Teaching Academic Integrity

One of the least enjoyable aspects of college teaching is policing students for cheating. Instructors face the procedural issue of finding cheating as well as the moral issue of warning against it and advocating for academic integrity. Programs such as Turnitin check papers for plagiarism against a database of published material and other student papers. I started using Turnitin only because the pandemic kept me from teaching in person and from receiving hard-copy papers. So far, nothing has looked suspicious. However, the issue runs deeper than merely detecting and penalizing plagiarism. Indeed, academic integrity is violated both through plagiarism and through other forms of academic deception. But what is academic integrity and how might it be taught? First, to some basics.

In order to avoid unintentional plagiarism, professors should explain the logic of citations and their proper form (Turabian, Chicago Manual of Style, or APA, for example). These are the mechanics of honesty, given certain conventions of scholarship. But they do not speak to the virtue of honesty. Knowing the documentation requirements is necessary to avoid cheating. But knowing is not sufficient, since a student may know when documentation is needed only to omit it to save time or to get a good grade.

Students from cultures outside the West may need coaching on the Western sense of authorship and attribution, since non-Western sensibilities may be more communal. The idea of “doing one’s own work” may be clear to an American student attending a college in Denver, Colorado but not so clear to a Chinese student who is attending the same school. What might be considered respecting the professor through mimicry in China could be marked as plagiarism or as a lack of original thinking in Denver. Many years ago, I was reading an Asian student’s paper and thought it was interesting and well-written. Then I realized I was reading one of my own books! Perhaps the student thought he was honoring me, but I required a rewrite. Suffice it to say, for academic integrity to be taught and followed, we need a lucid account of it, and what it means, in our academically normative setting.

Checking for cheating is more like checking for a disease than it is encouraging good health. Cheating is a symptom of a moral malady—the willingness to commit intellectual theft and engage in false representation. In the language of the Ten Commandments, academic cheating breaks the eighth commandment not to steal and the ninth commandment not to bear false witness. Plagiarism steals material and pretends that the plagiarist wrote it, thus committing two sins in one. Even more, plagiarism violates the tenth commandment not to covet anything belonging to your neighbor. Students who plagiarize covet something they do not deserve. Whether or not someone deems the Ten Commandments as divinely inspired, most will recognize these as moral truths. Academic integrity requires that students do not steal material from others or become intellectual imposters. Put positively, we should stand on our own academic merits, come what may.

Students who fear being caught are less likely to cheat. But this fear of exposure and censure is not the same as respecting academic integrity in itself. Consider Immanuel Kant’s example of the two shopkeepers from Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals. One shopkeeper is always honest because it is the right thing to do. He acts out of respect for the moral law. The other is always honest only because it is good for business. He knows that getting caught defrauding a customer would be bad for business. He therefore acts in accord with moral law, whereas the first shopkeeper acts on moral principle. The second acts only on pragmatic considerations and, according to Kant, is not morally commendable.

The student who does not cheat because of his fear of Turnitin does what is right, but is not acting out of moral integrity. The same person might cheat in some other area of life when he or she can get away with it. A student with moral integrity will refuse to cheat simply because it is wrong.

If we want to do more than detect cheating or put the fear of Turnitin into our students, professors should teach their students to respect academic integrity as an ethical virtue. We can start with the golden rule of treating others the way we would like to be treated. We might ask our students, “How would you respond if someone plagiarized from a book, article, or paper that you wrote?” (This has happened to me several times, so I could speak to it.) Or: “If you were teaching a course, how would you respond to students who did not abide by the academic standards you taught? How would it feel to have a student cheat on a paper that you assigned?”

An instructor could also ask questions pertaining to personal character. “If you knew someone who cheated on her papers, would you trust her in a close relationship?” Or: “If you found out that a political candidate plagiarized much of a speech, how would that affect your estimation of him? Could you vote for him?” Or, to make it more personal, “How would you as a student respond if you found out that I plagiarized a considerable amount of my doctoral dissertation?”

