A Critique of Full Text Disclosure by Ishan Bhatt and Rex Evans

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Victory Briefs.

Ishan Bhatt was the 2018 NSDA National Champion and competes in Lincoln-Douglas Debate at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Mississippi. Rex Evans was a finalist at the 2018 Tournament of Champions and competes in Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Santa Monica High School in California. 

The authors would like to thank Lawrence Zhou and Paras Kumar for their valuable input and help.

A Brief Anecdote from Ishan

I remember when “must disclose full text” first started making the rounds at TOC my sophomore year and how quickly, just to avoid the theory debate, people started full text disclosing their evidence. I heard about it after round 2 and I made all of my TOC disclosure full text immediately. Soon after, full text disclosure was increasing exponentially.

Last year, I was writing case negs for a round robin and realized that the full text disclosure of a particular aff was hard to read. Like, really hard to read. The plan was in the middle of an enormous block of text and theory arguments at the bottom were all mushed together. I also realized that the NDCA wiki, on the cites entry page, says pretty explicitly:

“You should NOT paste full text cards here, only cites – if you want to disclose open source, upload a document on the next page as well.”

Since I didn’t have any real DAs to the aff I was preparing for, I decided to write a quick theory shell with standards about the difficulty of reading full text and a hilariously bad ethical argument about following NDCA rules backed up by a promise-keeping deont card I swiped from Circuit Debater. However, round robins being round robins, I didn’t exactly get the panel I needed for my brilliant new theory argument, so I ended up never breaking it.

At some point this year, Rex brought up his frustrations with this terrible practice and asked whether we should write a shell. I sent the shell I had written, and Rex read it in a couple rounds. But, since we both noticed a large amount of debaters still disclosing in this manner, we decided to move beyond 1ac theory arguments and actually write an article against what we believe is an easily fixable problem and articulate what we believe people should do instead.

Thesis

Debaters, if they choose to disclose the full text of their evidence, should upload a document with that evidence in the open source section of the disclosure page. In the citation box, debaters should disclose the first five words and last five words of the card. This article covers four issues. First, why full text disclosure evidence is good. Second, why putting that full text in the cites box is bad and why one should open source. Third, we preempt potential objections and evaluate the pros and cons of these claims. And fourth, we offer some miscellaneous thoughts on disclosure.

Section 1: Why Debaters Should Disclose the Full Text of their Evidence

This section independently addresses whether full text disclosure of evidence is a good practice in the first place. Our main argument deals with how debaters should disclose the full text of evidence if they choose to do so, but this section provides a brief primer on some of the justifications for full text disclosure we find most persuasive.

Sub-Point A: Ease of Access

Open source makes it easier for debaters to find evidence. Often it is difficult to find the original evidence because URL links are broken or paywalls prevent many debaters from accessing the original work. Not all debaters have access to the databases that some of us are lucky enough to have. In a world where debaters do full text disclose, the community no longer has to control F the first three/last three words of the evidence in question and then read through all of the article. Full text allows the evidence to be readily accessible for scrutiny, just one click away.

Sub-Point B: Scrutiny of Evidence

Open source incentivizes better card cutting because every competitor knows that it is extremely easy to scrutinize all of their evidence. It is difficult, absent full text, to find every single card in a 1AC independently, especially with limited time before debates. With full text, it’s all there in one place, easy to read. That means all the evidence can be scrutinized with one click, which incentivizes debaters to cut better and more ethically. Even if there wasn’t a malicious miscutting committed on the part of the debater, mistakes, discrepancies, and general problems with the evidence are much easier to find under our norm.

Sub-Point C: Evidence “Stealing” is Not Bad.

We think that debaters’ preoccupation with “evidence stealing” is misplaced because simply cutting a card does not make it someone’s property. Debaters, if reading another debater’s evidence, should indeed keep that debater’s initials at the end. However, the act of reading another debater’s card is something we should encourage, not prevent. Our stance does not mandate open source disclosure with highlighting, which means debaters would still have to re-highlight the evidence. There is no reason to force debaters to jump through extra hoops since the evidence is already out there. It’s better to share resources with everybody. This model would substantially lower entry barriers since teams without much infrastructure could also rely on a wealth of evidence provided by the wiki. Younger debaters, particularly those without deep coaching or backfiles, already use free internet resources to learn debate. Providing them with easy access to evidence allows to them to keep up with the amount of evidence required to be successful on the circuit.

