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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:

  • Cheating in exams – either copying other students’ work or bringing in unauthorized materials to help with answers. Strategies for doing this range from old methods such as smuggling in books or writing on the palm of one’s hand to the more difficult to detect storing information in the memory of the calculator or the use of mobile telephones or PDAs.
  • Copying work from another student, or getting someone else to do the work for one.
  • Fabrication, for example making up quotations or inventing false data, for example inventing a survey which has not been sent out.
  • Plagiarism, which has become much easier with the advent of the web, and which might take the form of (Harris, 2004):
    – Downloading free papers from the Internet, or purchasing papers from 'paper mills'.
    – Copying from the web, or cutting and pasting chunks of web material into the student’s own work.
    – Quoting an author’s words/phrases as if they were one’s own, and not giving the source (sometimes the student puts some of the author’s words, but not all of them, in the quote).

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

  • Make your expectations clear. Explain the academic process to them – how it’s about discussion of ideas and giving credit when these originate elsewhere. Teach them about correct citation, including the difference between plagiarism and paraphrasing.
  • Make sure that students understand the university’s policy, and that there will be sanctions for its infringement. Some universities have a special grade for plagiarizers – XF as opposed to F.
  • Set a good example by including citations in your own lectures.
  • Familiarize yourself with your students’ work, so you know what they are capable of.

Take care with assignment topics

  • Make sure that they are meaningful, grow out of classwork, and that the brief is clear (Taylor, 1999).
  • Provide topics that are very specific, perhaps with a particular twist, or an unusual slant. (Harris, 2004)
  • Guide students towards topics that interest them.
  • Vary assignments from year to year.
  • Have class discussions about the assignment.
  • Include questions which encourage speculation and analysis, and don’t just require the repetition of facts.
  • Use genres other than the usual essay or report – for example letters, interviews and journalistic articles (Proctor 2006).

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.

  • Avoid setting deadlines too close to the end of term, which is a stressful time anyway.
  • For larger papers, such as research papers, provide interim deadlines for particular stages, such as the plan.
  • Ask for oral reports, and require discussion about the assignment.
  • Require that students also submit their drafts with the final paper.
  • Ask for several smaller papers rather than one large one (although this may be difficult if you need to get the students to do some research).

Fear of writing

This looms large with many students.

  • Have class sessions on good writing style, and the different types of writing.
  • Set essays in class, for practice.
  • If your university has a writing centre, direct students to it.

Demand correct citations

  • Insist that students provide correct, and detailed, citations.
  • Require that students justify their choice of sources, for example by providing an annotated bibliography.
  • Ask for specific types of source – e.g. one article published last year, two books, one internet source, two journal articles etc. (Harris, 2004)
  • Require up-to-date references.

Encourage metalearning

  • Require that students state what they have learnt from the assignment (Harris, 2004). This is one of the best ways of emphasizing learning as a process in its own right.

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).

  • The writing style is above that of which the student is capable, or simply differs from the usual one.
  • There are linguistic giveaways – for example, use of English spelling when the student is American, or vice versa, or pronouns which don’t agree with the writer’s gender.
  • There are ‘jumps’ in the structure, with some passages appearing disjointed or not relating to the overall paper.
  • Odd layout or formatting, or ‘grey’ text (originally a colour, but showing up grey in a printout).
  • References to additional material that isn’t there, for example, charts, graphs etc.
  • Mention of dated facts in present tense.
  • Citations are absent, or old, or refer to inactive websites, or the style is inconsistent, or simply lacking.

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:

  • Essays which have been printed out from the user’s web browser.
  • Obvious giveaways (smoking guns – Harris, 2004) such as web addresses left at the top or bottom of the page, which the student may not have spotted but which are the URL of a paper mill site.

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:

  • Take advice from experienced colleagues, and obtain specific institutional guidelines.
  • Be objective, concerned and sympathetic to the student – listen to their point of view.
  • Question about specific aspects of the paper. (Students are likely to be less familiar with the paper if they have lifted bits from elsewhere. You can also ask them to summarize the paper.)
  • Explain what will happen and take appropriate 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

  • Explain to students the difference between legitimate discussion of assignment topics, or getting help with something difficult, and actually asking for someone else to do the work for you or copying other work.
  • If you suspect that students are going to collaborate anyway, build collaboration into your assessment strategy, and get students to work in groups on assignments, and peer review each others’ work.

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

  • Ensure that all students have access to study materials in an easily locatable place – perhaps the library. These materials could include old exam papers, model assignments etc.
  • Demystify the exam process – have more tests, calm students’ nerves, and try and get them away from an ‘everything depends on it’ mentality.

During exams

  • Make it absolutely clear to students what items are allowed in the exam and what are not.
  • Try and ensure that the seating arrangement is such that it would be practically impossible for students to copy each other’s work – for example by sitting them at alternate desks (hold the exams in two rooms if necessary).
  • Invigilate actively – walk up and down the rows, look out for wandering eyes (students may be trying to give signals to one another), and pay attention to the back of the room, where cheats often sit.
  • Look out for use of unauthorized materials.
  • Check students’ photo ID cards.
  • Ensure orderly collection of exam papers, either picking them up yourself or ticking them off against the attendance sheet.
  • Make sure exam papers are kept safe.
  • Change the questions often – including for MCQs, where, for example, you could change the question’s stem or scramble the answers.

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

  • Information on paper mills and essays for sale can be found at
  • Information on plagiarism software can be found at the Plagiarism Resource Site at Charlottesville, Virginia, which
    also has links to other resources on plagiarism.
  • ‘Preventing Academic Dishonesty’, Barbara Gross Davies' adaptation of her earlier book, provides a useful overview, and can be accessed at the University of California, Berkeley website.
  • We are grateful to Emeritus Professor Bill Taylor for allowing us access to his paper, "Academic integrity: a letter to my students", Taylor looks at integrity from the point of view of both the student and the tutor. The Center for Academic Integrity is a useful gateway for information on various forms of dishonesty.


  • Bone, J and McNay, I (2005), Higher Education and Human Good, report of a consultation held at Sarum College, Salisbury, England, March 2005
  • Calabrese, R, and Roberts, B (2004), "Self-interest and scholarly publication: the dilemma of researchers, reviewers, and editors", International Journal of Educational Management, vol. 18 no. 6
  • Davis, B G (1993), Tools for Teaching, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA
  • Gerber, L. (2001), "Inextricably linked: shared governance and academic freedom", Academe, vol. 87 no. 3
  • Harris, R (2004), "Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers", available at
    [accessed November 2006]
  • Kimbel Library (2004), "Cheating 101: Detecting Plagiarized Papers", Coastal Carolina University, available at [accessed November 2006]
  • Pavela, G (1997), "Applying the Power of Association on Campus: A Model Code of Academic Integrity", The Center for Academic Integrity, available at [accessed November 2006]
  • Proctor, M (2006), "Deterring Plagiarism: Some Strategies", University of Toronto, available at [accessed November 2006]
  • Taylor, B. (1999), "Letter To My Students", based upon ideas contained in the first draft of "The Fundamental Values of Academic Integrity," a document that was developed by, and is available from, the Center for Academic Integrity (