Hyper-Anxiety & Research Integrity 1: Who is super-anxious?

In August of last year, I gave a paper to the University of Melbourne’s Office of Research Ethics and Integrity research seminars, Tuesdays with OREI, on ‘Hyper-Anxiety about Research Integrity among library staff and RHD students’ that ended up doing two different things. So this is the first of a five part blog series, about who is anxious, why it’s unhelpful, and what we can do instead. The final posts will address ways of promoting ‘research integrity’ among cohorts who are not already fully signed up to the values of research integrity and academic honesty, because, according to the research, they are also badly served by a focus on plagiarism and punishment.

You can read the whole series by clicking on the category ‘Hyper-Anxiety & Academic Honesty’. 


This is the first post of a five part blog series, one which will address ‘hyper-anxiety’ among those who are already fully signed up to the values of research integrity and academic honesty, but who are negatively affected by our punitive focus on plagiarism and punishment. In this post, I explain who is anxious, and why I characterise this anxiety as ‘hyper’.

In the university there are all sorts of people engaging with academic honesty and research integrity with various levels of expertise. Graduate Researchers and Library Staff are two cohorts who are, generally, fully signed-up to the values of the university, to the values of research, to the values of scholarship. They are often highly conscientious and careful people. However, typically, they do not have a higher research degree, and are therefore not yet admitted to the peer community of scholarly experts. This can lead them to experience anxiety around scholarly tasks like academic writing and academic honesty.

I’m going to tell some anecdotes (not research interviews, more parables) about hyper anxiety around research integrity and academic honesty in RHD students and library staff that I personally have encountered recently. I will also suggest some ways forward. This isn’t proper scholarly research yet (I had so much hyper-anxiety about writing this paper, it was stupid), so this is just observation–pre-research if you like.

It is part of an emerging field discussing the role of emotions in academic research.


The first anecdote:

A PhD student in a workshop about literature reviews, working on a landscape artist, still living, who had written a book about a garden he had planted. One of her problems with completing her next chapter was that she had a major question about the influences of the artist; knowing the influences would help her to clarify her argument and also clarify which other areas of research she needed to cover. It was suggested that she email the author/artist and ask him directly.

“Don’t I need research ethics approval for that?” she asked. I was completely taken aback by this. It had never even occurred to me to ask that question.

Because this was a group workshop, my ‘I really don’t think so, I certainly never did for my work’ was not the only answer. The consensus among the group, about 18 first year doctoral students, was that, the official university’s position would be that she really should consider ethics approval.

I suggested that the only ethical considerations ought to be: 1. That in the email she told the author what she was trying to do in the thesis, and how his responses might be used; and 2: that she MIGHT, but only MIGHT, chose to email the author to show him where he was quoted to make sure that he was happy that he had not been misrepresented. She ought also to acknowledge his help in the acknowledgements and perhaps in a footnote where relevant.

I lost the argument.[i]

This conversation so disturbed me, that a month or so later, at an Melbourne School of Graduate Research orientation session, the burning question I wanted to ask the OREI representative was, “Was I wrong?” I too, as a professional staff member in a research support role, was anxious about getting it ethically right.

(This is the kernel of this paper. Dan Barr said to me, “Of course that’s fine. That’s just part of the scholarly conversation”. I felt a great relief.)

But, even before that, I knew I was right. I have a PhD in the arts, this student was asking about a field where I am experienced in what is appropriate research behaviour. I work with hundreds of doctoral students, much of the time with qualitative and quantitative social science students, and I know what ethics approval is for. And so, like the students in the workshop who were too anxious to take an experienced researcher and research trainer’s advice that might allay their research ethics anxiety; I too was too anxious to trust my own training and experience.


This annecdote is pretty representative of the research. Hadjioannou et al have stated that:

Doctoral work is challenging on a variety of levels, stretching, often excessively, the minds as well as the emotions. (p. 160)[ii]

And anxiety in particular is a well documented problem for research students.

Kramer (1998), suggests that “newcomers to a group” or people who are experiencing “perceived evaluative scrutiny” (as RHD students hoping to become part of the academy), but also “categorical outliers” (such as research teachers and librarians who are not faculty academics) are at risk of allowing ‘dysphoric [unhappy] forms of self-consciousness … to promote paranoid-like’ behaviours.[iv] Struthers et al (2000) suggest that there is a decrease in student’s ability to understand complex thought when they are worried, which reduces their ability to do their work.[iii]

The student cohort I describe here are negotiating how to identify themselves as researchers with a scholarly identity[v]. Especially in regards to academic honesty and research integrity, Hartle et al suggest that such students can be “confused by the novel academic culture and its values”.

Some of the cultural backgrounds that they are coming from can include:

  • Overseas paradigms:[vi] including Confucian Heritage Cultures with their sage-student models of learning, the UK where every sentence should have a citation, or Canada & Mexico which prioritise personal reflectiveness in students writing.
  • Different Faculty / discipline backgrounds –i.e. what can be taken as ‘common knowledge’ in a subject with a text book (Commerce) when a student moves into the Humanities.
  • Move from undergraduate or coursework masters programs to RHD programs.