Section 2: Why Debaters Should Open Source Their Evidence

If a debater chooses to post the full text of their evidence, they should not post it in the cites box, but should upload a document instead.

Sub-Point A: Pre-Round Preparation

Reading through massive blocks of text in the cites box makes it substantially harder for debaters to prepare effectively before debates where time is a limited resource. It’s often difficult to isolate where a card ends and the next tag begins, and cards often take up so much space that more time is spent scrolling than actually reading tags, plan texts, standard texts, etc. It makes it significantly harder to isolate crucial portions of the affirmative such as advocacy texts or framing mechanisms which means debaters have to waste time figuring out where the aff says stuff instead of figuring out what the affirmative actually says. The wiki is meant to facilitate clash through transparency. Debaters should be able to access it and get right to work on creatively and thoroughly devising arguments against their opponents. A debater preparing to debate a specific affirmative should be able to both skim the affirmative case’s general thesis and tags while also assessing the evidence if they so choose. This optimizes the ability of the negative to prepare an in-depth attack on the affirmative, further facilitating the clash that disclosure is meant to create.

Sub-Point B: Obfuscation of Tricks

This also makes it easier to hide tricks in cases. For the purpose of this article, a trick is a short analytic that is out of place in the case and has a large impact in the round such as a “1ar theory lexically prior” blip right after a card ends and blended with the tag of the next card, or a “CX checks” spike in the middle of a utilitarianism framework. We are aware that this definition doesn’t have an exact bright-line but it’s sufficient for our argument – regardless of a specific definition of “tricks,” first 5 last 5 better deters debaters from hiding arguments that seek to evade debating over core issues and promote trickery over rigorous clash. These one-line arguments are easy to hide in large amounts of text, especially since our eyes are likely to skip over them when searching for the next paragraph break. Allowing debaters to scrutinize their opponents’ positions effectively weeds out terrible arguments, which fosters argument responsibility and leads to more educational clash over core issues. Independent of the educational value of these arguments, hiding them within the disclosure page is still net negative. If it is the case that debates should be over these arguments, then one should want one’s opponent to better prepare for each and every single trick.

Sub-Point C: Processing Issues

Massive blocks of text can be difficult for people in the debate community with disabilities such as dyslexia, who have trouble reading through big blocks of text. We personally know a few debaters who can’t manage to look/focus on large blocks of unformatted text hard enough to discern various arguments and have heard similar things from other debaters. It is not acceptable to have a portion of the debate community to be unable to read through disclosure, especially since disclosure is meant to provide equal access to arguments.

Sub-Point D: NDCA Rules

Lastly, the NDCA wiki asks you to do it. They made the wiki and have been running it for years. They know what good disclosure looks like and they know the cites box can get very cluttered. They don’t want their wiki filled with enormous jumbles of blocks of text. So, they explicitly tell you not to do it! There is probably some obligation to minimally follow the rules of the NDCA wiki. When you are voluntarily participating in some activity, you should be obligated to follow its rules unless you have a very strong reason not to. You have decided to disclose on their page, and they provide this service for the debate community for free – at least follow the rules they explicitly detail.

Even if you aren’t persuaded by our appeal to NDCA rules, this argument still does one very important thing: it makes the norm we advocate for predictable and non-arbitrary. The wiki we’re disclosing on has a codified rule about our norm, so the burden is on those who violating to proactively justify why breaking that rule is good.

Section 3: Potential Objections

In an ideal world, everyone would stop full text disclosing in the cites box and start open sourcing just because this article dropped, and both of the authors were extremely qualified middle school Public Forum debaters. However, we don’t think this is the case. In light of this and after careful consideration, we do endorse reading theory against folks who full text in the cites box. Therefore, we’ve divided this section into two sub-sections. The first one will answer potential objections to our norm. The second will answer potential objections to reading theory to promote our norm.

