A few bad apples? Don’t turn a blind eye to academic doping

Like doping in sport, are we in denial about academic cheating? Apple image from www.shutterstock.com

It was “the blackest day in Australian sport”. That’s how former anti-doping boss Richard Ings described the revelations from the Australian Crime Commission’s report into drugs in sport and corruption.

We’ll have to wait and see on that score, but Ings also made another observation: that despite scandal after scandal, most sporting officials believed that cheating just didn’t happen or if it did it was “isolated and sporadic”.

This resonates loud and clear in the world of academia – even with revelation after revelation of academic cheating, many academics continue to deny anything is really going on.

In Europe, we’ve seen key political figures, such as the Romanian Prime Minister and the German defence minister lose their jobs over alleged plagiarised PhD theses.

In the latest scandal, the German Education minister, Annette Schavan has quit over plagiarism allegations after a university withdrew her doctorate.

In Australian academia, scientist William McBride famously committed research fraud in the early 1990s, ruining his previously stellar career. A decade later David Robinson resigned his Vice-Chancellorship over allegations of plagiarism. At around the same, we saw the Newcastle University soft-marking scandal.

German Education Minister Annette Schavan (left) announcing her resignation earlier this month with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. EPA/Michael Kappeler

And yet for all the flurries of excitement when these scandals hit the press, there remains the same pervasive perception that these must be the exceptions to the rule.

But, like the Crime Commission’s report, the hard evidence on academic cheating tells a very different story.

While Australian studies are few, the results are broadly consistent with those found elsewhere. My own doctoral research investigated cheating behaviours among students in our universities and found that more than half admit to having committed some kind of dishonest academic behaviour.

Nearly a quarter of all students admit to lying to gain an extension on an assignment. And more than one in five have altered tutorial attendance records. One in 50 admits to using an electronic device to cheat in exams and one in 20 to using old-fashioned cheat sheets. And around one in five freely admits to using other people’s work as their own.

Seriously.

Last year, the self-confessed academic ghost writer “Ed Dante” wrote a sensational piece in which he detailed the shocking number of plagiarism offences he had helped perpetuate, including ghost writing essays on academic integrity.

Interestingly – if not amusingly – the very first edition of the International Journal for Educational Integrity received (but didn’t publish) a manuscript that was a perfect example of self-plagiarism.

The author had reworked a previously published piece with a new abstract and introduction and a new lead sentence for every subsequent paragraph.

Academia shares the “performance culture” that surrounds elite sporting competitions. The inevitable outcome of a performance culture is that some will take dishonest short cuts to get to the front of the pack.

But beware: just as sport has fluids kept on file so that testers can retrospectively test for cheating, the PhD thesis is the frozen blood sample of academia. The sophisticated testing regime is plagiarism detection software; the less sophisticated is just good old Google and the gate is open for those who might be interested in the “honesty” of past work of those who are in positions of power.

So should academics be more critical about cheating in the ivory tower? And to be more specific – where should we direct our critical eye?

After a certain level of competence has been demonstrated, it would seem that most academics trust their colleagues to be ethical, upright people who are careful with data. Sure, we look for research design flaws and argue about theories, but no almost no one has the time to check someone’s analysis – or check their work against previous publications.

It would take too much time and effort, time which needs to be spent on our own work. We just assume the analysis has been done properly – and go on to argue furiously about how we would have done it differently.

But reputation is crucial within academic communities. When you do a PhD or establish a publication record you put money in your “reputation bank” - and words are the currency.

That probably explains why the very worst crime you can commit in academia is plagiarism. When you commit plagiarism you are essentially stealing the building blocks of someone else’s reputation. And when academics self-plagiarise – like in the example above – they are not only cutting corners to try and get ahead, but they are putting at risk the reputations of the peers who review and publish their work.

Governments and private funding bodies put large amounts of money on the table to support research. They expect results and transparency (to know where and why the money is spent) and often encourage collaboration on the assumption this will result in more and better research.

This has led to the development of a “collaborative performance culture” in research where people feel pressured to participate. And so they do participate, even if they don’t feel like it or don’t really have sufficient time to devote to the project.

Often the result is an equal share of accolades for a very unequal share of effort.

The place of collaboration in scholarly work is complicated, a bit like having computers run the engine of the family car. Most of the time things go smoothly, but when something goes wrong, no one quite knows what to do.

Given what we know, are we simply in denial about the performance culture which pervades our scholarly workplaces? Or is there simply an overwhelming sense that cheating will always exist where there is an incentives to do so? Or are we genuinely confused about where to draw the difficult line between hard-core cheating and acceptable short-cuts?

When reputations and futures are on the line, reluctance to cast that first stone of accusation is understandable. The answers – like results of blood tests – aren’t clear. What is clear is the need to have an honest and frank conversation about the evidence and whether we want to do anything about it.

Oh and by the way, about 34% of the words in this piece are not my own. But my friend Inger (listed at the side of the article) said it was okay for me to use them, so that’s alright. Isn’t it?