Academic integrity: context and concrete steps

Continuing from my previous post, I wanted to write a bit about why I have been thinking about academic integrity, and what, concretely, I plan to do about it.

So, why have I been thinking about this? For one thing, my department had its fair share of academic integrity violations last year. On the one hand, it is right for students to be held accountable for their actions. On the other, in the face of a spate of violations, it is also right for us to reevaluate what we are doing and why, what sort of environmental factors may be pushing students to violate academic integrity, and how we can create a better environment. Environment does not excuse behavior, but it can shape behavior in profound ways.

Another reason for thinking about academic integrity is that starting this fall, I will be a member of the committee that hears and makes a determination in formal academic integrity cases at my institution. It seems no one wants to be on this committee, and to a certain extent I can understand why. But I chose it, for several reasons. For one, I think it is important to have someone on the committee from the natural sciences (I will be the only one), who understands issues of plagiarism in the context of technical subjects. I also care a lot about ensuring that academic integrity violations are handled carefully and thoughtfully, so that students actually learn something from the experience, and more importantly, so that they come through with their sense of belonging intact. When a student (or anyone, really) does something that violates the standards of a community and is subject to consequences, it is all too easy for them to feel as though they are now a lesser member or even excluded from the community. It takes much more intentional communication to make clear to them that although they may have violated a community standard—which necessarily comes with a consequence—they are still a valued member. (Thanks to Leslie Zorwick for explaining about the power of belonging, and for relating recent research showing that communicating belonging can make a big difference for students on academic probation—which seems similar to students accused or convicted of academic integrity violations. I would cite it but I think it is not actually published yet.)

Thinking about all of this is well and good, but what will I do about it? How do I go about communicating all of this to my students, and creating the sort of environment I want? Here are the concrete things I plan to do starting this fall:

  • In all my courses where it makes sense, I plan to require students to have at least one citation (perhaps three, if I am bold) on every assignment turned in—whether they cite web pages, help from TAs or classmates, and so on. The point is to get them thinking regularly about the resources and help that they make use of on every single assignment, to foster a spirit of thankfulness. I hope it will also make it psychologically harder for students to plagiarize and lie about it. Finally, I hope it will lead to better outcomes in cases where a student makes inappropriate use of an online resource—i.e. when they “consult” a resource, perhaps even deceiving themselves into thinking that they are really doing the work, but end up essentially copying the resource. If they don’t cite the resource in such a case, I have a messy academic integrity violation case on my hands; if they do, there is no violation, even though the student didn’t engage with the assignment as I would have hoped, and I can have a simple conversation with them about my expectations and their learning (and perhaps lower their grade).

  • I will make sure to communicate to my students how easy it is for me to detect plagiarism, and how dire the consequences can be. A bit of healthy fear never hurt!

  • But beyond that, I want to make sure my students also understand that I care much more about them, as human beings, than I do about their grade or whether they turn in an assignment. I suspect that a lot of academic integrity violations happen at 2am, the night before a deadline, when the student hasn’t even started the assignment and they are riddled with anxiety and running on little sleep—but they feel as though they have to turn something in and this urge overrides whatever convictions they might have about plagiarism. To the extent their decision is based on anxiety about grades, there’s not much I can do about it. However, if their decision stems from a feeling of shame at not turning something in and disappointing their professor, I can make a difference: in that moment, I want my students to remember that their value in my eyes as human beings is not tied to their academic performance; that I will be much more impressed by their honesty than by whether they turn something in.

  • As a new member of the academic integrity committee, I plan to spend most of my time listening and learning from the continuing members of the committee; but I do hope to make sure our communication with both accused and convicted students emphasizes that they are still valued members of our community.

Other concrete suggestions, questions, experiences to relate, etc. are all most welcome!

About Brent

Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Hendrix College. Functional programmer, mathematician, teacher, pianist, follower of Jesus.
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2 Responses to Academic integrity: context and concrete steps

  1. janstolarek says:


    I have spent 8 years teaching students and have not yet come up with a good method of discouraging them from plagiarism.

    First a few words about the environment at my university. During the last several years authorities of my university have recognized plagiarism as an increasing problem and introduced regulations to counter it. (I heard the motivation for this changes was a small scandal where several of our students participating in the Erasmus program have been caught cheating on the exam at one of the foreign universities and got expelled for that.) One of the regulations allows punishing a student found guilty of plagiarism with being removed from the lab group. This essentially forces that student to re-take the course in the following academic year. This is the biggest consequence for handing in a plagiarized assignment. Of course the exact consequences are at TA’s discretion and don’t have to be that severe.