Sub-Point A: Norm Objections

Objection 1: It’s just easier to copy/paste the 1AC into the cites box

First, ease should not primarily determine disclosure norms. Yes, it may be easier to copy/paste, but you know what’s also easier? Not disclosing at all! We think that slight difficulty of disclosing does not outweigh the obfuscation of full text disclosure. Norms aren’t always the easiest to abide by, but efficiency should never be the determiner of disclosure norms, much less when it takes about 30 seconds to use verbatim to wikify and then copy paste. If substantially better disclosure norms come at the cost of an extra minute or two, that’s a sacrifice that we as a community should be willing to make.

Second, accessibility is more important than ease. Even if it takes you a little bit of extra time to abide by our norm, it’s worth it if it means that certain debaters are able to more meaningfully participate in the activity.

Third, it’s not that hard – just make a doc and clear all the cards using verbatim. It would only take about 1 or 2 minutes to create this and we think it is worth the tradeoff. Uploading a speech document is extremely easy and if you don’t want to go through the work of unformatting the cards, don’t! If you’re all about ease, then we’re happy to see you disclose open source with all that highlighting that was just too hard to delete.

Objection 2: It’s easier to view full text, open source requires downloading a doc

Disclosing in the cite box and disclosing open source are not mutually exclusive. We still think you should disclose tags and first 5/last 5 in the cites box – that makes it easier for those who want to just look at positions to do so and those who want to scrutinize your evidence can download documents. However, full text harms both of those objectives – people can’t isolate/examine evidence nor can they prep pre-round with huge blocks of text.

Objection 3: People will just steal my cards

First, this objection doesn’t make much sense because debaters are still full texting either way, it’s just a question of where they full text (i.e. cite box or open source), so other debaters would still have the same ability to steal cards.

Second, if one is claiming that debaters can’t steal evidence if one full texts because full text makes evidence more difficult to sort through, then it proves our point about it being obfuscatory.

Third, we don’t think this is a problem – see Section 1.

Sub-Point B: Theory Objections

Objection 1: Won’t set a norm

First, this is the objection we disagree with the most. Disclosure theory in particular sets norms more broadly and quickly than pretty much any other theory argument. LD’s transition to almost universal disclosure certainly proves. The current full text industrial complex only took about a couple of months and about three large tournaments, which is particularly impressive considering only a few people read full text theory. At the start of the 2017-18 season, we observed that Strake Jesuit read “must disclose full text” almost every chance they got and debaters who lost to this theory argument began full texting and began reading theory themselves, until most of the circuit was disclosing full text. Multiple top debaters, such as Brentwood’s WJ and Lake Highland Prep’s MK, added notes to their wiki, explaining:

“I’ve begun disclosing full text of carded evidence. All generics and evidence read on JANFEB will be full text disclosed. However, given I started this just now, my prep concerning SEPOCT and NOVDEC are disclosed using first three last three. If you would like the full text of this evidence just message me.”

While this is just one instance, there are numerous similar examples on the wiki that illustrate a widespread transition towards full texting evidence. Since transitioning from full text to uploading an open source doc is much more agreeable than transitioning from no full text to full text, we think our norm will actually spread faster.

Second, we feel it is easier for theory to set norms on out-of-round practices than in-round practices. For example, we are aware that neither the “reverse voting issue” or “conditionality bad” has substantially reduced the number of theory arguments or conditional counterplans. This, we believe, is because in-round competitive incentives push debaters to still read these arguments. The 1NC is significantly more strategic if the counterplan is conditional or if one is able to read a topicality argument. Those differences could win or lose the round! However, our norm is such an easy practice to shift to with little to no detriment to one’s ability to win rounds, that debaters will likely change due to theory being read.

