Why I Believe in a Strict Academic Integrity Policy

What’s old is new again. A decade ago, I was part of a campus community that was discussing academic integrity issues [1]. Today, I’m involved in a similar discussion on a different campus.

This conversation has prompted me to revisit my philosophy on academic integrity, which was influenced by three factors:

1. My religious background. As regular readers know, I grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian community. While I have moved away from that faith tradition, I can see its influence in the area of ethics.

2. Adult role models. When she was young, my sister spent the summer months with a babysitter, and I sometimes went as well when I couldn’t go to my cousin’s house. Because I was older, the babysitter and I would play games. One day, when we were playing Uno, she asked me to check on the children playing in the yard. When I came back to the door, I could see that she was looking at the cards in my hand. I never trusted her after that day.

3. My only “C” grade as an undergraduate. During my last semester as an undergradaute, I took a philosophy and religion course. During the final exam, I saw most of the other students cheating. I turned in my exam without saying anything to the professor. When I received a final course grade of “C,” I went to talk to him to understand why because I had a solid “B” going into the final. He told me that he graded the final exams in comparison to each other, and my final was the worst. I brought up the cheating, and he told me that I should have told him about the other students.

All three of these experiences shaped my perspective on academic integrity. I learned that there are times when clear-cut, black-and-white ethical judgments are needed; that dishonesty breaks the trust between people; and that students can be negatively affected by their peers’ academic dishonesty.

For all of these reasons, when I started teaching, I determined that I was going to take a hard-line stance against academic dishonesty. Midway through my first semester, I had my first two cases of plagiarism. One student stole another student’s paper out of the trash; the other student plagiarized from Encarta [2]. Despite the latter student’s 100% guilt, s/he appealed the “F” in the course all the way up to the university president. The student’s father even became involved and threatened to bring in a lawyer. Thankfully, the president supported my decision. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if someone in the university appeal system had overturned my decision.

Because of that experience, I exhaustively explain my academic integrity policy on the first day of class, in my course documents, and prior to the first writing assignment. It doesn’t seem to help–students still cheat and plagiarize. As research has shown, students make that choice for a variety of reasons.

So why worry about it? As Don McCabe noted upon his retirement, it bleeds over into other areas of their life. As I ask my students, would they trust a doctor or engineer who cheated her/his way through school? Do they want to compete for scholarships, playing time, or jobs with peers who cheat? While I have been influenced in various ways to enforce a strict academic integrity policy, I don’t do it for my sake; believe me, the headache and paperwork are stressful. Rather, I do it for the students’ sake. I am trying to protect them from themselves, and if I can’t do that, then hopefully I am protecting their peers.

[1]. Some earlier writing I did on academic integrity policies is still floating around the Internet. I wrote this piece while serving as editor of the Center for Academic Integrity‘s newsletter.

[2]. You see, kids, back in the 1990s, students could consult an encyclopedia called Encarta on a new-fangled technology called CD-ROMs.

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4 Replies to “Why I Believe in a Strict Academic Integrity Policy”

  1. I completely agree with your position on plagiarism, Mark. Like you, I’m firm about it, and dedicated to the process as an essential component of my pedagogy. As you note, confronting plagiarism is also a lot of extra work, and it requires considerable backbone.
    Part of the problem, I think, is the lack of consistency in academia over plagiarism. Therefore, from the student’s perspective, plagiarizing can become especially exciting as a game of gambling, and all the more enticing.

  2. Yes, I’ve taken the same stance and luckily, the online university I teach for has a very hard stance on plagiarism. However, I have learned the lesson on dealing with the “administration” part that if a student contests my decision on course extensions that they are going to favor the student, even when I quote verbatim the University’s Student Handbook policy. But, in both cases, the student still failed the course, which had been part of my argument in why not granting the extension.

    Teaching the entry level history courses to students who have been allowed to get away with plagiarism in previous classes and through high school is difficult, especially if they have no clue that they are doing it despite the lessons within the course on what it is and how to avoid it. My best one yet is the student who lifted, 100-percent, his paper from the Eisenhower Foundation’s web site and then “claimed” that the Eisenhower Foundation had, in some way, gotten his paper and posted it to their web site.

      1. Turnitin is a WONDERFUL program, I just wish I could link it to all the forum responses and not just the written assignments. However, its pretty easy to tell if a student is lifting stuff for their weekly forum responses.

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