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Academic ethics and integrity

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What is academic ethics?

Academic ethics is an umbrella concept which encompasses many issues. On an institutional level, there is much discussion about the nature of a university, and whether it is affected by the commercial pressures to get more students (paying or paid for), whether business/university partnerships affect academic freedom, and what type of investments it is appropriate for a university to have. On an individual level, the main focus of discussion in recent years has been on academic integrity, and the need to maintain a culture of honesty in all aspects of teaching and research.

Research ethics will be the subject of another article; here we shall deal with attempts to combat the rising level of student dishonesty, about which there has been concern on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1990s, Davis (1993) quoted surveys indicating that between 40 and 70 per cent of all students have reported cheating at some point in their career, while Pavela (1997) quoted McCabe’s survey of over 4,000 students of whom between 47 per cent and 60 per cent admitted dishonesty: there is no sign that things are getting any better. This is not, of course, to say that academics are always guilt free in this area and we shall also point out ways in which they can encourage integrity by setting a good example.

How and why do students cheat?

The human mind is endlessly inventive but here are the main reported forms of student dishonesty:

Students cheat for a number of reasons, some of which may be systemic or cultural, such as the pressure to obtain a degree to meet others' expectations or change their station in life, or oversubscribed and under-resourced classes which means that they can ‘get away with it’, or even the perception of plagiarism as a mark of respect for authority.

Promoting integrity

Most serious academics find dishonesty repugnant and integrity essential to academic life. According to Calabrese and Roberts (2004), ‘integrity is at the core of all effectively functioning societies and organizations’, and is particularly critical in academia, a self governing society where open discussion and democracy should prevail in all aspects of teaching, curriculum, and research (Gerber 2001, quoted in Calabrese and Roberts 2004).

Many American universities promote integrity by means of ‘honour codes’. At Kansas State University, for example, students pledge not to give or receive aid in exams, classwork or written work, and to give credit to others for their ideas; at Duke, they promise not to lie, cheat or steal, and to report dishonesty. Not all academic institutions have such codes but most have very strict policies on plagiarism and cheating.

How to tackle plagiarism

There are two main aspects to this question – one prevention (how to discourage it) and the other cure (how to detect it when it happens).

How to discourage plagiarism

There are a number of tactics you can pursue here – mostly boiling down to demystifying the academic process and making it more transparent.

Explain the principles

Take care with assignment topics

Pay attention to the process

Student life these days is not a leisurely affair – many students are balancing a lot of commitments, and may be forced into cutting corners with essay writing. Prevent dishonesty by helping students with time management.

Fear of writing

This looms large with many students.

Demand correct citations

Encourage metalearning

Detecting plagiarism

Prevention is much better than cure, but detection is the first step in that cure. Here is a list ways you can detect plagiarism, compiled from Harris (2004) and Kimbel Library (2004).

Detecting paper mill essays

Much of the above will apply, except the change of style etc. is likely to be wholesale and not just confined to particular parts of the assignment. However, also look out for:

In addition, try and familiarize yourself with the main paper mill and ‘essays for sale’ sites – and make sure that students know you know about them.

Confronting plagiarism

If you suspect plagiarism, Davis (1993) recommends the following action:


Cheating has been defined (Davis, 1993; Pavela, 1997) as the use of unauthorized help. Such 'help' may come from students, from illicit prior knowledge of the exam, or from forbidden materials taken into the exam.

Promote an honest attitude

If you are already promoting the principles of academic integrity, you can discuss honesty as part of that, explaining how cheating harms other students.

Make it absolutely clear that you require students to submit only their own work, unless it is a group assignment (see below), also that they should not reuse earlier work (i.e. recycling old essays) without first consulting you.

Build collaboration into assessment

Ensure that there is adequate institutional support

Remember, cheating may be difficult to monitor if classes are oversubscribed or understaffed. Your institution should support you by ensuring adequate staffing, even though this may be in the form of graduate assistants.

Support the exam process

During exams

Other things academics can do

It would be a great mistake to imply that dishonesty is the prerogative of students alone; Bone and McNay (2005) report widespread plagiarism amongst academics. You can set a good example to your students by your own academic integrity, shown in, for example, always providing citations when you use other people’s ideas in lectures and handouts. Equally important, however, is to ensure that you provide a positive learning experience for your students, with well prepared, relevant and participative classes, where you ensure that all students’ views are respected and none are made to feel stupid (Taylor, 1999).

Further information


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