Objection 2: Not enough abuse to lose

Yes, there is. We hope Section 2 should have persuaded you how terrible full texting in the cites box is for debate. Even if you did not find that material as persuasive as we did, the substance tradeoff of a few rounds with this shell would be small enough that the disadvantages to full texting in the cites box would outweigh. Remember, disclosure interps set norms extremely quickly, so this theory argument should ideally only have to be read a few times.

We don’t endorse a 1% risk of offense model of theory debate where all the initiator has to do is win any slight risk that their interpretation better. This is usually because the substance tradeoff does not outweigh voting on the theory argument. For example, the educational value of a debate should not be lost because of the marginal abuse to “must spec status” or “font size theoryTM.” However, we think this objection does not apply to our norm for two reasons:

Our norm is incredibly predictable since it is detailed in the guidelines of the NDCA wiki. Typically, most theory objections that entail marginal abuse, including the examples given above, are extremely ad hoc. They would allow a debater to “shift the goalposts” every round and win on some more marginal abuse. “Must not have fonts smaller than 8” can shift to “10” and then to “11.” However, since our norm is codified and predictable, we feel as if voting on a theory argument about it is not as egregious.
We have established with Objection 1 that on questions of disclosure there is an opportunity to set real community norms that meaningfully improve the activity, so even if the offense for our disclosure norm is minimal the amount of abuse it’s adoption would resolve in the long-term outweighs a slight initial detriment to substantive education.

Objection 3: not my responsibility/ask me to upload open source before the round

First, the NDCA rules argument, we think, destroys this objection. There are codified, predictable rules displayed prominently in the “cites” portion of the disclosure page of the wiki. If you’ve ever disclosed on the wiki before, you should have seen this rule.

Second, if you’re willing to upload a document if asked, why not go ahead and do it? We totally understand putting off tasks until they’re staring at you in the face, but given that your practices could cost you a round at worst and cause you a theory headache at best, why not go ahead and change your practices?

Third, our pre-round/pre-tournament preparation argument isn’t solved by the “asking” condition because it would require contacting everyone and then hoping they upload a document. If a debater breaks a position at Greenhill, it shouldn’t be till a few days before Marks that people are able to read the disclosure entry.

Fourth, pairings are often released 30 minutes before the round, which doesn’t give debaters that much time to find their opponent’s Facebook, send a friend request, wait for the friend request to be accepted, send a message asking them to disclose an open source doc, and wait for the case to be open sourced. A debater shouldn’t have to waste a third of their prep time before the round at minimum (and that’s being generous), just to get what they should’ve had all along–an easily readable and accessible disclosure.

Fifth, we believe that accessibility norms are better improved when debaters are proactive about good practices. Our argumentation in previous portions of this article details the positive benefits of our norms. A community-wide transition to these norms is much easier when debaters are proactive about their practices. We have explained why it would be easier, better for debate, and more accessible for our norm to be adopted – debaters actively embracing positive responsibility for better norms would substantially improve disclosure.

Objection 4: My coach/team policy is against this norm

First, we don’t think this objection makes any sense in the context of our norm. If you already full text disclose, there is no reason your coach would not allow you to full text with an open source document.

Second, this argument is not a reason to reject our norm. Just because it’s team policy doesn’t make the choice immune from criticism. Our argument is a reason your team policy should change. Imagine if one’s team policy required them to have incomplete cites or their coach insisted on forcing them to read contingent standards. If a debater lost to theory because of either of those choices, “my coach made me do it” might explain why they chose to engage in those practices, but they should have still lost that round.

Section 4: Misc. Thoughts/Musings

We think that debaters, even if they open source, should disclose first five/last five in the cites box so people can peruse your positions more casually and can get a brief idea of the plan/framework/advantages without having to download a document. Uploading cites boxes also lets each person get a snapshot of what your argumentative history on a topic is. Seeing “Kant 1AC, States 1AC, Deportations 1AC” on the wiki allows easy access to preparation.

If you decide to continue full texting your evidence, please at the very least use the “====TAG====” function in order to bold your taglines and important parts like the plan and key analytics. This makes figuring out the structure of the position so much easier. It allows a natural break in the text that ensures your opponents can parse through your material.

Please open source!

—- Ishan and Rex