“Academic Urban Legends”

“Spinach is not an exceptional nutritional source of iron. The leafy green has iron, yes, but not much more than you’d find in other green vegetables. And the plant contains oxalic acid, which inhibits iron absorption.

“Why, then, do so many people believe spinach boasts such high iron levels? Scholars committed to unmasking spinach’s myths have long offered a story of academic sloppiness. German chemists in the 1930s misplaced a decimal point, the story goes. They thus overestimated the plant’s iron content tenfold.

“But this story, it turns out, is apocryphal. It’s another myth, perpetuated by academic sloppiness of another kind. The German scientists never existed. Nor did the decimal point error occur. At least, we have no evidence of either. Because, you see, although academics often see themselves as debunkers, in skewering one myth they may fall victim to another.

“In his article ‘Academic Urban Legends,’ Ole Bjorn Rekdal, an associate professor of health and social sciences at Bergen University College in Norway, narrates the story of these twinned myths. His piece, published in the journal Social Studies of Science, argues that through chains of sloppy citations, ‘academic urban legends’ are born. Following a line of lazily or fraudulently employed references, Rekdal shows how rumor can become acknowledged scientific truth, and how falsehood can become common knowledge.”

As we try to teach our students to cite properly, it might be useful to look at our own practices and their possible deficiencies.

“The ethicist said academics should treat careful scholarship as a moral requirement. ‘Don’t place your readers in the unfortunate or uncomfortable position of having to trust more than they already have to,’ [J. Angelo] Corlett said. ‘That’s a matter of ethics.’”

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