In another contemporaneous post, I asked about whether private tutors ought to establish communication with the course heads of their students, and received several thoughtful responses. Based on what I have learned so far, from those responses and from my own admittedly limited research on this subject, it seems that in one direction, involving subjective experience and private decision-making, questions of academic integrity are, at face value, somewhat cut-and-dry. Cheating is bad, one's work should be one's own, and all is well and good as long as one knows that one has followed the rules.

However, for potentially good reasons there do appear to exist people who care deeply not only about whether they follow the rules, but also about whether other people do as well. That is, these individuals, that I would count myself among, would seek to construct an objective experience of academic integrity so that others might benefit. In light of somewhat painful discussions of colonialism, racism, and of other 'other' problems that have cropped up recently, it seems necessary to give serious thought to how the objective side of academic integrity is understood. Based on recent news about police conduct, there is a possibility that 'authorities' in some settings may, consciously or subconsciously, deem it acceptable for certain kinds of students to work honestly by themselves, but not for equally qualified others to do so, without some additional kind of clumsily imposed surveillance. This is obviously bad for many reasons, but in particular because it would mean committing to the idea that academia is really just a sort of quaint shell game with no real knowledge-generating value, and whose true motives are merely political. So authoritarianism, whether actively or passively imposed, is out.

In light of this, my question is: Are there shared modern understandings or theories of academic integrity that can openly help interested students protect themselves and others from the risks, physical and moral, present and future, associated with academic dishonesty?

  • 1
    How is "one's work should be one's own" a subjective experience?
    – Jeff
    Feb 7 '21 at 16:43
  • It's easy to overthink this: you know personally what work is your own, and you might be able to convince your friends, but without serious evidence you might have trouble with a stubborn lawyer (in certain jurisdictions.)
    – TLDR
    Feb 7 '21 at 16:48
  • 2
    Hmmm. Why the racial note in this? I don't understand your intent here. Or your underlying assumptions.
    – Buffy
    Feb 7 '21 at 16:49
  • @Buffy: to furnish an example of where irrational bias has threatened to compromise academic integrity.
    – TLDR
    Feb 7 '21 at 16:51
  • 3
    Sorry, I don't see the connection. Whose academic integrity, exactly? Such a thing would be just racist bias, having no other link to "academic integrity". I suggest you remove it or make it clear.
    – Buffy
    Feb 7 '21 at 16:53

I can only give my personal philosophy and hope that it is shared widely enough, though I have no doubt that it fails any universality test. I developed this over many years. As a young faculty member, I was too strict in my interpretations, not yet understanding many important issues.

First, I believe that our first responsibility is to our students. Among those responsibilities is the imperative to teach every student. I'm not a lecturer/grader. I am a teacher. What that means is that I need to "set the conditions" under which every student can learn if they are willing to do the work. They don't need brilliance. They need grit. Some need more grit than others, so my interactions vary with different students, depending on their needs. Some required huge effort to help them over humps. Some needed extra help to overcome poor prior teaching and even misconceptions they had picked up earlier. Some just never learned how to learn and I had to teach them even that. And some needed extra work to provide sufficient challenge to them to really grow.

Second, we have a responsibility to society as a whole to provide graduates who are both technically and ethically solidly grounded. We can't ignore either. My clear preference is to only fail people who haven't done the work. I try not to trick them. I try to find ways to pass them, even if it means more work for them and for myself. Mostly, in my later years, I succeeded at this. People who failed didn't have the heart to succeed.

But the basis of this is that one needs to understand how people learn and it is only through understanding this that you can really evaluate the effect of cheating and other academic dishonesty.

People learn through repetition/reinforcement along with feedback. There is a book by James E. Zull that explains this well. Hearing/seeing something once isn't enough for real learning. Lectures are only valuable in pointing students to things that they need to study. I used to tell my students that "It isn't important what I do here. It is only important what you do". (Please don't interpret that as implying I was lazy.)

So, I sought ways to teach in which that was pretty much guaranteed to happen, provided that the student put in the effort. Reinforcement followed up by my feedback, to help them not pick up misconceptions. I also sought to find evaluation mechanisms that were biased in the direction of deep learning and skills, not short term memory for which "cramming" would be effective. I sought ways for students to fall and then get up again (redoing old work for better marks, for example). Part of that philosophy is "You are here to learn. You are not here to prove to me that you don't need to be here."

Thus cheating is bad because for the student because it doesn't lead to learning. There is no repetition and feedback on their trials. So, they are wasting their own time (and lives) by cheating.

For society as a whole, it leads to dishonest people who can do great damage to society. At this very moment there are a couple of people in the US Senate (no, I won't name them) who went to the very finest schools and are technically gifted, but have no ethics whatever. They have become a danger to the republic. But they aren't the first, of course.

Academic integrity for the student means doing the hard work that it takes to learn and avoiding short cuts that prevent deep learning.

Academic integrity for the faculty (qua faculty) means setting fair conditions under which every student can succeed if they are willing to do the work.

Academic integrity outside the classroom is a bit beyond the question, I think, and isn't addressed here.

And, I guess I need to note that "set the conditions" was once used by a US Vice President as a euphemism for torture.

