Student Plagiarism Faculty Responsibility In Undergraduate Engineering Labs Education Essay

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In undergraduate engineering labs, lab reports are routinely copied. By ignoring this form of plagiarism, teaching assistants and lab technicians neglect their role responsibility. By designing courses that facilitate it, however inadvertently, professors neglect their causal responsibility. Using the case of one university, we show via interviews and observation that such routine copying and faculty negligence are rampant. We suggest the latter be explicitly recognized as a cause of student dishonesty, and argue that it must be rectified before faculty earn the right to reform students. We also suggest that these findings are representative of, and therefore generalizable to, many universi-ties undergraduate engineering and science labs.


A crime's severity depends on its type and its perpetrator's intent. So, manslaughter, being accidental, is worse than murder, but better than theft. Student plagiarism is a crime that violates laws, university rules and (some say) morals. Here, too, type and intent are paramount in judging severity. Therefore deliberate copying deserves harsher penalties than forgetting 'quotation marks to indicate a direct citation' (Briggs, 2003, p. 19). Liability rests on the doer and those who conceal or aid the act without participating in it. Hence, letting your friend shoplift makes you an accessory, as does assisting suicide. But the similarities end there. Student plagiarism is a privileged crime because only students receive recognition for it. Faculty contribu-tions are habitually discounted. From the work of Simon et al. (1972), Smith (1996) derives four ethical responsibilities that faculty bear in their relationships with students. Two are relevant here.

First is role responsibility (Smith, 1996, p. 13); as enforcers, faculty must censure academic misconduct. Those who do not must fail in their professional obligations

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(Woessner, 2004, p. 313). In one study, 90% of students classified professors' ignoring strong evidence of cheating as unethical in many or all circumstances (Keith-Spiegel et al., 1993, p. 152). In another, 98% of professors rated such ignoring of cheating as most likely or unquestionably unethical (Birch et al., 1999, p. 250). Yet, this behaviour persists. McCabe et al. (2003, pp. 368'9) have synthesized the results of six works on this topic (Wright & Kelly, 1974; Singhal, 1982; Nuss, 1984; Jendrek, 1989; McCabe, 1993; Graham et al., 1994). All illustrate the pervasive nature of faculty shirking their role responsibility. Unfortunately, the punishment for such transgressions is usually minimal (Hauptman, 2002, p. 40). Cabral-Cardoso (2004) illustrates this with an incident in which three internal examiners received no penalties for passing a dissertation they knew was plagiarized.

Second is causal responsibility; those who cause harm must try to correct it (Smith, 1996, p. 13). Cahn (1986) and Markie (1994) view thorough preparation for courses as obligatory. For example, at the Australian National University, the code of practice for academic honesty in teaching and learning explicitly requires academics to ensure that 'assessment tasks for the course are constructed so as to minimise the possibility of academic dishonesty' (Australian National University, 2003). Braxton and Bayer also find that professors perceive inadequate course design as a serious norm violation (Braxton & Bayer, 1999, p. 79). So, faculty who do not exert reasonable efforts to make their courses resistant to plagiarism can be accused of facilitating cheating, thereby 'harming' students. But lists of contextual influences do not indict faculty. Indeed, the focus on depersonalized variables'such as course content (Steininger et al., 1964), instructional quality (Steininger, 1968), opportunity to cheat (Cooper & Peterson, 1980; Michaels & Miethe, 1989), inadequate surveillance (Leming, 1980; Corcoran & Rotter, 1987; Sierles et al., 1988; Covey et al., 1989), little or no threat of sanctions (Fischer, 1970; Tittle & Rowe, 1973; Houston, 1983; Lanza-Kaduce & Klug, 1986; Ward & Tittle, 1993) and institutional contexts (Whitley & Keith-Spiegel, 2001)'means that faculty responsibility is often obscured or diffused.

