My assignment in 1,500 words or less: What is academic integrity?
Now, I want you to recall a time that you
- considered cheating,
- saw someone else cheating, or
- cheated yourself.
It’s okay. There are no thought-police around. No one will know if you honestly face up to past academic misconduct, because — if truth be told — almost all of us have grappled with academic integrity. Maybe you’re thinking, “The infraction wasn't so great.” It was just borrowing a snippet from the Internet, failing to cite someone else’s work, or collaborating when you were supposed to do an assignment on your own. It’s no big deal, right? No one got hurt; it doesn't seem to do any harm; and no one will ever know. But someone does know — you do — and you’re the most important person when it comes to this discussion.
Students seem to be under much more pressure today. The classes are tougher, the tests harder, and more AP courses are expected. Everyone’s trying to be the best. Then, besides all that pressure, you feel some classes have work that doesn’t really matter. Why waste your time and energy on an assignment that’s rote and boring? The teacher doesn’t seem to be working that hard, since the assignment is copied right out of a book! If all this posturing is to try to convince yourself that academic integrity doesn’t matter, then you’re fooling yourself. All of the reasons, rationales, and excuses don’t really amount to what’s at stake: your reputation, your learning, and your trust as a member of society —your self-respect.
Whether you’re in middle school or high school, in undergraduate or graduate school, in higher education or business, it all comes down to the same thing: do you want to be an honest person and do you want those around you to be honest, too? What do we owe each other? What are the rules about our behavior as a member of an academic community?
To begin, citing someone’s work shows that you are trustworthy. It’s also a sign of respect, because scholars learn from and build on the work of other scholars. As a member of the community of scholars (yes, that’s what you are, a scholar), you owe it to yourself to recognize the contributions of others. One day, you’ll want others to treat you in the same way. As Gary J. Niels wrote in his 1996 paper on “Academic Practices, School Culture and Cheating Behavior”:
Academic integrity is ethical behavior most visibly expressed by respecting the value of words, thoughts, images, and ideas; as well, it includes an understanding of the principles of ownership with respect to words, thoughts, and ideas.
If you find it difficult to imagine this situation in your own life, think of how you would feel if a song you composed, an illustration you sketched, or a poem you wrote, suddenly appeared on the radio, a magazine, or a CD cover and was not credited as yours — or worse — was credited as someone else’s work? Scientific and scholarly works are the same as artistic and literary endeavors.
This article can’t articulate every instance of when and how to cite sources. I could give you some general parameters but couldn’t cover each and every particular circumstance. The reality is — it’s up to you to find out what applies in each and every circumstance.
The responsibility for academic honesty is yours. It’s a topic that requires awareness, dialogue, and shared understanding. You can discuss academic integrity with your teachers, the librarian, or media specialist in your school. If you’re thinking ahead to what it might be like once you’re in college, the Internet is loaded with resources and guidelines to help, too. Among other things, you can find commonly used manuals for how to cite references in each academic discipline and type of publication. That’s because the citations for chemistry, music, history, physics, etc. differ. Every field in higher education has a guide outlining what’s expected.
Statistics confirm that the best deterrent to cheating and plagiarism is a well-taught class in which students identify with the instructor's teaching and learning goals and values. [Would you cheat in a class where you really liked and/or respected the teacher?] Many of you are thinking about or preparing for college now. The pressures are on: get good grades, build a résumé, and get high test scores. But what does it mean for your future? Are SAT or ACT scores the total measure of your worth? Is success defined as getting all A's— at any cost? Assuming that they are, can lead you to put yourself and your character in jeopardy. Now, more than ever, you need to commit to act with honor in all your work and promote academic integrity.
Unfortunately, violations of academic integrity exist in most settings. The temptation to cheat isn’t limited to students who are struggling academically or unique to any other single audience of students. After years of research on the subject of academic integrity, Professor Don McCabe of Rutgers University said (almost ten years ago and it's still true today) his “college research suggests that things may be changing to the point where levels of cheating are fairly equal across all GPA levels — with the brightest students cheating as much as anyone else.”
Well, I may not have answered every question set before me in this assignment. I haven’t spelled out every situation where students need to exhibit character and academic integrity. But, I have tried to explain why academic integrity is important and what students’ responsibilities are.
Here’s one last thought that I hope will make the case for promoting academic integrity —
You’re in the pool and just don’t feel like getting out, heading to the
bathroom, and changing out of and back into your wet bathing suit. So
what if you pee in the pool? It will dissipate and be absorbed. No one
will know. It’s a huge amount of water and your “deposit” won’t make
any difference. Besides, you can pee in the water without ever getting
caught. But what if everyone is thinking and doing the same thing? Then
the water in that pool is tainted. Cheating is like peeing in a pool. And
your community — of classmates, friends, and others — is the pool you’re
peeing in. Discovered or not, your actions do make a difference.
So whether you’re the pilot in the cockpit of a 747, a neurosurgeon preparing to operate on someone’s brain, or the contractor responsible for a building — how confident can we be about your academic integrity?
[First published in a newsletter for academically accelerated middle- and high-school students. Revisions have been made.]