The integrity of integrity

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One of my neighbours was livid earlier this week. The council recycling collection team had not emptied his recycling box. We leave our recycling boxes at the roadside for collection; everyone else’s recycling had been collected, our boxes emptied, but not his.  A large tag tied to the handle explained why:  the recycling was contaminated.

Someone, presumably a passer-by, had deposited a polystyrene carton and the remains of a take-away meal in the recycling box. The whole box was deemed contaminated and could not be taken for processing.

Contamination of recycling is a problem. If not caught at the roadside, an entire truck-load of materials put out for recycling can be contaminated. Perhaps even more is lost if the contamination gets into the recycling centre.  Contamination can be costly in several different ways, from the loss of potentially recyclable materials to the extra costs of disposing of the contaminated material – up to seven times the cost of disposal of a clean load (as I found on the RBKC website).   On another site, ENVA, I found this:

Not only does contamination cost a waste contractor time and money to sort through and segregate the waste properly off-site but it can also result in some potentially recyclable items being missed, reducing the sustainability of the load.

For example, if someone puts a half empty coffee that has gone cold into a bin (a very common occurrence) or a half-eaten sandwich, this food and liquid waste residue will contaminate the rest of the waste. This means that any paper or card recyclable waste in the bin will soak up this residue and in turn, not have the potential to be recycled any more. Even recyclable plastic and metal waste covered in food waste will reduce in value and potentially cause vermin problems. This type of contamination can result in bales of waste being rejected by recycling companies due to the low quality and as a result can mean the whole bale is treated as general waste.
ENVA : The problem with waste contamination

We’ll come back to these thoughts, keep them at the back of your mind.

In October 2019, the International Baccaulaureate Organization (the IB) published a new policy and procedures document Academic Integrity.  A note in the News item which announced the new document stated

The term “academic integrity” will replace “academic honesty” fully in due course as publications are updated. However, until then the terms will be used interchangeably.

This, I think, is a big change, a change of attitude, a change in the mindset.

The problem with “academic honesty”

For many involved in education, academic honesty seems mainly if not wholly to be about citation and referencing;  conversely, citation and referencing are seen as all about academic honesty.  Supposedly, we cite and reference our sources to avoid plagiarism.  We cite and reference our sources because, if we don’t, we will suffer consequences: reduced marks, no marks, in higher education we might even be expelled.

Teaching academic honesty solely as a means of avoiding plagiarism is fraught, not least because it can be confusing.  Students are expected to cite and reference – but the same rules do not seem always to apply to adults. Many teachers fail to cite and reference in their presentations, on their worksheets, on their posters.  School (and other) textbooks are often poor examples, with information and facts and data presented with no hint that the information and facts and data might have come from a source other than the writer of the textbook. Newspapers and magazines often lack details of the sources. Similarly, many video presentations and documentaries are shown with few or no hints that the content is taken from multiple sources.

Academic honesty is also fraught because it can often be contextual. The most obvious instance is in the notion of “common knowledge,” as when information and ideas which might be considered basic and widely known in one subject or field of study are not widely known in another field of study. In the first instance, there may be no expectation of attribution, in the second instance there is, and failure to cite a source may lead to charges of poor scholarship and/or of plagiarism.

Context also applies in some of those confusing circumstances listed above.  When a work is NOT academic, the expectations of academic honesty may be reduced; for instance, journalists are not always expected to name their sources, indeed they may be given information only on condition of anonymity for their source/s.  Photographs on sites such as do not need to be attributed; the Pexels license states “Attribution is not required. Giving credit to the photographer or Pexels is not necessary but always appreciated.”  Anyone can take a Pexels image and use it on, say, a tee-shirt or a birthday card, even for commercial use, and there is no need to atribute the source. But a student cannot (should not) use the same image on a tee-shirt submitted for assessment in a Visual Arts or Fashion design course without attributing the photographer.

Academic work demands academic honesty.  Giving the viewer or teacher or examiner the notion that the work is that of the student when it is not is academically dishonest.  Context is everything.

And we have not started discussing other forms of academic dishonesty, from copying a friend’s homework to copying a friend’s examination answers, signalling to others the answers to multiple-choice questions, fabricating readings and measurements and results, falsifying or wrongly attributing quotations, obtaining examination questions in advance of the examination and the many other ways in which students try to seek unfair advantage or to disadvantage others.

Integrity and academic integrity

But (academic) integrity is much more than just about (academic) honesty. Academic honesty smacks of citing sources because if we do not do this, we get punished.  It is the choice of the writer.  It could be poor work habits, ignorance, misunderstanding or other factors which lead to failure to cite sources, but in the academic world, plagiarism is pagiarism, intentional or not.

