Honesty and Originality in Academic Writing

Categories: ACWRIMO, Creativity, Dissemination, Ethics, Focus Series, Impact, Research, Teaching, Writing

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MethodSpace button-acwrimoIt is Academic Writing Month at SAGE MethodSpace, and this year we are focusing on writing goes beyond completion of a particular piece of work, and may go beyond writing. We are thinking holistically and strategically about what types of writing (as well as visuals and media) will help us achieve life and career goals.

First, let’s address a fundamental issue: if our academic writing is based on flawed research or we are representing work as our own that is not, we can’t accomplish our goals. We can’t make an authentic contribution to our fields, or make the world a better place. Once the truth comes out, ethical shortcomings make the news and reflect badly on the academy, scholarly research and publications.

As Benson Honig discussed in a MethodSpace interview about scientific misconduct and retractions, researchers at the highest levels are all too frequently caught with egregious lapses. So while the problems are much bigger than student plagiarism, when we work with students, we have a responsibility to impress upon them the importance of academic honesty and how to live it.

We can’t ignore the fact that we are in a tech-pervasive time when it is all too easy to simply cut and paste others’ ideas. Popular “mashup” culture blurs boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable use of others’ work. With a few clicks we can find academic writing services where a fee buys whatever essays, articles, or papers we want. When I looked for “research paper on Virginia Woolf”  6,360,000 results showed up on Google. I followed one link and discovered a service that can produce anything from a book report to a dissertation or an article. These ghostwritten papers are intended for buyers to submit under their own names They are guaranteed to pass through a plagiarism detection service such as Turnitin.com.

Based on my own research on these issues, including review of literature and interviews with a variety of university officials, (not to mention almost 20 years teaching grad school) four main strategies are being used to combat plagiarism:

  1. Have, promote, and administer clear, institution-wide policies for academic honesty.
  2. Use electronic detection tools such as Turnitin.com or search engine searches of suspicious phrases.
  3. Teach the proper use of sources by defining plagiarism and educating learners in methods for citation.
  4. Design meaningful and unique assignments. Instruction that encouraged collaborative projects, critical and creative thinking can minimize the possibility of cheating because such assignments can’t be bought or copied.

I placed these options on a continuum, to illustrate how these strategies correspond to degrees of honesty and originality. (Learn more about this originality continuum and definitions for terms at each point.)

Honesty and originality

 

On one side, we have intentional intellectual theft and misrepresentation. Institutional policies and the use detection tools are intended as remedies to these problems. These practices must be revised to address changing technologies. With new workarounds that allow writers to elude exposure available online, messages about the ramifications of cheating must be continually reinforced.

 

In the middle of this continuum we see the problems of ignorance or sloppy use of proper citations: issues that can be addressed by instruction about the arcane particularities of APA, MLA, and other referencing styles.

 

The last point on the continuum takes us into new territory: plagiarism isn’t simply inadequate use of citations, it represents inadequate thinking. From this perspective, while academic writers have sought to balance the desire to express new understandings in our own scholarly voices with expectations for situating that work within the literature of the field, the aspirational goal of academic research is not to produce papers with copious citations and clean reference lists. It is to generate insights and original thought that builds on past findings, sheds new light on the problems being investigated, and catalyzes action in the field of study or in practice.

 

If the academy commits to these goals, a culture change and shift towards greater appreciation of innovation and creativity in academic life will be essential. We can reward those who color outside the lines. From student assignments to criteria for tenure and promotion, priorities could shift in order to cultivate, incentivize, and celebrate originality and authentic impact. No one approach will solve all problems, but such new directions could be beneficial to the research field and to society at large.

 

What do you think?  As you consider your own strategy during this AcWriMo, can you commit to producing publications that exemplify high standards for academic honesty and creative and critical thinking? Share your thoughts in the comment area below.

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