Hyper-Anxiety and Research Integrity 2: Why we’re ashamed of being 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’.


In the first post, I established that unhelpful anxiety exists around academic honesty and ethics, even in students and staff (including me!) who are fully signed up to the ethos of the academy. I’m calling the anxiety around ‘doing the right thing’ in research ‘hyper-anxiety’ partly because it is exceissive, but also because it is a double anxiety. Not only does it represent the normal-spectrum aroused states of fear about the future, but a further fear or shame response about that first emotion which creates an ‘affective filter’ (Krashen, 1982), or “learner’s psychological barrier” (Pennington, 1996, p.337) which prevents a student from being able to process information or gain help for the first cause of anxiety.

This barrier to students’ ability, for example, to research, and to cite correctly is covered in the established research field on ‘library anxiety’: “Library anxiety is formally defined as “an uncomfortable feeling or emotional disposition, experienced in a library setting, which has cognitive, affective, physiological, and behavioral ramifications” (Jiao, Onwuegbuzie, & Lichtenstein, 1996, p. 152). Sweetland (1989) and Jiao, Onwuegbuzieb, Waytowichc, (2008), found library anxiety was a cause of citation errors.[i] Students feel anxious about referencing, but that anxiety, or hyper-anxiety, makes it less likely that they will reach out to library staff for help, and less likely that they will be able to take on teaching input because of their filters.[ii]

Kramer suggests that the ‘paranoid-like’ behaviours of “newcomers”, those being evaluated, or “outliers” might include ‘hypervigilance’ which can lead to ‘distorted judgment’ of ‘elevated … threat perception’. Not only is this disturbing in itself, but this kind of hypervigilance reduces trust, he finds. We will see in all the anecdotes in this series, that only after we have established trust will these questions about academic honesty and research integrity emerge.

The first anecdote took place after about 4 hours of workshop over two weeks—however we had not established sufficient trust for the student to accept my advice. The first level of anxiety needs to be allayed before the second level can be addressed.


One place where students are justified in seeing not just something to be anxious (or care-ful of the future) about, is the area of ‘academic honesty’–or rather, of plagiarism. It is, of course, necessary to have clearly set out guidelines as to what is appropriate and inappropriate. The ethics approval process is both protective and extremely useful as a research planning tool. The academic misconduct system is carefully staged, with scaffolded learning opportunities and second chances at each stage before it is escalated.

However, there is a distinction between what actually happens when we suspect plagiarism, and how educators feel about it; and therefore the perception about it from students. There is the moralistic language of surveillance and punitiveness, [iii]  characterized by Hartle, Kimmins and Huijser (2009) as :

The discourse of plagiarism is speckled with punitive terms not out of place in a police officer’s notes: detection, prevention, misconduct, rules, regulations, conventions, transgression, consequences, deter, trap, etc. This crime and punishment paradigm tends to be the norm in academic settings.[iv]

In the anecdotal examples I present here, exaggerated fears and hyper-anxiety lead to unhelpful misunderstandings about what it would mean to research in an ethical way, to have integrity or honesty. These are people who have already internalized the positive ethos of ethical research, but also the punitive messages. The moral weight of being dishonest, unethical, or fraudulent that are discussed at length in the university’s information about academic honesty can be overwhelming.

This can cause anxious research higher degree students not only to feel anxiety about academic honesty, but to feel anxiety about asking about their anxiety about academic honesty.


My second example.

A high flying doctoral candidate was nearing the end of her candidature. She has already published some of her work; her research methodology was jaw-droppingly meticulous and comprehensive; and she had taken excellent notes. We work together on a number of thesis support programs, and I would count her as a personal friend.

She rang me, about half-way through the second full draft of the thesis. She worked up to what she was going to ask me with some trepidation, and introduced her request with a caveat that she hoped this would not make me think less of her for asking. Of course, by this time, my head is racing with potential disastrous situations; had she embezzled half the department’s funds, or caused innocent people to die through withholding data or… (it’s a great move, to introduce difficult admissions this way, especially if your interlocutor teaches English Lit–we have novelistic imaginations, and I was half-way through World War Z (the book not the movie) before her next sentence.)

What did she want to do? She wanted access to Turnitin to submit her thesis to it. She thought it would be a great idea to run the text through the software so she could find any quotes that had lost their quote marks, or anything she’d paraphrased that she’d edited back to being a verbatim quote.

I thought it was a great idea, and gave her some leads. But mostly, I was shocked that she had been so ashamed to ask. During the phone call we discussed this, and she suggested that she was worried I would think less of her for asking, for not already being perfect in her referencing.


This graduate researcher knows my work, and knows that imperfection, iterative drafting, being ‘good enough‘ as enough, and doing our work in public are the hallmarks of my teaching practice. But this is the problem with hyper-anxiety, it not only causes students to feel greater stress (which has many well documented negative impacts, particularly on academic attainment[v]), but that it creates a barrier to reaching out for support. Therefore, we see that hyper-anxiety about research integrity mitigates against self-efficacy.[vi]

In my next post, I will focus more on professional staff who have ancillary roles in supporting graduate researchers, particularly library staff.



[i]For more on Library anxiety, see Anwar, Mumtaz A ; Al-qallaf, Charlene L ; Al-kandari, Noriah M ; Al-ansari, Husain A. ‘A library anxiety scale for undergraduate students’  Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 2012, Vol.44(1), pp34-46 . See further Jiao, Onwuegbuzie, & Lichtenstein, 1996, p. 152. Onwuegbuzie, Jiao, & Bostick, 2004. Mellon, 1986. Bostick, 1992, etc.

[ii] Krashen, Stephen. Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Pergamon: Oxford, 1982. See further: Pennington, Martha C. “The “cognitive-affective filter” in teacher development: Transmission-based and interpretation-based schemas for change.” System24.3 (1996): 337-350.

Jiao, Onwuegbuzieb, Waytowichc, The relationship between citation errors and library anxiety: An empirical study of doctoral students in education (2008)

[iii] Hoonaard, Will C. “Is Research‐Ethics Review a Moral Panic?*.” Canadian Review of Sociology/Revue canadienne de sociologie 38.1 (2001): 19-36.

[iv] Hartle, Kimmins and Huijser, “Criminal intent or cognitive dissonance: how does student self plagiarism fit into academic integrity?”  ( 2009)

[v] 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.

Stewart, Sunita M., et al. “Stress and vulnerability in medical students.” Medical Education 29.2 (1995): 119-127.)

[vi] Zajacova, Anna, Scott M. Lynch, and Thomas J. Espenshade. “Self-efficacy, stress, and academic success in college.” Research in higher education 46.6 (2005): 677-706)

For more research, see the first post in this series. 


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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