I’m part of a group of people who are having some conversations on academic integrity, especially in first-year courses, and recently we were asked to reflect on some questions and send our thoughts to the organizers of the discussions. I thought this was a very useful thing to do for making clear to myself some of my own thoughts on this issue, and that I might as well share them with others in case they find them useful, and to possibly engage in conversations about these things here on the blog!
Note: what follows is what I think as of early June 2016, and we’ll be having more discussions in the future so my thoughts might change. Here is at least some of what I think now (it was getting so long I just stopped writing after awhile because it’s too much to read!).
What is your personal understanding of why it is important for students to conduct their coursework with academic integrity?
One of the things we are doing in the university is adding to the body of human knowledge—we faculty as well as students. And to do that well, we need to both recognize what’s out there already and what needs to be added to it or changed. This is where it gets tricky; we could just do this without acknowledging the contributions of anyone, including ourselves; we could just say that information and arguments are important, not who made them. So it wouldn’t matter what came from you and what came from others that you’re building on. What would matter is that new knowledge is created and we can all benefit from that.
I do lean to that picture of knowledge creation to some extent, but there is the other aspect of the university too, which is that we are here to teach students and evaluate their work. That’s where the value of fairness comes in: for better or worse, we have to grade some students as having achieved learning objectives of our courses better than others, and those grades matter for various opportunities in the future (scholarships, entrance to further programs of study, sometimes jobs, etc.). And it is simply unfair and unjust to give people an advantage in terms of grades (and the other opportunities those can bring) when they haven’t put in the work that others have, when they have claimed to have come up with an idea or argument themselves but this is untrue.
So while in one sense one could say that it doesn’t matter where ideas and arguments and results come from so much as that they make sense and add to our body of knowledge, there is also the reality that in our society it matters who came up with those things and there are rewards that come with being the one who did that shouldn’t be given to those who didn’t do the work. Thus in part, for me, it’s an ethical issue, and one I am very, very concerned about (being as fair as possible in students’ grading is a major worry for me, something I spend a lot of time trying to ensure).
There’s another important reason too, though. Asking students to read/watch/hear what others have had to say and what they’ve done, and then come up with something of their own to add to that or criticize or question it is an important part of thinking well. Knowing that you yourself have something useful to say and do in response to what others have said and done, that you don’t just need to learn what they’ve said but also can add to it, is valuable for our efforts to help students develop as careful, confident thinkers and contributors to their social world. I often tell students in Arts One: I’m less interested in what others have had to say about [whatever work we’re discussing] than what you have to say. And that doesn’t mean you can’t go out and look at what others have said, but it does mean that you have to take it in, reflect, consider it critically, question, and then come up with what makes sense to you after you’ve done all that. What you produce then is your work, even though of course influenced by what others have said (including your professors and fellow students). If students don’t do this, then they are missing out on a valuable aspect of education; they are just taking what others have said and listing it as their own without doing the important work of reflecting, questioning, coming up with arguments, etc.
What are the positive consequences of doing so that you want to promote, and what are the negative consequences of committing academic dishonesty that you want to prevent?
I think possibly I’ve already answered these in the above question to some extent. The positive consequences include getting students experience in thinking for themselves, even while being influenced by others (as we all are). I hope this is something that learners take with them beyond university.
The negative consequences of committing academic dishonesty that I want to avoid include:
- Giving students an unfair advantage when they claim to have done work that they haven’t done, while others have done the work and got worse grades
- I think if one doesn’t talk about academic dishonesty, or doesn’t try to find it and do something about it but just hopes it’s not happening, this can send a message to students that one isn’t that concerned about avoiding injustice. I’m not saying that’s how people actually feel when they don’t pursue it (usually it’s a matter of not having enough time), but it can send that message whether one thinks that or not. Students are well aware that this sort of thing happens in classes, and I imagine that it could be disheartening to be working hard and thinking that others are getting advantages they don’t deserve and you aren’t doing as well but are at least trying.
- I’m not suggesting we publicize who has committed academic dishonesty in our classes so students know we’re doing something! But rather, at least talking about it, discussing why academic integrity is important, and signalling that you care and will be working to try to avoid it in your classes, I think is not only pedagogically beneficial, it could also send a message to those students who are not committing academic dishonesty that you care and are trying to foster fairness in your classes.
- Then there are the negative consequences for those who engage in academic dishonesty, such as grade penalties, hearings, possible suspensions, etc.
