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Slowing the momentum of academic misconduct

Graduate students and professors need to act to promote academic integrity.


The concept of academic integrity is complex, with a broad definition, and many students have incurred academic offenses due to their misunderstanding of their institution’s academic integrity policies. It is therefore important for all graduate students to be familiar with the policies early in their degree and be able to abide by them.

Academic integrity, a term coined by the late Don McCabe, is defined as avoiding cheating or plagiarism, upholding academic standards, and maintaining honest scholarship in research and academic publishing. This includes upholding ethical standards in research and scholarship. A University Affairs article discussed the importance of ethics education courses and pointed out that “Most graduate schools offer some professional development – sometimes optional to students, sometimes mandatory – related to responsible conduct of research or research integrity.”

In academic publishing, the popularity of the Retraction Watch blog, launched in 2010 by two medical journalists, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, demonstrates that work around academic integrity is essential to outing perpetrators of academic misconduct and fraud. University Affairs recently published an article on the Retraction Watch database that reveals more than 17,000 retractions. It is important to note that many of the cases in the database are data management (data fabrication /falsification). The founders claim in the article that retractions are on the rise, and the database actually contains some retractions from graduate students.

Starting with our graduate student communities, there is a need to address these infractions and ensure that academic integrity is understood and valued. Supporting our students in developing research skills to navigate the ins and outs of research ethics and academic integrity involves efforts from the whole higher-education community. This article provides practical suggestions for graduate students and professors to reduce the chances of academic misconduct and maintain integrity.

What are the responsibilities of graduate students?

Graduate students should understand their own responsibility to abiding by academic integrity as researchers and authors. This includes learning their institutions’ student code of conduct or research ethics policies, and adhering to these policies. Three key university resources that support this learning are:

  1. Learning about the policies. During orientation, graduate students should make a point to learn about their institution’s academic integrity policies and guidelines. At McGill University, there are mandatory new supervisee and supervisor orientations that present relevant policies in online and in-person formats. In addition, students should become accustomed to policies outlined on their university and departmental websites.
  2. Participating in workshops on ethics and academic integrity. Most skills programs offer sessions designed with interactive learning activities, some that test assumptions and decisions. University libraries also play a significant role in supporting appropriate citation practices. McGill’s library, in collaboration with teaching and learning services, offers MyResearch, a four module graduate series featured in the SKILLSETS program. Academic integrity is integrated into MyResearch, beginning with hands-on citation management software training and guided questioning. Academic librarians who have experience with academic policy and scholarly publishing usually lead these workshops.
  3. Discussing best practices with supervisors and professors, graduate program directors, and peers. This helps students to behave with integrity and avoid disciplinary offenses. Students need to check their (mis)conceptions when it comes to understanding how to use and cite their previous work. A student planning to reuse previously-marked work should ask someone first, preferably the instructor, before re-submitting it.

What are the responsibilities of professors?

When accepting a new graduate student, professors should introduce the student to the policies, as well as have regular discussions about protocols and expectations, and have explicit conversations about research ethics and academic integrity.

  1. During orientation, graduate supervisors can emphasize the importance of academic integrity by discussing policies, guidelines, and frameworks with all incoming students. This could include providing a letter of understanding that outlines lab policies, authorship guidelines, and where to find information on the student code of conduct and other relevant university policies. Students would also benefit from an onboarding checklist outlining academic integrity documents to read. Providing clear expectations and explicit details about data management, authorship, and lab culture as graduate students enter into their programs is a great way to build a culture around academic integrity.
  2. Building a community of practice among graduate students around the topic academic integrity and ethical research and writing practices is key. Etienne Wenger-Trayner defines a community of practice as “…. a group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Engaging students in discussions about data management, data sharing, and how boundaries are set in group-work projects are some of the best practices these communities can engage in and encourage.
  3. Professors can regularly discuss ethical misconduct cases with students. Regular conversations about retractions, misconduct, and ethics act as reminders and highlight the importance of integrity in the art of scholarship. This approach can ground themselves and their values in academic integrity.

Honest scholarship is at the core of a university. Starting conversations around academic integrity takes effort, but it is worth the effort to help students avoid allegations of misconduct, and develop good practices early on, which is essential. Graduate students and professors have a responsibility to engage in academic integrity conversations to ensure they avoid the time-consuming and messy consequences of academic misconduct.

David Syncox
David Syncox is the director of the alumni communities unit in university advancement (formerly associate director, student skills development) at McGill University. He oversees strategic conception, execution, management and – evaluation of local, national, and international alumni engagement programs.
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  1. Bryan D Fantie / December 3, 2018 at 12:51

    One obstacle to achieving these goals is that university administrators have become obsessed with metrics regardless of whether or not these numbers are valid or meaningful. One way to reduce the number of academic integrity violations that show up on in the records of an institution is to raise the bar on what constitutes a violation and dismiss all but the most aggregious cases. This method is a lot easier, quicker, and less expensive than doing the right thing and taking academic, professional, and personal integrity seriously.

  2. Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton, University of Calgary / December 6, 2018 at 10:17

    Thank you for sharing your insights. This is an important topic. You have highlighted the fact that integrity is a shared responsibility across campus, which is a key message. Well done.