Hyper-Anxiety and Research Integrity 4: We’re doing it wrong

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. These final two 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’.


The first three posts talked about where most graduate researchers and support staff are: they support academic honesty and research integrity, but they often feel unnecessarily and unhelpfully anxious about the consequences of getting it wrong.

In this post, I talk about what we’re doing wrong for students who either do not fully understand or subscribe to this academic culture yet; and for serial and intentional cheaters. In the final post, I’ll suggest what we might do that is right.

The University of Melbourne is behind the curve in the way we discuss academic honesty and research integrity; we focus on the plagiarism, policy and punishment. The underlying message is ‘Don’t plagiarise; if you do the penalities are severe’. This is characterized as ‘the GOTCHA! approach’.[i]

Most student-facing information about research integrity is focused on convincing students that it is important, is a serious concern, and that there are penalties for misconduct. For example, the many different resources on avoiding plagiarism available on the University of Melbourne’s websites, via Academic Skills (including AIRport), CELTS, the Library, the GSA, the CSHE, and the undergraduate essay submission form.


The Academic Honesty website , is a prime example of this.

It headlines a wonderful quote:

The most important attribute that the University of Melbourne would like to see in its graduates is a profound respect for truth, and for the ethics of scholarship…we want our graduates to be capable of independent thought, to be able to do their own work, and to know how to acknowledge the work of others.
Professor Peter McPhee (Provost 2007-9)

And then there are four buttons. “What is plagiarism?” “University Policy and procedures for academic misconduct’, ‘Turnitin” and a “Sample assignment coversheet”.

The purpose of the text moves quickly from ‘academic honesty’ to ‘here is a form to fill out’ or ‘here is a citation style to master’. That is, we move from ethos to institutional management, very quickly (and as Pollock 2012 suggests “the bureaucratic complexity of research governance has raised concerns”— in terms of managerialism instead of research.)[ii] And then from management to misconduct and punishment.

Headings include ‘Why is plagiarism so serious?’ and claims include sentences like

“It is important that you do not infringe copyright as copyright owners can take legal action against you. You can also be subject to action from the University.”

In many resources, ‘Academic Honesty’ or ‘Using Sources’ is intrinsically bound up with plagiarism: in titles like ‘Academic Honesty & Plagiarism’ or ‘Using Sources and Avoiding Plagiarism”, or as Academic Skills’ most popular publication has it, just ‘Avoiding Plagiarism’[iii]. Academic Honesty is thus framed as limited, legalistic and punitive.

The coversheet might be beneficial, encouraging students to sign on the dotted line (Shu et al, 2011 suggest it helps promote honest behaviour), but all its statements are about ‘plagiarism’, ‘collusion’ and are phrased as negatives.

Only one declaration that the students have to sign is a positive statement of what academic honesty might mean:

“This assignment is my own original work, except where I have appropriately cited the original source (Appropriate citation of original work will vary from discipline to discipline).”[sic]

However, this reduces honesty to citation, which is no more useful than reducing research ethics to the approval process.

Counterproductively, the emphasis on plagiarism might mean that students believe ‘everyone is cheating’ which was a characteristic of serial cheaters found in Davis et al (1993).


OREI’s website, on the other hand, has statements about academic integrity affirmed in strongly positive language:

Ethically good research that accords participants with respect and protection is a central tenet of research integrity.

Research data and records are the ‘gold’ of research. Good and responsible research data and records management enables ethical and effective research.

However, they are three layers deep. As someone who does web architecture in her other life, I can tell you that no-one gets to the third layer.


But, you may be thinking, plagiarism is really serious.

Yes it is, but only when it is academic misconduct. The minority of students, of the kind reported by Davis et al. (1993), were serial cheaters who had serially cheated in high school and claimed they would be deterred by “nothing” or “death”, and whose behavior was not influenced by penalties, clear explanations or any other form of intervention. [iv]

Most cases of plagiarism and other breaches of academic honesty are actually:

  •  lack of understanding about academic citation
  •  misjudgement about the line between ‘general knowledge’ and ‘knowledge that needs citation’ at the tertiary level.
  • an academic approach from another culture that uses citations differently.

None of these are a failure of ‘academic honesty’ or ‘research integrity’, they are culturally specific, technical questions of ‘how and when do I cite?’ The policy in fact recognizes that: students meet with the Subject Coordinator, and are given an opportunity to resubmit at the first sign of an issue, they do not fail.

We know that some people will behave in ways which require punishment (and there are excellent, fair, clearly set out processes the university to achieve this). However, as Grasmick & Green point out, most people are not ‘ever motivated to commit illegal acts’, most people strive for ‘conformity to legal norms’.

Our over-emphasis on this minority issue leads students to over-estimate the prevalence of plagiarism. In the previous posts, I discussed how this led to hyper-anxiety in conscientious students and staff. The flip-side is that it leads to complacency in students who are serial cheaters.

In my final post, I will suggest some methods that might actually work.



[i] Price (2002), Howard (2001)

[ii]Pollock, Kristian Procedure versus process: ethical paradigms and the conduct of qualitative research (Debate), BMC Medical Ethics, Sept 27, 2012, Vol.13, p.25

[iii] (though we also have ‘Referencing essentials’ and ‘Incorporating sources’, though I think they are all a bit narrow for what I’m trying to suggest here!).

[iv] The cases of plagiarism I have had reason to deal with as a Subject Coordinator are more complex than this.

[v] Grasmick, Harold G., and Donald E. Green. “Legal punishment, social disapproval and internalization as inhibitors of illegal behavior.” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-) 71.3 (1980): 325-335

Aronson, Elliot, and J. Merrill Carlsmith. “Effect of the severity of threat on the devaluation of forbidden behavior.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 66.6 (1963): 584. Hegarty, W. Harvey, and Henry P. Sims. “Some determinants of unethical decision behavior: An experiment.” Journal of applied Psychology 63.4 (1978): 451.

Davis, Stephen F., et al. “Academic dishonesty: Prevalence, determinants, techniques, and punishments.” Teaching of Psychology 19.1 (1992): 16-20.

Horner, Jennifer, and Fred D. Minifie. “Research ethics II: Mentoring, collaboration, peer review, and data management and ownership.” Journal of speech, language, and hearing research: JSLHR 54.1 (2011): S330-45.

Austin, Zubin, et al. “Influence of attitudes toward curriculum on dishonest academic behavior.” American journal of pharmaceutical education 70.3 (2006).

Bolin, Aaron U. “Self-control, perceived opportunity, and attitudes as predictors of academic dishonesty.” The Journal of Psychology 138.2 (2004): 101-114.

Kidder, Deborah L. “Is it ‘who I am’, ‘what I can get away with’, or ‘what you’ve done to me’? A Multi-theory Examination of Employee Misconduct.” Journal of Business Ethics 57.4 (2005): 389-398.)

Murdock, Tamera B., and Eric M. Anderman. “Motivational perspectives on student cheating: Toward an integrated model of academic dishonesty.” Educational psychologist 41.3 (2006): 129-145



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