In undergraduate engineering labs, our observations at one university suggest that copying, neglect of role responsibility, and neglect of causal responsibility are more widespread than is commonly acknowledged. However, no works specifically address plagiarism at this site. Those that do so address it only tangentially, and are limited by their use of self-administered questionnaires. For example, though engineering majors admit turning in copied material as their own (23% at schools with an honour code, 27% in those without) and falsifying lab data (39% in schools with an honour code, 64% in those without) (McCabe, 1997, pp. 440'1), these figures understate the reality. This is because, if asked via a self-administered questionnaire whether they have copied a 'lab report from another student' (Harding et al., 2002), many will lie and answer no. These lies may be intentional (because they do not want to tell the truth) or unintentional (because they do not perceive that what they are doing is copy-ing'we will elaborate on this later). In the closely related contexts of high school (Rigano & Ritchie, 1995) and college (Del Carlo & Bodner, 2004) science labs, observations and interviews together provide strong evidence that plagiarism is chronic. Technically adequate research methods cannot, however, surmount bias. In

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both studies only students are held responsible for plagiarism, while faculty are not considered as a possible cause. We acknowledge, however, that teaching assistants (as Del Carlo herself was) who wish to curb acts of plagiarism may face difficulty in doing so. Just as faculty must take responsibility for creating the conditions under which legitimate learning occurs, the institution and senior staff to whom faculty report must ensure that such behaviour is enabled, encouraged and valued.

We believe faculty must bear their share of the blame when they neglect their role and causal responsibilities. Using the case of one university, we first provide evidence that copying lab reports is routine for electrical and mechanical engineering under-graduates. Next, we demonstrate that although teaching assistants and lab techni-cians know this, they ignore it. Finally, we show that though plagiarism in these labs can be minimized by altering the course structure, professors have not done so. The value of this paper is threefold. First, it is 'intrinsically interesting' (Walford, 2001, p. 16). Second, we believe it is a case (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 28) that is repre-sentative of many undergraduate engineering labs. This belief is based on brief discussions with a convenience sample of 15 students studying in different universi-ties in the USA and Australia, and in Asia. Third, it is a critical case (Miles & Huber-man, 1994, p. 28) in that faculty negligence is explicitly identified as a cause of dishonesty. This interpretation can be generalized beyond labs to classrooms, where faculty are persistently seen only as a solution.


We sought data on student copying in labs and the conditions in which this took place. To get rich, detailed descriptions we used interviews, focus groups and obser-vation. Though qualitative methods are infrequently used in plagiarism research (as exceptions see Love & Simmons, 1998; Brezina, 2000; Walston & Lissitz, 2000; Aggarwal et al., 2002), we faced few difficulties in dealing with this sensitive topic (Renzetti & Lee, 1993). Access was uninhibited and respondents usually spoke freely, partly because they were assured confidentiality when the findings were published. To minimize any lingering reluctance (Hollway & Jefferson, 2000; Adler & Adler, 2002) we did not record any conversations on tape. So, the excerpts here are not exact transcriptions. But verbatim records are unnecessary as long as respondents' mean-ings are not altered (Zinsser, 1980, p. 83). Also, during interviews we focused mainly on the behaviours of others. This 'deflection' (Hoffman, 1980) strategy put respon-dents at ease because their anxiety over exposing personal liability was reduced. Even when they admitted to committing or concealing copying we did not express disap-proval; 'normalizing' their acts (Johnson, 1975) helped them relax more.

Thirty interviews, three focus groups (with three, five and 27 respondents respec-tively) and a six-month period of observation comprised our contact with engineering undergraduates. Our student interviewee sample was not probabilistic. Every respon-dent was specifically chosen as representative of a particular group. Each group corre-sponded to specific ranges of grade point averages, cliques, ethnicities, nationalities, departments (mechanical or electrical engineering), years of study and modules. This

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maximum variation sampling strategy allowed us to infer a shared pattern'copying lab reports is routine'across different cases (Patton, 2002, p. 235). Our observations were also supplemented by face-to-face conversations with laboratory staff (seven teaching assistants and four lab technicians), and email contact with nine professors to confirm details of teaching and laboratory practice.

Selected students were also asked to refine or reject our conclusions as to their behaviour, because 'member checking' (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) generally improves the credibility of an account. Some, however, found this paper too boring to read. Others did not understand it fully due to their engineering background. So, we did a weaker validation, giving them only an interim document with data and conclusions (Seale, 1999, p. 62). The drawback of giving students an interim document is that our final construction of respondents' interpretations remains not fully endorsed by them (Bryman, 1988, p. 80).

