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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Academic Integrity Redux, Part II
March 5, 2013 - 8:17pm

In the United States, college or university is a privilege. It is not a right, it most certainly is not a legal requirement.  With their admission, students are invited to join a unique community of scholars and scholarship. Academic integrity is the core component of the expectations we set for students. It implicates fundamental academic dynamics: a community of scholars, stretched out for at least a millennium in Western history, whose goal is to develop original work while standing on the shoulders of those who have come before them. Better than any commencement speech or inspired lecture, a deep understanding of academic integrity makes it possible for students to enjoy the privileges of our community by accepting its responsibilities.  At the end of their experience, we hope to have imparted to them not only substantive knowledge but the spirit of what distinguishes us from the market place: the thrill of pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, exploring the boundaries of the known world, and, perhaps most important, realizing one’s potential for intellectual, ethical autonomy and citizenship.

Okay, that’s the high talk stuff. Let’s focus on the rules for a moment. Traditional rules of academic integrity might best be thought of as functioning on a spectrum. The best way to explain to Sam (or another new college student) would be to start with the obvious. At the end of spectrum is where clear violations lie. Don’t buy a paper off of the Internet! You might laugh, but it is done with some alarming regularity. Recently a ghost writer, Dave Tomar, has come out of the closet to reveal his identity and let us all know how common this practice is – and not only for undergraduates. He has ghost written many a master’s thesis and at least one doctoral dissertation. How about the next step: using a paper that someone else wrote for the same or similar course? Notwithstanding the years of fraternity files that preceded the Internet, the new, real temptation here is the ease with which these documents can be posted and traded via the Internet. Cornell students have flat out told me that they have used the terabytes of data stored on our Intranet to look up instructor’s manuals for homework assignments – as well as download, use and borrow from pre-existing works. But what technology disrupts, technology can also address, as tools such as “TurnItIn” are designed to detect.

As we move down the spectrum to the insertion of cut and paste, here is where attribution makes a difference. Just name your source! If you don’t know the proper format, ask your professor! Slightly less obvious are students who are afraid that their work is not original enough and feel the need to borrow without attribution. At this juncture it might be useful to distinguish copyright from academic integrity; many faculty cannot explain the difference. Copyright is law; academic integrity is policy. You won't go to jail or pay a fine if you violate the latter, but within the community of scholars – academic or public – depending on a number of factors, you may lose your job or some degree of credibility. Students may have to rewrite a paper, get a failing grade in the assignment, fail the course, or even be suspended or expelled from the institution. Copyright is not cured by attribution; in most cases, plagiarism is. Those interested in contemporary remix culture may understand that remix and sampling in the commercial music world functions in this orbit, so it is worth discussing more fully. For example, it might be interesting to note that commercial hip-hop artists (their labels, actually) pay exorbitant fees for those samples, whether they attribute them or not. In an academic setting, fair use will almost always cover the copyright aspect, but not the academic integrity requirement. The student must attribute the source.

At the far end of the spectrum from where we began, we have group activities. Herein lies perhaps the greatest challenge to existing models of academic integrity. Built on notions of bourgeois individualism, the concept of the singular, original author needs realignment with more contemporary concepts. A panoply of challenges from literary theories that reject the very concept of author to technologies and social practices that encourage group process has fundamentally altered the solo artist landscape. As one quick thought, we might reflect on how research scholarship in the sciences has tackled this problem: put everyone who had anything to do with the research in the author field.


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