I might mention to students that my admiration of Duke Ellington (1899-1974), the great bandleader, composer, and pianist, dropped considerably when I found out that he often took credit for writing music he did not compose. My estimation of students who cheated would drop as well.

We can also appeal to truth-seeking as a noble goal. Many colleges and universities in the United States, such as Johns Hopkins University and Portland University, have Veritas vos liberabit (“The truth will make you free”) as their school motto. The phrase, “The truth will set you free” was on the front of the library at the University of Oregon when I attended. Do students agree with this statement? Or does it represent hopeless idealism? Some have junked idealism—or even basic honestly—entirely.

Many online businesses sell pre-written student papers. It took me just a few seconds to find them through Google. A student who buys one of these papers and submits it plagiarizes at a high level. Nothing in the paper is written by the student, although the documentation may be impeccable. Since the student purchased the paper, theft is avoided. However, it is still dishonest, since the student did not write the paper. One website gives this pitch:

Buy a paper for college. It sounds like a good idea right? Did you know that every day thousands of students like you are doing just that? They have seen that it is indeed a good idea, and now you can too. It is so easy, quick and inexpensive to buy college paper online from…that it’s no wonder that so many high school, college and university students are turning to us for help with their busy schedules.

The punctuation errors alone don’t bode well for the quality of what this outfit would offer, but the moral reasoning is even more egregious. It appeals to the mob—“everyone is doing it”—a fact that has no moral force. In logic, it is called the ad populum fallacy. Second is the appeal to convenience—it is easy, quick, and inexpensive. Why take the time to do it yourself? What is not said on the website is that you need to dismiss your conscience in order to get credit where no credit is due. In a philosophy class, the professor could ask her students to identify the moral theory that is being invoked. (It is probably a combination of relativism and egoism.) By doing so, students might clarify their own moral theory.

If students end up as relativists or egoists, they might deny that using these services is intrinsically wrong. Such judgments might lead to the professor being especially diligent in checking on the work of those egoistic and relativistic students who were foolish enough to identify as such.

I am sure that my colleagues reading this essay can construct other exercises for strengthening the value of academic integrity among their students. Yes, we can deter cheating by rattling our cyber swords (Turnitin or otherwise) and by increasing the penalties for misconduct. We certainly need to teach our students the mechanics of proper documentation and the values pertaining to attributing authorship. Yet these measures do not penetrate to the heart of the problem, which is the problem of the heart. Honest and trustworthy students would not need to have their work put into the digital X-ray machine. Moral integrity is its own reward, but it also helps everyone aspire to a lofty goal of finding truth that will make us free.

Image: RODNAE Productions, Public Domain


Douglas Groothuis

Douglas Groothuis is a Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "The Soul in Cyberspace."

4 thoughts on “Teaching Academic Integrity

  1. I note the author’s obsession with footnotes.

    As such, it would have been nice if he provided footnotes for the styles he suggests above where he wrote:

    “. . . their proper form (Turabian, Chicago Manual of Style, or EPA, for example)”

    Clearly there is a typo in the above. I finally figured out it should read APA, which stands for American Psychological Association.

    One of the things I find maddening are articles where an author will use acronyms without ever writing out what they stand for.

    Good publishing practice is to provide such detail at the first instance of use.

    Thus one might write: American Psychological Association (APA)

  2. ” “How would you as a student respond if you found out that I plagiarized a considerable amount of my doctoral dissertation?”

    OK, the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. *did* plagiarize a considerable amount of his doctoral dissertation at Boston University — it was discovered by a (Black) scholar who was in the process of organizing and publishing King’s papers some 20 years after his death.

    Subsequent research indicates that King plagiarized a good bit of his undergrad and divinity degrees as well. There’s also credible evidence that he cheated on his wife — with Hoover’s FBI secretly recording this and then (reportedly) sending King a tape of it.

    So what does this mean, and how should it change what we think of him a half century after his tragic death?

    True, King is remembered for being a pastor and an organizer, not a scholar, but still….

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