Academic Integrity

Recent headlines about the prevalence of academic dishonesty among graduate students nationwide caught everyone’s attention. I’m convinced that the graduate student body at UNL is unusually ethical and that our students are not typical of those represented in recent studies. Nonetheless, I want to take this opportunity to clarify the expectations for academic integrity that we hold for graduate students at UNL.

Remarks like these are often preceded by the phrase, “It goes with out saying…” As in, “It goes without saying that rigorous honesty is important.” “It goes without saying that you are persons of integrity.” But the graduate community at UNL has decided that discussions of academic integrity should not “go without saying” and that we ought to talk more often and more openly about our academic values. So here goes.

Academic integrity is a universal principle in the scholarly community. A shared commitment to the highest standards of academic integrity is held across every discipline, across every theoretical orientation, across every methodological and epistemological tradition. A shared commitment to the highest standards of academic integrity is held across every learned society, every journal, every conference, every juried performance and exhibit – and every kind of higher education institution.

Scholars agree, as a necessary condition of our membership in the academic community, to identify the source of the ideas or words or images that we borrow. We agree to accurately and fully describe the methods and results of our research. We agree to protect the rights of the participants in our studies. We agree to deal honestly with the content of our courses and fairly with the students in our care. We agree – all of us – to conduct the whole of our academic careers with unwavering integrity.

Why is there such ubiquitous agreement about the importance of academic integrity? The answer is not simply moralistic. The more profound explanation is practical: We value integrity because the entire scholarly enterprise is balanced on the assumption that we can trust one another.

Imagine what it would be like to open a scholarly journal and have even a fleeting concern about whether the compiled works represent stolen ideas, or misrepresented methods, or deliberately obfuscated data. Our trust in the advancing edge of our disciplines is dependent upon our complete trust in one another's honor.

The importance of integrity has produced a great many externally imposed rules and procedures designed to discourage dishonesty. Certainly these ethical codes play an important role in our scholarly lives. But my consistent experience is that opportunities to be academically dishonest almost always occur when I am alone, when the perceived reward for dishonest behavior is significant, and when it is very unlikely that I’ll be found out. In moments like that, external rules or codes of conduct have only a limited effect.

And so each of us must develop an unusual degree of selfregulation and self-control that compels us to make the honest decision – even when we are alone and the reward for misconduct is great and we are unlikely to be caught. Academic integrity is unavoidably self-disciplined, and we need it most when the pressure of our work is at its peak. I encourage you to be especially careful during those times.

Because you have chosen to learn the habits of scholars, universities must place an extremely high value on academic integrity for graduate students. This means we expect you to conduct yourselves with complete integrityin all phases of your academic life. It also means thatviolations of academic integrity must carry very harsh consequences. I had the unhappy task of expelling an advanced Ph.D. student for plagiarism this spring. That expulsion ended the student’s academic career. No university will ever allow this student to complete a graduate degree, and no university will ever hire this person in an academic position. I can assure you that no expediency, no temptation, no perceived reward is worth risking this sanction. 

I know that each of you has already developed a habit of academic integrity. Your challenge now is to continue to enhance and solidify your self-imposed code of conduct. How can you do this? Read and take to heart the ethical standards of your discipline. Model yourself after students and faculty members whose integrity you admire. Always – every time – seek the advice of a trusted faculty mentor if you have any doubt about your actions. And reward yourself when you do the right thing, even if you’re the only one who knows you did it. I promise you that when you reach the end of your career, the satisfaction of conducting yourself with integrity will far outweigh any other accomplishment on your vita.