Academic integrity, though.  There are no contexts with academic integrity. When we use the work of other people, we cite our sources without needing to think about it. We say, as a matter of honour, this is not mine.  That Pexel photograph: the designer of the tee-shirt or birthday card will name the source, even if there is no expectation or requirement; they do it as a matter of honour, a courtesy and a thank you to the creator of the image.  Researchers with integrity do not manipulate their measurements to ensure a straight-line graph;  if they exclude outliers, they say have excluded them and explain why.   Researchers with integrity disclose affiliations so that readers may consider whether their sponsors might have vested interest in the outcomes of their research.  Researchers with integrity are honest, whatever the situation, whatever the context. They cannot do other, they cannot be other. Integrity is what they are, it is who they are.

Academic integrity is more than the choice of the writer – indeed, it is more, much more, than just about the writer. Integrity, as C.S. Lewis is said to have said, is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.  Others have built on this notion: integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody will be aware or care about what you have done;  integrity is doing the right thing even though there are no consequences for doing anything else;  integrity is doing the right thing because this is you, what you do, who you are, how you behave.  Integrity is not having to think about the right course of action, it comes naturally.

The notion of integrity is very much part of an IB education, the ideal of educating the whole person with far more than just content knowledge testable in examinations.

And again, integrity is about more than just writers being honest and citing their sources.

There is the integrity of the work, for instance, and the work that goes into making it. If the writer (the creator of the work or ideas or information) is discovered to have been less than honest, then the work, the whole work, is tarnished – contaminated.  It might be plagiarism, it might be misrepresentation of readings and results, it might be cherry-picking or  withholding evidence and findings, it might be any unethical conduct – if the writer cannot be trusted in one instance, can that writer be trusted at all?

Moreover, if the writer cannot be trusted in one instance, can that writer be trusted to have been honest in past work (which might or might not come under scrutiny)?  Can that writer be trusted to work with integrity in the future? Once a reputation is lost, it can be very hard to regain the trust of those whose trust proved to be misplaced.

[At least I would like to think so, especially if the offender is a repeat offender. Alas, politics and politicians in many countries in recent years suggest that trust and integrity may not be the only factors in people’s minds, in voters’ minds. Climate change deniers and anti-vaccination lobbies seem to have increasing influence.  Who needs evidence, who needs facts. when alternative stories and alternative facts can be so much more attractive to those willing to be swayed?  We live in dangerous times.]

There is more too. There is the integrity of the commissioning body; there is the integrity of the publisher to consider, or the integrity of the examining board. If the publisher discovers or is made aware of plagiarism or any other kind of academic misconduct, then it behoves them at the least to request corrections (if they believe the mistake to be innocent and one-off?) and otherwise to retract the work. If an examining board discovers or is made aware of plagiarism or any other kind of academic misconduct, then it behoves them to carry out the procedures and consequences laid out in its policies.

Failure to retract may tarnish the reputation of the publishing body if the misconduct becomes known.  If known misconduct is ignored,  even if discovered years later, the failure to carry through the consequences may/will tarnish the reputation of the examining board, its examination qualifications are tarnished, others whose qualifications were gained honestly may suffer by association.

Just as an integer is a whole number, the concept of integrity suggests wholeness.   In academic terms, integrity is much bigger, more wide-reaching than honesty.  It is the writer, the piece written, its relation to what is already known (the disciplinary knowledge-base), the commissioning body (publisher, examination board etc), all these may be tarnished by association. Contaminated.

Just like my neighbour’s contaminated recycling, the effects of one act of dishonesty can be wide and far-reaching.

The EasyBib connection

In my last article, Cheap shots, I suggested that an EasyBib blog article (posted by someone calling themselves EasyBib User) had helped me finish this article (which has been some time in the writing).  The thought came to my mind, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (which I find comes from the King James version of the Bible, Matthew 7:20).

When we are evaluating sources, a number of factors come into play, including the authority of the author/s.  We certainly want to know who they are, their qualifications, their reputations (how other people in the field regard them), their works, their expertise.

It was EasyBib User’s inconsistency in formatting her references which made me doubt her expertise.  And having doubted it, made me wonder about the piece she had written. That is not to say that there is anything wrong in what she has written, the research on which she has  based her article.   But it does lessen her value as a source, her reliability, her credibility.  I am unlikely to be using her article to support anything I might want to say about the advantages and disadvantages of taking notes by hand as against using a digital device.

I might, of course, use her article for other purposes more connected with the writing of the article rather than the content of the article.  And I did, I have.

It is a thought I have voiced before: when evaluating the worthiness of an article or a writer, consider not just whether they have referenced their sources, but also which sources have been referenced and how they have been referenced.  It can be revealing.

And it is all part of the wholeness of the piece, the integrity of the writer and of the writing and its place in the literature.


One thought on “The integrity of integrity

  1. Hear, hear, John. I think making this distinction is important and will use it in my next EE class on academic integrity. Thank you.

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