Of honesty and integrity

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One of my favourite classroom and workshop activities is a “Do I need to cite this?” quiz. Those taking the test are presented with a number of situations and asked to choose between “Cite the source/s” and “No need to cite the source/s.” *

I like to do this using Survey Monkey – other polling applications will do just as well. It means that I can home in on any situation in which there is divided opinion, or which many respondents are getting wrong. There is no need to go through each situation one at a time if there are just two or three situations which need to be discussed.

Much of the time, the answers are clear: the situation is academic (a piece of work submitted for assessment) so should demand academic honesty, and most students and other participants get it right.

Some of the situations are less clear and lend themselves to discussion, considerations of common knowledge, learned expertise, copyright, credibility and reputation, honesty (as against academic honesty) and integrity.

One situation, for instance, presents a phrase or saying such as “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”  This is an “it depends” situation; if you know that this is a well-known proverb or saying (= common knowledge?) then you do not need to cite it if you use it. If you come across the saying for the first time and think, “that’s a good way of saying what I want to say, I”ll use it,”  then it is right to cite (and use quotation marks too).

Other situations are clear – but with added discussion points. Using someone else’s photograph to illustrate a point in an essay for class demands a citation; using that same photograph in the school newspaper requires not just a citation but permission from the photographer (or other copyright owner) as well.

Some situations suggest that one can demonstrate integrity even when there is no expectation of honesty, academic or otherwise. Photographs are often published with Creative Commons licensing, allowing re-use in any way and for any purpose and with no requirement to attribute the creator. (Of course, not all Creative Commons licenses are this generous – you do have to read the terms of the CC license.)  It may say “No attribution necessary” but if you use that photo in an piece of work submitted for assessment in school, then attribution IS necessary: it’s not yours so you cite it.  Use that same photo on a t-shirt and there is no need to cite it – though if somebody says, “Hey, great picture, did you take that?” then the honest answer is no. It is not honest to say that it is yours when it is not.  It s even better if you can name the creator or at least the platform on which you found it.  Use the photo on a batch of t-shirts which you put out for sale at a school fete and again, you do not have to cite the source – but just think what it does for your personal image and reputation if each t-shirt is sold with a label which gives the name and other details regarding where you found it. And, in a small way, you are saying “thank you” to the creator, maybe even adding to that person’s reputation too.

You do not have to say that this is not yours (unless directly asked), you do not have to name the source, but kudos to you if you do it anyway, without having to.   Herein, perhaps, lies the difference between (academic) honesty and integrity:  honesty may be contextual, there may be more than one right “answer.” Think integrity rather than honesty and the right thing to do becomes clear.

Last week, a participant at one of my recent workshops wrote to say she was offering an academic honesty training session for teachers in her school, and said, “I would like to use the ‘Do I need to cite this?’ survey from the course handbook with the teachers, but I can’t remember the answers!”

That took me aback for a moment. She could not “remember the answers”?  Couldn’t she work them out for herself?  But, fair enough, it is not just the answers, it is the conversations which are important. So I spent some 45 minutes going through the situations in turn, detailing the discussion in the less straight-forward situations.

But it still niggled. Couldn’t she work them out for herself?  Are there “answers”? For many situations, there are no answers; “responses” could be a better term, those situations in which there is no need to cite but integrity shouts loud, “Be honest!”

And that, I realise, is the answer. Instead of asking “Do I need to cite this, do I need to say ‘This isn’t mine’?” ask, “What is the right thing to do?” The answer should, I think, become clear … if it isn’t yours, you say so. If it isn’t yours, you cite it.

I suppose it would be churlish to add, as a footnote, that I received neither thank you for taking the time to write up the points arising for each situation, nor feedback on her training session. No thanks, no attribution necessary?

    The activity is based on ideas (much adapted) prompted by an exercise, “Cite it? Don’t have to cite it?” in Ann Lathrop and Kathleen Foss, Guiding students from cheating and plagiarism to honesty and integrity: strategies for change, Libraries Unlimited, 2005, p. 208.

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