  • 1
    Thank you for your answer. If it helps, my question pertains to academic integrity in general. Could 'doing the hard work' involve inviting others to discuss this topic in non-self destructive ways?
    – TLDR
    Feb 7 '21 at 20:24
  • Also, I might argue that cheating isn't bad because it doesn't lead to learning (sometimes it very much does), but that it involves learning to be disrespectful of a small matter (a school or university), which does not bode well when encountering potentially 'large' matters (or other small matters.)
    – TLDR
    Feb 7 '21 at 20:27

In college and high school, I believe that I could have benefited to some extent from having been tipped off at some point to constantly and seriously question my own larger purpose in attending college, and whether the foundations I was setting then, beyond increasing my own basic knowledge and experience, were sufficiently solid to support that purpose without significant and possibly costly external intervention. At some level it should be perfectly fine to pursue one's work in private and to allow the larger questions of how one's own integrity coheres within a larger sort of 'integrity matrix' to resolve themselves subconsciously. But at another level, the less one is able to accomplish oneself, the more one must perhaps subconsciously rely on labor done by others who may not ultimately benefit from one's gratitude. Hence, I can imagine there being considerable value in inviting students to take these kinds of meta-matters into their own hands, and deliberately build and test their own academic infrastructure to whatever extent they are able.

The modern Academic Integrity movement in the U.S. can be attributed to Donald McCabe, although it has existed in various forms for much longer.

By now there is a wealth of additional perspectives on this topic, with more or less complexity or explanatory power.

As is often the case, academic integrity has been enforced for longer than conscious attempts have been made to understand it, and has been upheld through a variety of accounting mechanisms, and this context shapes or limits how the field itself can be studied and understood going forward.

The movement appears to be rooted in the subjective experience of what is regarded as fair or just at an individual level, as well as the objective experience of what may be universally regarded as true in a society. There can be more or less tension between these constitutive elements, especially where several different societies begin to overlap or rub against each other.

Within many societies (including most U.S. academic settings to my knowledge) authorship is regarded as an extremely personal quality, and is tied to the status (or grant funding, or influence) of an individual within that group. In others, the role of an individual in achieving a certain desired result is viewed as secondary to the success of a group as a whole: a person's contributions are noted only to the extent that doing so increases the chances of the group succeeding in its future tasks, and are otherwise thought of as being in vain, or purely egocentric. It might be interesting to examine what might happen at the junction of these very different philosophies toward scholarship, if doing so is not perilous. One might hope that the collective goals of academia are to bring a sensitive lens to bear on poorly understood subjects, and not an opposite thereof.

Note that a strict individualistic approach to academic integrity is not necessarily individualistic in its impact or intrinsically egocentric: it could serve the needs of the society in which it is maintained as well as an explicitly collectivist approach would, for example by deliberately attracting talented researchers from elsewhere. There would also be strong incentives to monitor individual behavior, and for individuals to express their values as faithfully as possible. If the individualistic approach is clumsily or selfishly implemented, however, it could easily turn into a counterproductive and/or corrupt sort of self-ingratiation.

Objective stances toward academic integrity are most prominent in exam rooms and, to some extent, the evaluation of long-form essays. Short assignments tend to be given slightly less official scrutiny, for better or for worse, though often owing to technological or time constraints rather than limits to the inherent meaning of the work.

In the literature (c.f. [2] and [3]) there appears to be a tendency for academic integrity to be defined in terms of one of its opposites: cheating. This is a potentially untenable habit, as the notion of cheating is itself somewhat treacherous; its meaning is unambiguous in certain cases, but less so in others, and sometimes in counterintuitive ways. Can two students be accused of cheating if their answers on a test are conspicuously similar, if the teaching staff failed to notice it during the exam? Some might say yes, but would it not be cheating to allow cheating to occur, or to presume guilt, or punish without a hard justification? Moreover, there are other behaviors that can be corrosive to (certain interpretations of) academic integrity when taken to extremes, behaviors that are not obviously cheating: student isolationism or self-imposed hermitude (which can seem, subjectively speaking, like the complete opposite of cheating), enrolling in subjects that one has already studied elsewhere, or accidentally leaving one's bag unattended in a restaurant for 15 minutes. A philosophy of academic integrity expressed only in terms of cheating might be somewhat akin to a philosophy of virtue that is grounded entirely in (technical) prowess.

Be that as it may, how one might approach the subject of academic integrity in a constructive or positive way is a very sensitive matter, in part because of the ethical quandaries that surround the murky business of telling other people how to hold themselves accountable, or what kinds of pledges or promises or vows to make, or perhaps even suggesting that it is even possible to make pledges or vows in ways that are both meaningful and safe, as though doing so did not also involve accepting certain risks as well. It is somewhat nontrivial to come up with an explicit personal accountability framework that is both sound and allows one to make what amount to real, considerate, and unassailable, promises to others, but that (and, in an a posteriori sense, accommodating or forgiving impudence, possibly the 'grit' alluded to in Buffy's answer above) is essentially what academic integrity requires.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_integrity

[2] Pedagogy not Policing: Positive Approaches to Academic Integrity at the University, https://press.syr.edu/supressbooks/2413/pedagogy-not-policing/

[3] Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It, https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/cheating-college

  • Can you provide links or other citations for the last two refs?
    – Buffy
    Feb 7 '21 at 20:31
  • 1
    I appreciate the feedback. It wasn't my intent to write a sort of essay, but I'll do what I can
    – TLDR
    Feb 7 '21 at 21:28

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