- These are bad in themselves, but what’s also bad is when they fall on some kinds of students disproportionately to others. For example, some students may be able to pay for others to write essays for them, and this gives them an unfair advantage due to wealth because it’s harder to “catch” those kinds of academic dishonesty than the student who is stressed out and has too many commitments and going through a tough time emotionally and panics in the face of a deadline but doesn’t have the money to avoid getting “caught” by doing it the way a richer student might. What I’m saying is that there is something wrong even in the consequences when they fall disproportionately on some kinds of students. That is something we need to take into consideration somehow, though I don’t have the answers right now how. At least, we can recognize the mitigating factors for why it happens (such as stress, having to work long hours in addition to school, emotional or family issues) and take those into account when considering consequences.
Please give your reactions to the following documents on academic integrity
[one of the documents I can’t find on the web and I’m not sure it’s licensed to allow re-posting so I won’t include that here]
Bill Taylor, “Academic Integrity: A Letter to my Students”
I really like how he points out that academic integrity means everyone in the class has responsibilities they need to live up to: he needs to come to class prepared, for example. I like pointing to how I, too, have commitments to them like I’m asking them to have commitments to the class and each other, but I wonder if that’s best described in terms of academic integrity? Maybe. I’d have to come up with a definition of integrity that I could use to explain why all of these things fall under it.
Overall, I like his approach here a lot. It holds the professor and the student accountable for responsibilities in the learning enterprise, and encourages students to “call [him] on it” if they think he is not fulfilling his responsibilities. And to go “above” him if his response to their calling him on it is not satisfactory. That is helpful for when he later asks them to call each other on not living up to their responsibilities (and for when he says he will call them on it if he finds instances of academic dishonesty).
Just one question. He focuses in the beginning on how integrity is important in life generally, and how if we don’t mind not having it in the small things, we might just not have it in the larger things too. I’m not sure that will be persuasive to all students—isn’t it possible to do a little lying, a little cheating here and there without thinking that one is thereby going to do it “when it really matters”? Then there are the students who would just as easily cheat when it comes to “areas where money might be at stake, or the possibility of advancement, or our esteem in the eyes of others”; indeed, they might be most likely to cheat then! So while I agree with him on what he says on this first page overall, I wonder how much the point about a kind of slippery slope of integrity will speak to students.
Gerald Nelms, “Why Plagiarism Doesn’t Bother me at All: A Research-Based Overview of Plagiarism as Educational Opportunity.”
“Not all student plagiarism rises to the level of academic dishonesty.” Definitely true, though I find myself wondering if I agree when the author says that “Does it really matter if one paragraph in a 20-page article includes enough overlap of language to be considered plagiarism? Does that amount of plagiarism really rise to the level of academic dishonesty?” I think it does. It’s still a matter of passing off someone else’s views as your own, even if it’s just one paragraph. But to me, the important question is whether it was done with the intent of trying to pretend it’s one’s own views when one knows that one is doing that, vs. doing it because one doesn’t realize how to cite or paraphrase correctly. That’s what “dishonesty” vs a “mistake” or “ignorance” means to me.
“We might also ask ourselves whether an accusation of academic dishonesty is truly warranted if there is evidence that the student writer has made an effort to adapt—that is, to integrate—the source material to fit into her writing and not mindlessly adopt that material.” This one really got me thinking. There is a difference between trying to work someone else’s view into your own and add to it but doing it not very well and changing words so that it’s harder to get caught because it looks more like your own work. The difference is, again, between dishonesty and a mistake. How do we tell the difference between these two scenarios? Same as above, I guess: talking with the student seems our best option here.
These points go along with what the author says about unintentional plagiarism and patch writing as a step along the way in developing one’s writing skills. I definitely agree there, and wouldn’t want to penalize students for honestly making mistakes rather than trying to be dishonest. I also agree that some who intentionally plagiarize are doing so because of outside pressures beyond their control, or inability to self motivate. And when those things are the case, they should be taken into account in handing out consequences for intentional academic misconduct. The trick is, of course, trying to be as fair as possible when considering mitigating circumstances for students in various situations.
“In some “real-world” contexts, plagiarism is not only acceptable but is expected,” such as when one uses a report template for creating new reports, using the same language as in previous reports. Another example is when instructors use wording on their syllabi that they’ve seen on other syllabi and liked, without citation. It’s true that sometimes this sort of “plagiarism” is accepted, but then it’s not really dishonesty at that point. The general expectation may not be that we have to have original wording in such contexts and it’s not useful to have it (it’s often more efficient, as the article points out, to re-use wording, especially when that wording says something really well). It’s different in educational contexts with things like assignments because there the work often just is to re-think, to evaluate, to come up with one’s own arguments. The expectations, and the value of the enterprise of doing this kind of work, are different than when one is writing up a quarterly report. For the latter, what matters is that you got the data right and presented it clearly, not that you came up with your own arguments or interpretations.
I welcome any comments on the above reflections, as I’m still formulating my ideas…