piece.