Evidence Ethics in LD Debate: A Proposal by Akhil Gandra and Arjun Tambe

Evidence ethics has been an issue subject to controversy since the dawn of policy debate. However, while policy has fairly concrete norms regarding evidence ethics disputes, LD does not, resulting in confusion between coaches, debaters, and tournament administrators alike. This article first addresses the current state of evidence ethics norms in LD and concludes by proposing a series of potential solutions to resolve the issue. We argue that debaters should disclose all the cases they have read (preferably full text) and be open to sharing resources, and that tournaments should have an established all-or-nothing procedure for resolving evidence ethics disputes.

I. Introduction

For the last several years, LD debates have evolved to become more reliant on both the quality and quantity of evidence read in round. Increasingly, debaters are cutting more cards and reading more carded blocks, and as a result, the issue of evidence ethics is one of large and growing importance. However, the community suffers from a lack of clarity when dealing with evidence ethics disputes, as is evident by the protests at the 2014 TOC. This lack of clarity stems from a much broader issue: the lack of norms in LD. While policy has accepted and adopted fairly clear norms, LD has not.

When dealing with questions of evidence ethics, the status quo “norms” in LD debate are considerably problematic. When a debater mis-cuts a card, one commonly utilized response is theory. However, this creates confusion because most evidence ethics theory shells do not explicitly establish in the violation why a certain piece of evidence is mis-cut. For example, if debater A claims an author says x, but debater B reads a theory shell arguing that debater A’s evidence is mis-cut, then presumably debater B would have the burden of proof to establish a violation with carded evidence from the same author. Most debaters do not have carded violations ready for every potential piece of evidence that could be mis-cut, so it becomes difficult to establish a violation.

In addition, there is confusion over what constitutions an evidence ethics violation and further confusion as to what the punishment should be. Should a debater lose the round? Should it be a double loss? Parts II and III of this article will attempt to elucidate these concerns. Also, many jurisdictional inconsistences between tournaments proliferate the problem. Some tournaments use NFL rules, some do not, and some make it unclear. Tournaments lack a clear basis for dealing with evidence ethics disputes, raising the question of who should deal with disputes: the tournament, the judge, or the debaters themselves? Finally, it is often difficult to identify misrepresented evidence without having read the article. Our proposal attempts to encourage debaters to do more research so they are able to expose misrepresented evidence when they see it.

II. What is Evidence Ethics?

Broadly defined, a violation of evidence ethics would entail intentionally or unintentionally fabricating evidence, misrepresenting evidence, or clipping cards.  This portion of the article will articulate the different ways debaters can violate evidence ethics.

The first and probably most egregious violation of evidence ethics is fabricating evidence. This occurs when a debater “makes up” evidence or intentionally changes the original text of an author’s work. To our knowledge, fabricating evidence does not occur often, if at all, but the practice is still a blatant violation of evidence ethics.

A much more common violation is “mis-cutting” evidence. This occurs when a debater attempts to change the meaning of a piece of evidence by strategically underlining or minimizing key words or phrases in the text. For example, if an author says: “There a multiplicity of arguments for why presumed consent is both good and bad,” the evidence would be mis-cut if a debater read the evidence as if it said: “There a multiplicity of arguments for why presumed consent is both good and bad.” The author qualified her claim by limiting the scope of her argument, but the debater skewed the conclusion of the evidence. However, confusion exists regarding the bright-line for when evidence is mis-cut and when it is not. Because every author is not writing about the debate resolution, all cards do not represent the author’s exact position. For example, carding an article that highlights the issue of trafficking would be legitimate on the aff even if the article didn’t talk about presumed consent. Therefore, it can be unclear when a card is being misrepresented enough to warrant a violation. There is a simple solution to this problem. When a debater reads a card, she should represent the author as asserting everything read in that card. The author should not have to agree with or condone everything else a debater reads. The fact that an author potentially disagrees with other parts of a position may be a response to those parts of the case, but it is not an issue of evidence ethics or misrepresentation. In academia, scholars do not reiterate previously established positions, but use them to formulate unique positions of their own. This idea is also applicable to LD.

