Copyright, Plagiarism and Academic Integrity

Allan McLay

Senior Lecturer: Engineering Management, RMIT University

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From the Oxford English Dictionary 2 nd Ed., (1989):

  • “Copyright: The exclusive right given by law for a certain number of years to an author, composer, designer, etc. (or his assignee) to print, publish, and sell copies of his original work. Protected by copyright; not allowed by law to be printed or copied except by permission of the author, designer, etc.
  • Plagiarism: The action or practice of plagiarizing; the wrongful appropriation or purloining, and publication as one’s own, of the ideas, or the expression of the ideas (literary, artistic, musical, mechanical, etc.) of another.”
  • Integrity: The condition of having no part or element taken away or wanting; undivided or unbroken state; material wholeness, completeness, entirety. The condition of not being marred or violated; unimpaired or uncorrupted condition; original perfect state; soundness.…… the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity.”

The promotion of ‘Academic Integrity’ is not simply a desirable characteristic, but an intrinsic feature of academic life, fundamental to the whole construct of the academe, academic thought and established scholarly practice.This raises a number of issues, implied or inherent.(see above definitions)

Recent developments and discussion within universities of the construct of ‘academic integrity’ have tended to focus on two such issues, those of ‘copyright’ and ‘plagiarism’, as being both central to the notion of ‘integrity’ and of major concern in the real world, not just academia.However, whilst copyright is largely a legalistic issue involving a mix of moral rights and obligations within declared legal frameworks, plagiarism itself is largely a symptom of far deeper and more complex problems that have long beset the academe, public life and commercial life alike.

Indications of these can be seen in the above definitions wherein the use of such terms as:exclusive right; permission; wrongful appropriation; truth; fair dealing; completeness; entirety; uprightness; honesty; sincerity; uncorrupted; etc., provide a level of insight into key areas of concern and in turn provide indications of an ethical framework, if not indeed a legal one, for the notion of academic integrity.

They also raise concerns that in dealing with the difficulties some of these issues raise, we may also be at risk of loosing sight of the academic goals we have set for both ourselves and our students.It is one thing to encourage openness, enlightened and innovative thought and freedom of expression, it is altogether another to place excessive restrictions on expression and use of existing knowledge and practice, such that the gestation and evolution of new ideas is stifled.

Clearly, we want our students and staff to continue to explore the established body of knowledge that underpins our various disciplines and to use the established theory and practice to develop and build new insights, new knowledge, new understandings.This is the very ‘stuff’ that makes academic life rewarding, exciting, and at times so very frustrating when it fails to happen!

So where are these points of failure?What are the causal influences that can so drastically damage our practice of academic integrity?Why do they come about?When and where do they occur?Who do they affect or are most at risk of being affected?How can they be addressed?

The questions are many and their resolution complex.But, a starting point might be to think on the nature of our expectations in relation to the notion or construct of academic integrity.Then, to apply that thinking to the key problem areas, to ascertain if any correlation or apparent anomaly exists.One might well hypothesise that such should indeed be the case!

What then might be the key elements that make up our expectations of academic integrity.

Whilst the Oxford definition above provides at least some linguistic indicators, these only partly address the issue of expectations of the academic community.By inference, there would appear to be a large component of moral obligation included, along with consequential ethical behaviour.Both of which raise enourmous areas for philosophical and critical debate!The complexities of codification of morality and ethics has occupied scholars for around 2500 years of recorded history, and continues!!At best, we could locate these elements within a catch-all category of ‘societal norms’ in relation to moral rights and ethical behaviour, at least that is within the community of practice within which we operate.

Similarly, there are inferences of expectation that work undertaken, at least within the context of academic integrity, should be of a ‘whole’ nature, that is, it should as far as practicable be ‘complete’ in its arguments, as least within the scope and boundaries set for the work. Whilst it should take account of relevant theory and practice, it should not miss-represent or miss-construe or miss-use other works.A sense of wholeness or completeness in turn implies an understanding of relationships to existing works, theory and practice.Placing the work within appropriate theoretical frameworks and boundaries requires acknowledgement of relationships to established theory and practice, not necessarily mindless acceptance or compliance.New knowledge very often relaces old outmoded viewpoints.

Given that the issue of plagiarism, in an education context at least, is most commonly aligned with assessment practice, a common logical expectation of assessment work is that is in point of fact the work, or represents the work, of the student/author/designer etc. presenting the work for assessment.In this respect there should be a clearly defined and demonstrable sense of ownership/authorship by the student/author/designer in the intellectual capital associated with the assessment work so presented.In this regard, the assessment work should fairly demonstrate and genuinely represent the understandings, expertise and/or skills (intellectual capital) of the student/author/designer etc.Again, similarly there should be clear acknowledgement of sources and other input into whatever work to which we seek to apply the concept of academic integrity.

Another, yet related, area of complexity in definition and application is in the area of ‘value’ allocation.Just what does it mean to make value judgements about academic work?In the context of assessment, academics are constantly applying guidelines or assessment regimes to submitted assessment work, in order to make value judgements about the quality or value of the work.Just how a piece of assessment work or assessment activity is to be graded is a continuing challenge, particularly in discipline areas where the very content of programs and courses is in continual flux and change, for example in art and design, and indeed in the context of an ever changing technology-base to day: information technology related areas or business processes related studies.

Whilst issues such as plagiarism are among the most common problems being faced in daily academic work, this paper argues that it is appropriate that they be seen and positioned within the broader contextual framework of Academic Integrity.The core purpose of such positioning is to better enable identifying and addressing the underlying causal influences that can lead to students either intentionally or un-wittingly breaching acceptable standards of academic practice.

Thus, academic integrity may be configured or viewed as building on an underpinning framework of academic and societal expectations that incorporate the many wide ranging issues of concern that permeate academic life.The following diagram attempts to illustrate something of the overlapping inter-relationships that are inherent in this view of academic integrity.

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