Mea Culpa

For anybody who missed it, there was an edu-wonk brouhaha this week over an embarrassing error in the New York Times’ big series on student debt. The Times vastly overstated the percentage of students with debt – a particularly significant mistake given that this statistic was the linchpin of the story – then ran a rather defensive correction three days later. In a Facebook dialogue with several academics and journalists, a former colleague known for her care with data reminded me that we all live in glass houses, and that sometimes bad things happen even to good writers.

Her comment was a useful cautionary note (even though I still think the Times’s error was pretty horrendous) and it got me thinking about some of the mistakes I made in The Great Brain Race. There were more than one or two, I’m sorry to say. And while none were too awful, I’ll mention some here, both to correct the record and to offer a sense of the process by which my errors were fixed. As a first-time book author, I benefited from something that is rare in traditional journalism – a modified form of crowdsourcing that has done a lot to improve the accuracy of my book’s forthcoming paperback edition.

Fortunately for me, a few errors were caught prior to publication of the first edition by eagle-eyed blurb-writers such as Phil Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, and Rick Levin, president of Yale. Among them: I slightly misspelled the surname of the Institute of International Education’s indispensable Rajika Bhandari (a mistake I am particularly ashamed of given the frequency with which the world misspells my own unwieldy last name); I mistook Jeddah for the capital of Saudi Arabia (ouch); and I didn’t fully take account of how some elite Chinese universities are experimenting with nontraditional criteria, such as interviews and recommendations to supplement national exams (perhaps not an outright error, but still an important point that I was pleased to integrate into the published version).

Once the book was out, readers pointed out a number of other typos and misstatements. Ted Fiske affably notified me that the rating system in his Fiske Guide to Colleges is based on a five-point scale, not three. (Also, that his middle initial is B, not T.) Kevin Smith, director of Sheffield International College, noted that I had unwisely credited massive support for NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus to Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who died in 2004, rather than to the project’s actual champion, the Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. In the diacritical department, Barbara Brittingham, accreditation guru for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, explained patiently that I had omitted the umlaut over the O in Turkey’s Higher Education Council, YÖK. Apparently, without this symbol the word means “no.” As luck would have it, my publisher, Princeton University Press, was able to make those corrections before the second print run.

In the months that followed, I discovered a few other problems. Again, the wisdom of crowds helped me out. When I wrote an article for Foreign Policy last year that drew in part on material from my book, the magazine’s ace fact-checkers wanted a source for my statement that about two-thirds of the world’s mobile graduate students attend U.S. universities. The figure came from a blog post by a respected academic, but I discovered when I tried to track down the underlying data that even respected academics, well, make mistakes. Ultimately, though, the error was mine – I should have been more careful about personally chasing down the original source.

Not long afterward, after I gave a speech at the OECD in Paris, a senior researcher asked me where I had found the projection that there would be eight million globally mobile students by 2025, up from 3.7 million today. It wasn’t hard to locate the source, a report issued in the early 1990s by the Australian student recruiting firm IDP. But it turned out that the firm’s estimate had been superseded by its own much more conservative projection of less than four million, made in 2002. I changed my standard PowerPoint slide and was all set to delete the eight million figure from the paperback text when a brand-new projection came out, this time by a different higher ed researcher who pegged mobile student numbers by 2025 at … eight million.

I also learned that crowdsourcing can be useful even when it involves a very, very angry member of the crowd. I received what was surely my worst ever Amazon review from a senior higher education official in Dubai, who also wrote a stinging email to my publisher. He felt that I had uncritically repeated a Qatar consultant’s jibe about the “shopping mall” atmosphere of Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), the complex that houses international branch campuses. I had ignored the significant quality-control procedures that Dubai has instituted for selecting branch campuses, he argued, and had further demonstrated my obtuseness by conflating Dubai Knowledge Village, which once housed branch campuses but today focuses on professional training, with DIAC.

In the end, after consulting with some knowledgeable observers, I changed the paragraph in question to clarify the distinction between the two education centers, and I added a line about the insistence of Dubai officials that their campus selection process is rigorous. At the same time, I noted that concerns about regulatory oversight of the Dubai branch campuses remain. All in all, these tweaks probably amounted to something in between a clarification and a correction – a few shades of gray that I hope yield an improvement for readers.

One last correction, which involves a pleasingly counterintuitive statistic that turns out to be not entirely wrong, but in need of careful context. I wrote in my book that, contrary to China’s image as a “sender” nation, more foreign students come to study in China than Chinese students study overseas. But last year, after reading about the continued surge of Chinese students to universities in other countries, I began to wonder whether my statement was right.

With the help of Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education, I figured out that the discrepancy has to do with the length of time the students who leave China each year spend studying abroad. In a given year, it’s true that China takes in more students from overseas than it sends abroad. But many of those incoming students come for short-term programs. By contrast, the Chinese students who go overseas often enroll in multi-year degree programs. That explains why there were more than 1.25 million Chinese studying abroad in 2010 – a huge number that fully supports the perception of China as a huge sender nation. I still think the extent to which China has become a destination for significant numbers of students in the region and beyond is fascinating. But I was glad to have the chance to change the paragraph in question to take account of both stats.

In the years when I was a working journalist, I sometimes worked with magazine fact-checkers, but I can think of only one or two instances in which I showed a source a story before publication – it just wasn’t done. The ethos is understandable in certain ways, but it can also lead to avoidable errors. I’ve always admired the rare practice of the Washington Post’s longtime education writer, Jay Mathews, who routinely runs his stories past interviewees to check for mistakes before publication.

Unlike book authors, it is only fair to note, journalists whose errors come to light after publication don’t have the luxury of second printings or of paperback editions. I do, and I’m particularly grateful to have had the opportunity to fix a few erroneous numbers that I used not only in my book but in subsequent op-eds and speeches – all the more so because I had seen a couple of these figures repeated by others.

I wish I hadn’t made any mistakes at all, of course. But I’m glad I learned something about what the communal process of reader reaction can do to improve accuracy. At the same time, I hope not to have too much need of crowdsourced face-checking again.

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