The third violation of evidence ethics is “straw-person” cards. This occurs when an author concludes x and describes an objection to x before responding to the objection, but a debater claims the author concludes against x, carding only the paragraph describing the objection to x. It should be acceptable to read straw-person evidence if the debater acknowledges in their speech that the evidence they are reading is a straw-person. In this case, the evidence is no longer a misrepresentation because the debater would be providing an accurate representation of the author’s contention. Reading straw-person evidence without acknowledging the evidence as a straw-person is unethical because a debater is benefitting from identifying an author as supporting x position when the author does not conclude x.

The next issue is arguably the most unclear: editing evidence with brackets and ellipses. Ellipses should not be used in evidence at all because they can hide and distort the argument an author is making. Brackets however, are a little less clear. In general, debaters should avoid using brackets because it is not always clear when brackets change the meaning of evidence. Here are a few examples:

  1. “Presumed consent does help those in poverty” can be bracketed to say, “Presumed consent does [not] help those in poverty.”
  2. “There are three reasons why presumed consent increases organ donation rates” can be bracketed to say, “There are three reasons why presumed consent increases organ donation rates [for three reasons].”
  3. “Some authors have argued that presumed consent is good” can be bracketed to say, “Some [Many] authors have argued that presumed consent is good.”

Example A is clearly an instance in which brackets are unacceptable. They are used to change the meaning of the card in a drastic way. Example B is the opposite. Here, brackets do not change the meaning of the evidence, so a debater should not lose in this instance. Example C, however, is the most blurred. While we believe that brackets change the meaning of the evidence in this instance, not everyone agrees that their use should warrant a loss. A plethora of other examples (not shown) can demonstrate how the line between misrepresenting and clarifying an author’s argument via brackets can be unclear at best. The most effective alternative is to avoid using brackets whenever possible, except for perhaps grammatical corrections, such as changes in tense or punctuation.

(Here we disagree. Akhil believes in the position above and Arjun does not think brackets should be used in cards.)

“Clipping cards” is an evidence ethics violation, but one that is more verbal than textual. This occurs when a debater does not read the full underlining of the cards that were given to her opponent, but does not indicate this to her opponent during the speech. The practice is unethical for two reasons: first, because one’s opponent will assume one reads more than what was actually read, which might harm their overall strategy. Second, the judge may ask to see the evidence after the round to help make their decision, and will give a debater credit for something she did not read. One objection is that debaters should flow speeches, not speech documents, so whether a debater read everything in the speech document given to her opponent is irrelevant. However, the objection does not account for the judge being able to call for evidence—a judge cannot flow every word a debater says and, if needed, should be able to call for exactly what was read after the round. In addition, debaters should be able to accurately read each other’s evidence to formulate higher quality responses. If we accept letting opponents see the evidence you have read, then we should conclude that clipping cards is unethical because it allows debaters to get credit for something they didn’t read. Since flashing speech documents has become more common in LD, it is now possible for debaters to see when their opponents are clipping cards. The possibility of clipping is one of many reasons that flashing speech documents or passing pages should be the rule. If opponents do not have access to the documents but the judges can call for evidence after the round, there is virtually no check on clipping.

Clipping cards should warrant a loss. There is no line-drawing problem for clipping cards as there may be for other evidence disputes. Even if a debater did not want to read the entirety of a card, she would just have to notify her opponent during her speech by saying which word they stopped at in the card. Moreover, since clipping a card has the potential to skew the outcome of the round, it should become an enforceable norm that clipping cards is unethical.