    In practice many academic teachers turn a blind eye to plagiarism or even openly encourage it! The result is that scale of the problem is really big and many students consider copying from others as the norm. I personally have always been very strict about plagiarism. I have always put a great deal of effort and time to identify cases of plagiarism and never hesitated to immediately remove students from my lab group if found guilty of plagiarism. Frankly speaking, I am not entirely happy with such an approach. One problem is that it requires a lot of time on my side – time that could be spent better on something else. I think this is why some TAs don’t care much about plagiarism. I discussed this with one of my colleagues and he said: “I am here to be a teacher, not a policeman. I would rather dedicate my time to work with students that want to learn and develop their skills rather than spend that time on chasing down students that don’t want to learn.” I think my colleague has a good point here. Secondly, I realize that detection rate is far from 100% and there is a feeling of injustice for a student that gets caught. One of my students once showed me a Facebook discussion between students about TAs teaching one of the courses on programming. A student participating in that discussion was once caught by me on plagiarism and removed from the lab group. That student openly admitted on FB that he indeed handed in somebody else’s assignment, yet still expressed a feeling of being treated unfair! At first I found this thinking totally surprising. How can someone openly admit to having committed plagiarism and at the same time feel that I have treated him in an unjust way by punishing it? It sounded as if I have broken an unwritten rule of tolerating plagiarism. And perhaps I have. My takeaway message from this is this: you need everyone on the faculty to engage in countering plagiarism, possibly using the same rules. And you definitely have to be very clear about what the rules are, what qualifies as a just use of somebody else’s work and what does not.

    I have already employed in the past the approach with requiring students to provide citations, though my motivations were slightly different than yours. Firstly, when students hand in their assignments and I discuss their solution to the problem I want students to be able to easily track down sources of knowledge that they used. For example, they might have implemented a formula that I consider incorrect and want to see the original source of that formula (perhaps it is correct but under different assumptions?). Secondly, two students working independently with the same source (eg. a tutorial) might result in very similar solution giving a false impression that one solution was created from the other. I have also emphasized that using online resources is OK as long as materials used are cited. This, I think, is the same as your approach. So far success here was moderate. I found that many students don’t recognize citations as something that is beneficial for them, rather as another burden (especially when the project is started at 2am a night before the deadline). I have seen many cases where students have provided citations but in the course of discussion it turns out that they actually have used other materials that they have not listed. Takeaway message: explain to students that citations are something beneficial for them; that they protect them from being accused of plagiarism.

    I hope these thoughts will be helpful. I am curious how your policies work out in practice so please write a follow-up post sometime in the future.


  2. gbaz says:

    Here’s another stray thought that relates to your I think good idea about encouraging citations. Outside of thankfulness, there’s a lot of reasons that doing citations benefits the author and reader both, and instilling that can help your students perhaps? In particular, citations let others trace the genetic origins of ideas and see more explanations. So when we read papers in an academic setting (worth teaching about how to do this) we follow citations to understand better the research in context, and to understand things that might be prior required knowledge to understand the work. If you’re not providing those citations, you’re leaving your readers with a much weaker experience, and in effect forcing yourself to do more work, because you can’t “defer” any of the heavy lifting to other cited resources.

    Further, for readers that already know some things, and understand you’re recapitulating them for others, if you don’t say which parts of your work are related to prior ones, and which are new, you’re making their lives harder because they have to figure out the novel aspects for themselves.

    Then there’s the fact that if you get something wrong but do so by citing a reputable source, you insulate yourself from some blame. You still could have caught it, but at least its not all your fault! And furthermore, if the same bad idea gets copied without citation all over, its harder to trace it down and fix it because it passes into folklore, but citations let people trace that down. So if you cite a paper and then in the future that paper is found to have problems, your reader immediately knows which of your work relied on sources that now might render that one element suspect.

    Its about seeing your work, I suppose, as embedded in a network of knowledge and a common endeavour across many institutions and generations.

    Citations also discipline the mind because they force you to take things you “think” you know and trace down if you have a source such that you “really” know it — and often, you find, you do know it, and it is correct, but there is no single source. And now, you’ve synthesized something new!

    Now when an undergrad copies a relatively simple programming assignment from a classmate, obviously this isn’t really how they feel about it. But I suppose the idea is to help them understand you’re not just teaching them how to do the one assignment, but more importantly how to eventually act as scholars and researchers, even if in limited ways, in a field of study.

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