Routine copying

'Putting theory into practice' is how students describe labs. Essentially, concepts that have been taught are operationalized and verified through experiments. By manipu-lating variables, data is gathered and analysed. A simple example is the relationship between voltage (V), current (I) and resistance (R). The formula disbursed during lectures and tutorials states that voltage is equal to the product of current and resistance (V = IR). Students are asked to empirically test the effect of changing resis-tances on currents, when voltage is held constant. To do this they substitute resistors in a circuit and read off from an ammeter. Subsequently, they write a report consist-ing of their data (in the form of tables and graphs), calculations (using formulas) and analysis (in response to structured questions). Most labs are more complex than this. Depending on the difficulty of the module, students are faced with pre-assembled circuits requiring them only to record data, unconnected circuits that need connect-ing or equipment that has to be designed into a circuit and connected before readings can be taken. Depending on the department and the module, different labs also have different foci. These include circuits, motors and materials, among others. Every electrical or mechanical engineering undergraduate at this university completes at least 30 lab reports over four years of study.

Copying is deliberately reproducing another student's report and submitting it as one's own. When copying takes place, small amendments are often made, if the values in the questions have been changed, or in the hope of preventing plagiarism detection. But the product remains nearly identical to the original. This behaviour is different from collaboration, in which students discuss but ultimately hand in their own work, though the boundary between the two is blurred. Few students call what they do copying, hence one reason why self-administered questionnaires understate its incidence. Their descriptions fall into four categories: 'replicating', 'understand-ing', 'referring', and 'checking'. This is a typology of processes, not persons. An essential character is ascribed to activities more easily than to people, because 'no one ever acts completely in character, just like their type' (Becker, 1998, p. 44). So, the

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same student may adopt different processes for different labs or for different parts of the same lab.

Replicating means accepting that one's lab is a carbon copy of another's; most students report that they do not replicate the work of others. Next, those who 'under-stand' say they read the reports of other students' only for knowledge. Referring is the most commonly reported activity. Those championing this process maintain they use others' reports only as guides, to preclude errors and ensure they are following correct procedures. Checking is subtly distinct from referring. Here, reports are referred to after, not before or during, data collection and analysis. Thus, prior to submission, students 'check' their answers for accuracy and amend any errors they find. The excerpts below typify statements illustrating replicating, understanding, referring, and checking, respectively:

What I basically do is copy. That's what it is. If you look at my report and compare it with April's, you won't find many differences. Sometimes she copies from me, sometimes I copy from her. Other times we get our reports from other friends of ours. (Electrical Engineering, 4th year)

I try very hard to understand the labs. Before each lab, I will read up the textbook, lecture notes or my friends' lab reports. It's just another source of information. After all, the point is for you to understand, right? I think there's nothing wrong with what I am doing. (Mechanical Engineering, 3rd year)

During labs, I look at previous reports. It makes sense to do this. The structure is already there. This way, I don't make stupid mistakes. Also, some of these labs are hard. I have to look at others' reports. If not, I won't even be able to start on my own. (Mechanical Engineering, 2nd year)

What we do is not called plagiarizing. It's checking. What's the value if I hand up some-thing wrong? I don't get good marks, and since labs don't come out in the exam, I won't look at it again. But if I check, I can get the marks and the answers right the first time. Anyway, I never copy blindly; after checking, I improve on the original reports. (Electrical Engineering, 3rd year)

To copy, students need someone else's report. These are sourced from more senior students or peers who have completed the lab in an earlier semester, and those who are currently doing the module. Obtaining reports is an art. Depending on their talent and skill, students occupy one of three roles: gatherer, hunter or scavenger. Gatherers are experts. Before signing up for a module, and sometimes even before the academic year begins, they tap their extensive social network that supplies them with a surfeit of reports'up to ten for each lab. Hunters only begin scouting once the module starts. Since they lack the contacts of, or time available to, gatherers, their collection is smaller, usually between three and five reports. Scavengers start their quest during labs, by borrowing reports from friends taking the same module. Their late entrance limits their options: they end up with one or at most two sources to copy from. These roles directly affect report quality; more sources usually lead to greater accuracy. How many 'originals' you have access to also determines how different your product looks. So, gatherers' reports are less likely to be caught for plagiarism than scavengers', though the former are actually better at deception than the latter. We emphasize that

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actors are never permanently typecast; students may occupy different roles in different labs.

