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Academic integrity as a precursor to workplace ethics

We explore the link between students' relationship with academic integrity early in their education, and the likelihood of ethical breaches in adulthood, and within their workplace.

The Turnitin Team
The Turnitin Team

We’ve all experienced that sense of shock when a high profile case of plagiarism in the professional world hits the news, prompting a cavalcade of questions from the community. For instance, what happened during the person’s education to set a precedent for cheating? Could a stronger relationship with academic integrity earlier on in their education have prevented this breach of ethics?

The practice of academic integrity by students goes beyond a plagiarism-free submission. In some ways, it even transcends mastery of a school or university subject, to cut to the core of a person’s code of conduct. There is a growing body of work indicating that the relationship students form with integrity during their education helps establish an ethical and decision-making framework to guide professional endeavours and their general movement through life.

The reputational stakes are high for institutions, who share a degree of accountability in graduating and indeed qualifying students for their chosen field. This also carries through to the post-university experience where students transition to alumni representing their university in the outside world. It begs the question; what can education professionals do to plant the seed of academic integrity that sustains a lifelong commitment to integrity?


What is the link between student integrity and vocational integrity?

In their recently published study on the impact of academic integrity experiences on workplace ethical behaviour, Guerrero-Dib, J.G., Portales, L. & Heredia-Escorza, Y. hypothesised that students who report a history of participating in dishonest behavior in secondary school, are more likely to repeat this pattern in tertiary education and in professional practice (2020). The variables they measured include: cheating more generally, falsifying information, using unauthorised support, and plagiarism or paraphrasing without citations.

By adapting a survey designed by Donald McCabe to capture perceptions and self-reported behaviours of ethicality, they determined that “This [academic integrity] learning goes beyond the classroom and the university context and becomes an ethical behavioural pattern in the work and personal environments.”

A core finding of this research was that “the more severe the students consider an act of academic dishonesty, the more ethically they behave outside of the university.”

A key takeaway here is how perceptions of the gravity of academic misconduct influences students’ eventual behavioural choice in the professional context. In addition to confirming that impressions of cheating are formed during the schooling years and remain stable into adulthood, it supports the notion that the more teachers draw attention to the severity and repercussions of cheating to set a precedent, the greater the likelihood students will factor it into their future decision-making.

An exploratory study undertaken by Harding, T.S, Carpenter, D., Finelli C., & Passow, H.J on whether academic dishonesty relates to unethical behaviour in professional practice, also corroborates the link. It used a sample of engineering students who were engaged in full time work in their chosen profession at the time of the study, pending completion of their final college units. The researchers found ‘substantial commonalities’ between the decision-making process with regard to academic dishonesty and that of unethical behaviour in professional practice: “Many students, despite changes in context from high school to college and to the workplace, will make the same ultimate decision when faced with a temptation to engage in deviant behavior”.

Implications for education professionals

What do these findings mean for education professionals in informing their approach to securing learning outcomes and integrity? A commitment to a robust academic integrity program must be the foundation to address what is ultimately a very serious trajectory of student integrity and its social impacts. It takes time to build conviction about doing the ‘right’ (or wrong) thing and for it to permeate the student consciousness, but as we have witnessed in the aforementioned studies, if the wrong turn is taken, this mindset is rather immoveable.

Guerrero-Dib, J.G., et al. contend that “part of a professional’ s ethical behaviour is related to their awareness of the risks or severity of getting involved in academic dishonesty ... it is not enough to convince students of the importance of following integrity criteria, it is also necessary to create an environment where cheating or deceptions are very difficult to practice.” As such, if students can evade plagiarism detection methods and face no repercussions, dishonest work and shortcuts become the norm, having been ‘rewarded’ by passing a course or graduating.

From a detection point of view, capturing every incident of misconduct is unrealistic for educators to do manually, or entirely on their own. In our experience, a lack of time and lack of conclusive evidence to prove misconduct (especially in regards to third party contract cheating) are among the biggest factors that educators face. While theory and instruction will always underpin any academic integrity program, there is also a need for technology and software to support a systematic application and an intuitive, seamless process for students. For starters, text similarity matching software for instance to pick up on inadvertent or intentional plagiarism can provide much-needed oversight for educators and empower students to self-correct, thereby neutralising the punitive element and focusing on the formative learning opportunity.

A survey-based study in 2015 commissioned by the Australian Government’s Office for Learning and Technology, looked at culture and practice of academic integrity in Australia, and discovered that higher education students were more likely to be interested in interactive online resources as opposed to traditional modes and methods. Other preferred methods include information apps, in-class exercises and orientation seminars. Furthermore, the students surveyed exhibited a sound theoretical understanding of academic integrity, but desired more opportunities to apply these concepts. Unpacking those previously mentioned high profile plagiarism cases in the classroom when they occur, is a great way to illustrate how it’s a slippery slope from a seemingly ‘meaningless’ shortcut in school, to a lifelong pattern that jeopardises their character and reputation.


An early commitment to ethicality

Consider the International Center for Academic Integrity’s definition of academic integrity: “a commitment, even in the face of adversity, to six fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage.” (ICAI). Notice that this definition does not specify the role of students or educators in relation to the institution, but rather, speaks to their core motivations as a person or citizen.

Although consequences and the spectre of disciplinary action is an important pillar in building academic integrity, we’re of the belief that this can also come from a place of positive reinforcement that speaks to students’ motivations and aspirations for a successful life. By all means, enshrine academic integrity principles in writing according to your university's values and expectations, but also try taking it beyond an institutional policy or code of conduct. Anchoring it all back to personal values that affect them long after they leave the four walls of their institution, and emphasising the ‘honour code’ component of an integrity program, will boost that sense of personal investment.

A body of research by academic integrity heavyweights McCabe, D. and Trevino, L.K, confirms that honour codes are effective in reducing student cheating, but it also clarifies that this success is generally contingent upon a peer environment that condemns dishonesty. Whilst it would be difficult to simulate a workplace scenario for students to better understand how academic integrity is embryonic of workplace misconduct, a level of authentic learning can still be achieved. Making students answerable to their peers (and potential professional peers) is one such strategy to expand the notion of personal accountability. This can take the form of peer review and group work; effectively mimicking the workplace, which is rarely an individual pursuit, but rather, a combined effort with greater collective oversight.

Although a complex web of factors is involved in deliberate acts of student cheating, there is reassurance in the premise that if we cultivate a culture where students see themselves as ‘citizens of integrity’, academic integrity - and by extension - professional integrity, will take root more easily and be less corruptible. Thinking again about those high profile cases of plagiarism that shake our collective conscience, perhaps McCabe, D. and Trevino, L.K put it best: “The greatest benefit of a culture of integrity may not be reduced student cheating. Instead, it may be the lifelong benefit of learning the value of living in a community of trust.”

Hear how other educators in the Asia Pacific region are tackling academic integrity, in our Integrity Matters vidcast series


Need help? Turnitin has a variety of intuitive software solutions to apply integrity meaningfully and make plagiarism a teachable moment when it does occur.