However, a certain degree of ‘paranoid-like’ behaviours seem to be normal in higher education, Kramer suggests (in Troop, 2011[vii]). And Castelló, Iñesta & Monero (2009) posit that what might be reported as ‘anxiety’ by RHD students is more likely to be ‘a kind of nervousness (arousal) which is necessary to manage the writing cognitive load’.[viii]

Pajares and Valiente (2006) claim ‘writing apprehension” or anxiety about writing was not related to writing performance when there is high self-efficacy (or coping potential).[ix] In fact, Hopwood (2010) describes doctoral students

intentionally… using their fear… to make themselves perform certain kinds of work… creating an interim build-up time in which they moved their work forward.”[x]

According to McGaugh (2013), “evidence indicates that emotional arousal enhances the storage of memories”, but that “experiences do not have to be intensely emotional to influence memory strength”. [xi] Hubach and Fieman (2012) found that moderate stress enhances the ability of male students to learn and recall details, although it makes no difference to female students.[xii]

Anxiety is therefore a two-edged sword, a complex experience and therefore needs some definition.

Terms like stress or anxiety can be used to define automatic visceral or reflex reactions; to define physiological responses to stimuli (e.g. adrenal stress hormones) which produce emotional states; and something that may in fact be an emotion itself. [xiii] DSM 5 treats anxiety as a mood or affect symptom to enable diagnoses of mental disorders (including anxiety disorders themselves).[xiv] Ratner (2000) reminds us that describing the emotion or even feeling the emotion is culturally specific, and that emotions do not in themselves determine action. [xv]

Therefore some moderate anxiety (of the non-mental disorder variety) may be useful in prompting us to act in our own best interests.  Certainly, the concern that I would have nothing worthwhile to say at the session helped to motivate me to complete this paper over two days! Hyper-anxiety, however, is clearly excessive anxiety (regardless of cultural or physiological basis). In the next post, I’m going to talk about how this is also doubled by a shame response.


[i] Cotterall, Sara. “More than just a brain: emotions and the doctoral experience. “Higher Education Research & Development 32.2 (2013): 174-187.

[ii]Hadjioannou, Xenia, et al. “The Road to a Doctoral Degree: Co-Travelers through a Perilous Passage.” College Student Journal 41.1 (2007): 160-177. See further: Hawley, 1993; Hartnett & Katz, 1977; Middleton, 2001; Miller & Irby, 1999; Nyquist et al, 1999; Sudol & Hall, 1991

[iii] Struthers, C. Ward, Raymond P. Perry, and Verena H. Menec. “An examination of the relationship among academic stress, coping, motivation, and performance in college.” Research in higher education 41.5 (2000): 581-592

Eysenck, Michael W., and Manuel G. Calvo. “Anxiety and performance: The processing efficiency theory.” Cognition & Emotion 6.6 (1992): 409-434.)

[iv]Kramer, Roderick M. “Paranoid cognition in social systems: Thinking and acting in the shadow of doubt.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 2.4 (1998): 251-275.

[v]Kamler, Barbara, and Pat Thomson. Helping doctoral students write: Pedagogies for supervision. Routledge, 2006.

[vi] Brennan, Linda, and J. Durovic. “Plagiarism” and the Confucian Heritage Culture (CHC) student.” Educational Integrity: Values for Teaching, Learning and Research 2 (2005)

[vii] Troop, Don, Paranoid? You must be a Grad Student, in Chronicle of Higher Education, 24 April, 2011.

[viii] Castelló, Montserrat, Anna Iñesta, and Carles Monereo. “Towards self-regulated academic writing: an exploratory study with graduate students in a situated learning environment.” Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology 7.3 (2009): 1107-1130. (this is not what Cotterall seems to suggest they said. ) p.1127.

[ix]Pajares, Frank and Valiante, Gio. “Self-Efficacy Beliefs and Motivation in Writing Development” in Handbook of writing research, edited by Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, Jill Fitzgerald, 158-170. (Guilford Pres, 2006).

See Hidi, Suzanne, and Pietro Boscolo. “Motivation and writing.” Handbook of writing research, edited by Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, Jill Fitzgerald, 144- 157. (Guilford Pres, 2006).

[x]Hopwood, Nick. “A sociocultural view of doctoral students’ relationships and agency.” Studies in Continuing Education 32.2 (2010): 103-117, p. 112. Equally Ratner 2000 p. 32.

See further: See further Schutz, Paul A., and Jessica T. DeCuir. “Inquiry on emotions in education. “Educational Psychologist 37.2 (2002): 125-134. (looks at anxiety with tests)

Schutz, Paul A., et al. “Reflections on investigating emotion in educational activity settings.” Educational Psychology Review 18.4 (2006): 343-360.

[xi]McGaugh, James L. “Making lasting memories: Remembering the significant. “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110.Supplement 2 (2013): 10402-10407.

Nielson KA, Arentsen TJ (2012) Memory modulation in the classroom: Selective enhancement of college examination

Cahill, L., Gorski, L., & Le, K. (2003). “Enhanced human memory consolidation with post-learning stress: Interaction with the degree of arousal at encoding. Learning and Memory”, 10(4), 270–274.

[xii]Hupbach A, Fieman R (2012) “Moderate stress enhances immediate and delayed retrieval of educationally relevant material in healthy young men.” Behavioral Neuroscience 126(6):819–825.

Cahill, L. (2006). “Why sex matters for neuroscience.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 7, 477–484.

Cahill, L., & Alkire, M. T. (2003). “Epinephrine enhancement of human memory.”

Ertman, N., Andreano, J. M., & Cahill, L. (2011). Progesterone at encoding predicts subsequent emotional memory. Learning and Memory, 18, 759–763.

[xiii]Lazarus, Richard S. “Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion.” American psychologist 46.8 (1991): 819.

[xiv]American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Web. [access date: 1 June 2013]. ‘Anxiety Disorders’

[xv]Ratner, Carl. “A cultural-psychological analysis of emotions.” Culture & Psychology 6.1 (2000): 5-39.


Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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