The reasons students gave for copying were variations of two themes: faculty inaction, and inadequate course design. Under the first''faculty don't do anything, so they must expect us to copy'; 'faculty don't care because labs don't matter'; and 'they want us to understand, that's why they let us look at our seniors' reports''were justifications we frequently heard. The second theme was more common. Some said that courses were too difficult to be made sense of alone; this was compounded by many labs being 'scheduled prior to the concepts being taught' in lectures. Others cited time constraints, the relative insignificance of labs in terms of assessment''labs are less than 10% of the final grade', 'they have no relevance to the exam anyway'' and heavy workloads.

Fifty-five students agreed that they routinely engaged in the replicating, under-standing, checking, or referring processes outlined earlier. Each also agreed that everyone they knew did this. Many, however, said they did not copy in their first semester or year. This was because they were unaware that 'everybody is doing it' or had not made enough contacts'not due to ethical misgivings or the fear of getting caught. Also, in the few modules that significantly alter their lab questions from those of previous semesters, no 'originals' exist. Since many students lack the time or interest to scavenge, fewer students copy in these labs. Apart from these negative cases, copying lab reports was pervasive. We could not find a single student (exclud-ing first-years) that had never copied.

Neglecting role responsibility

Teaching assistants and lab technicians perform different functions. Teaching assis-tants are usually graduate students pursuing their doctorates at the university. They supervise labs, read out instructions, are supposed to clarify any doubts students have and mark lab reports. Lab technicians are equipment specialists. They ensure that all necessary apparatuses are available, and, if necessary, set them up before labs begin. During experiments, students often look for them, especially when equipment malfunctions. As this is an 'honour code' institution, a precondition for admission is that every student signs a form stating they will abide by it. Specifically, they must refrain from being dishonest and report others who are. So, concealing copying is a breach of university rules. Graduate students are bound by these rules, as (presum-ably) are all staff members. Thus, if faculty know that students' copy, they are obliged to take remedial action.

The teaching assistants we observed did not appear to see proactively policing the laboratories as their responsibility. However, when asked about monitoring plagiarism, staff indicated that if very similar lab reports were submitted, both would be awarded zero marks. Students also believed that identical lab reports would be assigned failing grades. Yet, when pressed, no students could identify a single such incident that they had personally experienced. Further, 'only stupid or lazy people get caught', said some. We wondered why students were never caught in the act.

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Glancing at students' benches readily revealed the reports of senior students or peers poorly concealed by exercise-books and notepads. Yet, no action was seen to be taken. One student said: 'The thing is, unless we are caught while copying (which is hard, because there are many students in the lab and we often write up the reports outside the lab), teaching assistants have no proof. We can simply deny it.' Another student said: 'I'm in my honour's year and the final year project is killing me. Do you really think the teaching assistants, who have their theses to worry about, have the time or interest to catch us copying in labs? I don't think so.' Illustrating this lack of motivation to address copying is an incident from one lab requiring submission of reports at the end of the session (some require it only after a week). Two students asked the teaching assistant if they could leave the room because it was too cold. This was clearly a flimsy excuse designed to let them copy each other's work. Nevertheless, the teaching assistant acquiesced without reservations.