Finally, indicating the date a piece of evidence was written should become a norm. Many debaters already do this, reading both the author’s last name and the year the evidence was published (or the last name and “no date” if no date can be found), but some debaters only read the author’s last name. The year a piece of evidence was written can affect its quality, even to the point of changing its meaning. An egregious example of this could be a piece of evidence predicting Republicans will win “the election”: this evidence would mean very different things if it were written in 2000 than if it were written in 2014. Most instances of reading evidence with no date aren’t as severe as this example, but when evidence is written certainly does impact the quality of that evidence, so we think it best for debaters to read the date for their evidence. However, we don’t think this should warrant a loss: it should just be a norm.

III. Our Proposals

First, we think debaters should disclose the full text of their positions on the NDCA wiki. Many articles have already been written on the importance of disclosure, so we won’t repeat those arguments here. However, we think disclosure can help address the issue of miscutting or fabricating evidence since debaters can verify whether a piece of evidence read by their opponent has been cut ethically by reading the article the evidence is cut from. Full text disclosure would also elevate the quality of disclosure. Providing the first and last three words of an article can make it difficult to reconstruct a debater’s case since not everyone has access to all the databases articles may have been accessed from. Full text disclosure expands access to debaters’ evidence.

On a similar note, debaters should be willing to share resources with others. One easy solution entails posting one’s email address on their wiki so that other debaters can contact them to ask for articles they do not have access.

Finally, we propose that tournaments should have explicit procedures for adjudicating evidence disputes.

The NDCA recently adopted guidelines for clipping cards for its national championship tournament in LD as well as to policy. The guidelines lay out the process by which debaters can make an evidence challenge when they suspect their opponent of clipping cards. The guidelines provide a formal procedure for resolving an accusation of evidence ethics outside of the round; i.e. without having to resolve an in-round theory debate about evidence ethics. However, the guidelines only relate to card clipping and not other evidence disputes, so while we believe that the NDCA policy serves as a good starting point towards developing comprehensive guidelines for evidence ethics in LD, it is not conclusive. (For the NDCA guidelines, see here and here.)

Tournaments should reference an explicit and openly available set of rules to determine whether an ethics violation exists so that debaters know when they have grounds for staking the round on an evidence challenge. Clipping cards, fabricating evidence, and mis-cutting/misrepresenting evidence should be grounds for an evidence challenge; if a debater is determined to have clipped cards, fabricated evidence, or misrepresented evidence, then they should lose the round. Other disputes over evidence, such as whether evidence is a straw-person, should be resolved via the arguments made in the round: however, we think that judges should hold themselves to a high standard when resolving these debates: i.e. “fairness isn’t a voter” shouldn’t be a reason a judge accepts a piece of straw-person evidence as legitimate.

There are three benefits to this approach: first, evidence violations are of a different significance than other theory arguments. Fabricating evidence is equivalent to academic dishonesty. While questions over whether plans are legitimate, for example, are open to question and without absolute answer, questions of evidence ethics are not: academic dishonesty is unequivocally bad. For this reason, a debater’s ability to debate theory arguments should not determine disputes over evidence ethics. Debaters should not get away with academic dishonesty because they are good at theory debate; evidence ethics standards should be externally enforced by the tournament.

Second, this approach helps avoid disputes about rounds. Creating an established procedure for resolving evidence disputes obviates the need to change the outcome of a round after the fact.

Third, this would reduce dishonesty. Debaters might be dishonest or hold themselves to a low bar of ethics because they know they can beat a theory argument calling them out on a questionable evidence ethics practice. If there’s an established process that is highly accurate in establishing evidence violations, there is a greater deterrent against evidence ethics violations.

IV. Concluding Remarks

Evidence ethics are an issue of vital importance, and as LD debate increasingly mirrors policy, its norms should as well. Absolute honesty in debate rounds may never be achieved, but we think this article provides a reasonable starting point for communal change. We hope the proposals outlined in this article help initiate the discussion of evidence ethics in relation to tournament policy. While we have not comprehensively outline the details of our proposals, we hope that tournament administrators will start working together to set norms and tournament procedures to address the issue of evidence ethics in LD.