Finding Integrity Beyond Integrity

This article was written by Sean Tupa, Manager of Education Programs and Research at Turnitin, and was originally given as a speech at the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI).

The term “integrity,” especially in the context of “academic integrity,” is typically uttered from a defensive standpoint. For example, integrity is meant to be counterposed to the act of cheating, and of plagiarism. Integrity is mostly associated with terms like honor, honesty, and transparency. This is commonly understood, and for a good reason because, I believe, at least, these associations are good and true.

However, integrity means so much more. And if we adopt this broader meaning that I will propose, I think we are better positioned for at least two things to happen: 1) we can appreciate the learner with integrity as a positive agent of virtue, rather than as simply one who lacks negative qualities, and 2) the horizons of our responsibilities as educators expand (in a good way).

To explain this, let’s look at a component of integrity: originality. Considering a piece of work as original automatically precludes the possibility that it was created through the nefarious techniques of plagiarism that frustrate us all.

But, I would also argue that we should recognize the relativism of the term, and how context regulates the ways in which that relativism operates. For example, we never expect our younger students to produce ideas that are completely original to the world. In fact, we ask that they start out by mimicking us verbatim--by copying down sentences, by memorizing speeches or poems or facts. But there is originality here. These are novel skills and ideas, not to the world, but to the student.

Learners will be in this mode for a long time during their educational careers. And it will only be in rare cases that they escape it. And this is a positive thing. Originality for students here is the originality of the process of working, not necessarily just of the product of their work. That is because it is in working that we grow, and growth is to become something new, to be a new self that is unique and original when compared to our old self.

Shortcuts, such as copying and pasting, erode originality because they steal from students the opportunity to perform an original act. Cheating and plagiarism contribute to unoriginality because they take away the work that will help us grow as human beings.

The original student, certainly, doesn’t just “lack” negative qualities. They don’t just avoid unethical actions like cheating and plagiarizing. The original student is also, and primarily, a proactive agent. I’d like to propose this definition, rather:

the original student performs tasks they never have before, or performs tasks at a level of skill that they have never previously achieved. Original students have grown, they have become human beings that are novel and unique--to us and to themselves, compared to what they were before.

Science experiments exemplify this point very well. When students are conducting experiments, ostensibly, they need to follow the instructions, repeat actions that have been done a countless number of times by a countless number of people before. Newton himself admitted that he stood on the shoulders of giants. And, if they have performed correctly, and have reduced the multiple variables that could affect the outcomes, then they should come to the same results that everyone else has. This doesn’t seem original. However, it definitely is.

For one, as I have said, the students are doing things that are original to them. In addition, no two experiments are really the same. You actually cannot remove all potential variables, and that’s what it’s all about. Because, repeating experiments in different situations at different times, controlling for what you can, helps us to identify what are the variables that truly affect the outcomes and which ones don’t. And when they write and reflect upon their results, students (and professional scientists) should record these findings, and in their own voice, with their own words.

Of course, none of us can be completely unique in our thought and work. We owe all of our debt to our antecedents. We stand on giants’ shoulders. And that is why the practices of proper attribution are so important. Although, its importance is not so much that we are obligated to give credit where credit is due, in my opinion. That is the case, but there is more. The reasons for citation are, simultaneously, much more practical and much more lofty. Attribution informs others the sources from where we derived our inspirations and thinking and reasoning. This allows them to verify and validate our arguments, as well as to understand more of the context within which we are producing. In other words, attribution describes a genealogy of thought. Through it, we take our place at the current end of our predecessors’ legacies. We chronicle our part of a community-- collaborating with our forebearers on the human project that is called history.

And I have a tiny suspicion that students don’t think of citation in this way. But if we were to share with them this philosophy, maybe dress it down a little more down to their terminology, it’ll possibly motivate them, at least a little bit more, to do it. Because what students need to get the most out of their education is care. They need to take care in their work and in their learning and in themselves.

And here we come to the theme that runs through all of these ideas and that leads us to our overarching concern of integrity: rigor. 

The learner with integrity, like the student who is original, is not just someone who avoids unethical behavior. The learner with integrity is a proactive agent that applies rigor and dedication to their work. They are committed to themselves and to their education. They are resigned to the fact that they will make mistakes, but understand that all failure is an opportunity for learning. Students with integrity delve deeply into their subject; for them, learning is like oxygen and from it they draw rich breaths of knowledge. They don’t avoid the unethical: they are actively ethical. They might not always understand that their work has gained them a legitimate place in the long line of human thought and activity; but it is still their due.

We, as educators and as those who support educators, have the responsibility to cultivate this version of integrity within our students. We are all part of a community that advocates for the virtues we so need our students to develop. The future we face brings challenges we will not be able to meet unless all of the coming generations have access to and succeed in meaningful education. And success depends upon students having a strong understanding of and productively employing integrity, rigor, honor, and originality in their learning. Our role is to help them learn so they not only gain balance while standing on giants’ shoulders, but so that others, one day, can upon theirs.

Related Links:
Defining Plagiarism: The Plagiarism Spectrum
The Effectiveness of Turnitin in Higher Education