Lab technicians interact with students as part of their job to maintain equipment, which they see as the extent of their responsibility. Students claim that they also know what is going on with respect to copying and sometimes get involved. Every student we asked agreed with this: 'They [lab technicians] actually tell us not to copy blindly', and also 'to change our answers enough so that we can't get caught', said one student. 'I have heard this advice many times from them', said another student. Interestingly, students look up to lab technicians. Two emphatically stated:

They are our saviours. The teaching assistants and professors are useless. They don't help at all. In general, lab technicians are always ready to answer our questions. You can't blame them for helping us copy. They are just trying to make our lives easier. After all, it's not their responsibility. (Mechanical Engineering, 3rd year)

Once I was stuck for two hours because I couldn't get a value. [A lab technician] told me the answer and reminded me to make it look like I had calculated it on my own. Without him I would have failed. (Electrical Engineering, 4th year)

Neglecting causal responsibility

Professors design modules, teach, set questions for labs, tests and exams, and mark non-lab assessments. Their direct contact with students during labs is minimal. Only on exceptional occasions do they visit labs, and even then their visits are brief. So, there is no concrete evidence that professors observe specific instances of plagiarism in labs and do nothing. The testimony of students, however, suggests that lecturers are indeed aware of the problem. A sampling of statements is as follows:

[A student] told me that in her first year she was a bit disturbed by how everyone was cheating. She went up to the lecturer and told him that this was happening and everyone was doing it. The lecturer told [her] that she should do the same, if not she would lag behind. (Electrical Engineering, 2nd year)

How can professors not know? They were students before, right? Anyway, just walking down the corridor it's so easy to see people rushing to finish their labs'even if professors don't know specific cases, which I don't believe, I'm sure they know about it generally. (Mechanical Engineering, 3rd year)

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If professors do not exert reasonable efforts to make their labs resistant to plagia-rism, we argue they are guilty of neglecting their causal responsibility. We found little evidence of such efforts though strategies are available. In our opinion, the best measure to minimize copying is changing lab questions regularly (see also Lipson & McGavern, 1993; Zobel & Hamilton, 2002). This renders 'originals' practically useless. But at this university, students say that less than 20% of labs varied their questions from semester to semester. The effort and time required to design new questions is a possible reason for not changing lab questions. However, lab templates are available through engineering education journals. A brief search uncovered ques-tions pertaining to control systems (Basilio, 2002), electromagnetic circuits (Atencia et al., 2001), power quality (Barros et al., 2001), power flow (Indulkar, 1999) and cables (Belendez et al., 2003). Alternatively, universities can collaborate with one another and share questions, thereby reducing faculty workloads. Independent of these suggestions, 'a lot of time and effort' is not a valid excuse. If it was, then 'I copy because it's easier' should also be acceptable.

A second measure is to revamp methods of assessment. Instead of grading reports, which are copied and do not reflect learning anyway, these reports can remain ungraded, and their substance tested through questions in the final written examina-tion. Or, a practical exam can be held at the end of the semester. 'At my polytechnic, having a practical exam forced everyone to learn because you can't copy in exams', said one student. Alternatively, every lab could be held under exam conditions.

A third measure, and one we think essential, is to schedule labs only after concepts are taught. Now, 50% of students in each module must do their reports before lectur-ers begin teaching the relevant concepts. In this situation, how realistic or ethical is it to expect students not to copy? Resource constraints such as 'limited equipment', 'manpower shortage' and 'time restrictions' are often advanced as reasons for such poor scheduling. These can be mitigated through the judicious use of technology. Simulations (i.e. simulation of real environment through virtual reality) and/or remotely controlled (real-time or with a time lag) labs have been implemented at many universities (see Hutzel, 2002; Lee, 2002; Candelas et al., 2003; Diong et al., 2003; Gustavsson, 2003; Henry & Knight, 2003; Jones & Joordens, 2003; Naghdy et al., 2003; Porter & Morgan, 2003; Tan et al., 2003; Moure et al., 2004). These have multi-ple benefits, such as relatively low equipment costs, minimal recurring preparation time, modest manpower requirements, the capacity to accommodate large classes, interactive online teaching of concepts, 24-hour remote access from campus or home computers, the ability to randomly vary questions and values, the use of software to limit laborious calculations, and the possibility of electronic submission and electronic grading. Yet, less than 10% of labs here are conducted this way.

Each of these solutions is reasonable because relative to their effectiveness in excluding copying, the effort expended in implementing them is small. A host of other ideas are also offered by Delaney (2001), York University (2004), and McGill University (2004). So, the problem is not that options are unavailable. Neither is it that professors lack the intelligence to see these options or the ability to execute them. Rather, it is their will that is missing. While sympathy is warranted for those struggling

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to publish enough to make tenure, or those overburdened with teaching loads, these are insufficient reasons for inadequate course design.


