I asked a first-year college class recently, “What can you tell me about academic honesty?” All the students could talk about was how bad plagiarism is and that they should avoid it or they would get in serious trouble. When I said, “I didn’t ask about plagiarism, I asked about academic honesty,” they were completely stymied. “What is the purpose of academic honesty? Why do we document sources in research?” The students apparently had no idea.
This probably isn’t uncommon, and I think it comes from two roots:
- We tend to focus on crime and punishment, especially in schools. Rule enforcement above all justifies some content and some forms of schooling and instruction.In extreme cases–which are unfortunately not at all rare–this results in a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
- We tend to focus on ownership. One documents to give the person who developed the idea the credit for developing the idea; more importantly, we avoid plagiarism, so we don’t claim credit for someone else’s work. Doing so would be cheating.
Surprise! Academic Honesty Has Nothing to Do with Avoiding Plagiarism
Academic honesty is important because it underpins the entire knowledge-building enterprise. In research of any kind, academics document sources for several purposes, including:
- To show what other claims their work is based on
- To fit their own work into a larger context of knowledge
- To ensure that their work extends a larger conversation about a subject that will continue to improve, so the knowledge gets better and better
Part of how we know someone is an expert is by looking at how they are understanding and including those experts who came before them. That’s part of how we judge the value of their intellectual contribution. This is especially true in the humanities, in which knowledge is based more on informed conversation than on observed experience (such as in an experiment).
Academic honesty is essential to the integrity of academic knowledge. THAT’S why academic honesty matters. It’s not about avoiding stealing someone else’s work. It’s about supporting YOUR work.
Teaching Academic Integrity
Sure, students should be taught to avoid plagiarism. But much more essential is to teach them the importance of academic integrity: that making a strong argument, developing a new theory, solving a difficult academic problem requires understanding the larger intellectual context (other research) and fitting your work into it.
We shouldn’t be teaching students to avoid the crime of plagiarism, we should be teaching them to aspire to academic integrity. Teach toward the positive, not away from the negative.