At the university where our investigation took place, the undergraduate engineering lab is built on two dubious claims. The first is that it imparts 'the ability to design and conduct experiments, as well as to analyse and interpret data' (Engineering Accredi-tation Commission, 2003, p. 1). An honest student, after much toil, will learn this, but his or her grades usually suffer in the process. A dishonest student easily gets his or her grades by copying, but may learn little. Early on, aspiring engineers must make this choice, between morality and pragmatism. It is no contest. To learn is to survive; to copy is to thrive. Copying is also insidious because it encourages denial. As discussed, most students do not classify their acts as plagiarism. Additionally, in our focus groups some were adamant that, despite copying, they were learning what they were supposed to. However, this was countered by the majority: 'Don't fool yourself, you just follow the instructions on the paper; understanding is beyond any of us'; 'people can say they learn, but ask them to actually do it on their own and you'll see they can't'; and 'let's face it, after four years here we still have no idea how to do experiments ourselves', were common responses.

The second claim is that professional engineers are ethical (Engineering Accredita-tion Commission, 2003, p 1). This is not necessarily always the case. Indeed, some might argue that the conduct of the engineering faculty in our case study refutes this claim. Faculty tend to be seen only as the solution to student plagiarism, even when they are a cause. Argyris (1990) terms this an organizational defensive routine, which consists of a series of logical steps: (1) craft an inconsistent message (faculty are the solution, but never a cause); (2) pretend the inconsistencies don't exist (let neglect of role and causal responsibility go unnoticed and unpunished); (3) make these incon-sistencies undiscussable (students have no power to question faculty, while faculty can ignore or make students' lives difficult if they do); and (4) 'make the undiscuss-ability of the undiscussable also undiscussable' (Argyris, 1990, p. 27).

This last step is the responsibility of educational researchers. By letting routine copying and faculty negligence in labs remain an 'invisible' crime (Davies et al., 1999) that does not appear in the literature, we too contribute to its proliferation. So, more studies are needed. One focus must be on replicating this investigation at other universities. This would confirm or reject our claims that routine copying and faculty neglect of their responsibilities are rampant in many undergraduate engi-neering labs. A possible methodological refinement is the inclusion of self-adminis-tered questionnaires, with questions probing 'replicating', 'understanding', 'referring' and 'checking', rather than the blanket category of 'copying'. This will usefully supplement the qualitative strategies we used. The scope of these investiga-tions can also be extended to undergraduate computing and science labs, where we believe a similar situation exists. Another focus must be on reinterpreting research on classroom dishonesty, which currently rarely, if ever, considers faculty as a direct

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cause. There too, they should be indicted if they fail their role and causal responsi-bilities. Though we have castigated students, teaching assistants, lab technicians and professors, the role played by administrators has been omitted. Their policies and actions, or lack thereof, affect faculty behaviour and need scrutiny. As LeClercq (1999) astutely notes:

But faculty should not be blamed too severely for refusing to enforce plagiarism rules when administrators have a vested interest in downplaying any dispute. Some teachers do not bring charges because they think the administration will not admit to any reported plagiarism cases. (p. 238)

Jay (1999) states: 'You can convince yourself that a problem either does not exist or will go away if you ignore it for long enough' (p. 119). You can also persuade yourself that addressing the symptoms of a disease eliminates its source. But belief does not always constitute reality. Faculty negligence invites students to become incompetent and unethical engineers, no matter what the rhetoric. Superficial solutions like ethics training (Glagola et al., 1997; Rabins, 1998) have little value when implemented independently.

Instead, vital is the recognition that undergraduate engineering labs are sites for dishonesty perpetuated by the complicity of students and faculty. Treatment must be administered to both. However, police who condone crimes, and wardens who allow these crimes to flourish, must correct themselves before they earn the right to punish criminals. Similarly, teaching assistants and lab technicians who ignore copying, and professors who design courses that facilitate it, must fulfil their role and causal responsibilities before they earn the right to reform students.


Thanks are due to Bala and Rodney, and to two anonymous HERD reviewers for their helpful suggestions.