We explored international students’ knowledge of academic integrity and learned more about their emotional experiences associated with encountering information about academic integrity and misconduct at Canadian postsecondary institutions. Such feelings are significant as they can impact learning and may prevent clear understanding of academic integrity and related concepts when these feelings are negative. Many international students in our study were knowledgeable and confident in their understanding of academic integrity and misconduct. In addition, participants reported that academic integrity expectations in their home countries and Canada are comparable. There was, however, disagreement on the concept of duplicate submission/self-plagiarism, indicating an important gap in educating students about specific aspects of policy in postsecondary education in Canada. Importantly, nearly one third of participants reported feeling fearful and anxious upon reading the academic integrity policies at their Canadian postsecondary institutions, and these feelings were significantly correlated with reduced understanding of academic integrity and misconduct. We discuss these findings below.
The international students in our study were knowledgeable and confident in their understanding of academic integrity and misconduct as measured by our survey questions. This finding is consistent with other research showing that international students have a good understanding of the concepts of academic integrity and misconduct and behaviours associated with each as used in Western postsecondary institutions (Christoph 2016), and that they do not engage in academic misconduct (e.g., plagiarism) more frequently than do domestic students (Martin et al. 2011). Research also shows that some students, whether international or domestic, have difficulty understanding certain concepts, such as plagiarism (Doss et al. 2016; Isbell et al. 2018). We did not test the skills related to paraphrasing, citing, referencing, or other ways to avoid plagiarism. However, developing the academic skills and knowledge to avoid plagiarism in a digital age of growing access to information is not a challenge unique to international students, nor does it exclude instructors and administrators (Evering and Moorman 2012).
Participants also felt confident in their understanding of these concepts upon reading the academic integrity policies at their Canadian postsecondary institutions, which may have been facilitated by completing online modules and having discussions with their instructors. These findings are consistent with results from previous research. For example, Newton (2016) found that newly enrolled undergraduate students and graduate students in the United Kingdom were very confident in understanding all aspects of academic integrity related to writing (e.g., plagiarism, citing, and referencing) and that this confidence was related to better performance on simple tests designed to measure referencing skills. Interestingly, Newton also found that students with greater confidence recommended more severe consequences for academic integrity violations. In the present study, we did not ask international students to provide recommendations for consequences for academic misconduct, but we did find that greater knowledge and confidence was associated with stronger agreement that students and instructors are responsible for maintaining academic integrity.
Over half of participants indicated academic integrity expectations in their home countries and in Canada were similar and felt confident upon reading the policies and procedures of their Canadian postsecondary institution. Some international students, however, reported feeling fearful, confused, and anxious about the policies and making unintentional mistakes, but these negative feelings were associated with reduced knowledge of academic integrity. This finding makes logical sense; however, we also found that more years of study was associated with an increase in fear, confusion, and anxiety related to learning about academic integrity. It may be that “[w]hile students may have encountered the concept of academic integrity in the past, this previous knowledge does not necessarily translate into an understanding of how to demonstrate academic integrity” (Cutri et al. 2021, p. 5). Therefore, negative feelings may emerge when students gain knowledge and then come to the realization that there are gaps in their understanding and that there are new things to learn. This finding may provide further evidence of a link between academic integrity and the imposter syndrome often felt by graduate students (Cutri et al. 2021).
Moreover, nearly 20% of participants indicated that expectations between their home country and Canada differed, suggesting that providing education about academic integrity within a Canadian context continues to be an important endeavor. These results are consistent with previous research. Foltýnek and Glendinning (2015) found that 50% or more of students in 17 countries in the European Union were aware of policies and procedures for plagiarism, but more than 50% of students in 7 countries were unaware of such policies. Although the overarching concept of academic integrity and its focus on honesty and responsibility does not stand in stark contrast to many international students’ previous academic experiences, it is possible that the application of these concepts and the subsequent consequences for unintentional academic misconduct differ between specific academic settings. Additionally, the learning curve associated with understanding the course objectives and specific expectations of each instructor is a common area of misunderstanding and confusion that can lead to academic misconduct for Canadian and international students. Many other students, such as those of Indigenous descent, permanent residents, first generation university students, and members of the 1.5 generation (i.e., immigrated to Canada before or during their teens), face many of the same challenges of adapting to the postsecondary academic culture as those traditionally categorized as international students (Bertram Gallant et al. 2015; Parent 2017; Stephens et al. 2014).
International students in our study showed disagreement on the concept of duplicate submission/self-plagiarism, indicating an important gap in educating students about specific aspects of policy in postsecondary education. This may suggest that, as a group, international students are confused about re-using their previous academic work in another course. This confusion is not an issue unique to international students as students in general (and indeed instructors) may be confused about the concept of duplicate submission/self-plagiarism (Halupa and Bolliger 2015), even though this category of misconduct is present in nearly one third of academic integrity policies in universities in Western Canada (Stoesz and Eaton, 2020). Duplicate submission as defined at post-secondary institutions often varies; as such, may cause confusion (see Halupa and Bolliger 2015). One might predict that duplicate submission creates more uncertainty at the graduate level when students are navigating the varied nature of course assignments, theses, or dissertations, and preparing manuscripts for journal publication. Confusion, however, may present an opportunity to enhance awareness and educational resources to help students avoid duplicate submission/self-plagiarism.
Nearly half of the participants in our study agreed that cheating is a serious problem at their Canadian postsecondary institution. This finding mirrors other research results showing that faculty also perceive cheating to be a serious issue in Canadian postsecondary institutions (MacLeod and Eaton 2020), and suggests that more could be done in higher education to promote academic integrity and discourage academic misconduct. Student and faculty definitions of cheating behaviours vary also widely (Burrus et al. 2007; Molnar and Kletke 2012) even across the same department, and many factors impact whether individuals consider certain behaviours to constitute cheating in both academic and non-academic settings. This underscores the importance of instructors to contextualize the academic integrity expectations for each course, giving students detailed information on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour when completing course work.
Most participants in our study indicated that academic integrity is the responsibility of students and instructors. Experts agree that the most effective approaches to academic integrity include all members of an educational community working together to uphold the values of honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage (East 2010; ICAI 2021; Morris 2018). Over one third of participants in our study indicated lack of certainty around the idea that students should be held responsible for monitoring the academic integrity or academic misconduct of other students. Uncertainty may be related, in part, to the perceived negative social consequences of reporting peers for misconduct. Student monitoring and the reporting of academic misconduct, along with strong student leadership, unproctored exams, pledges, and student adjudication of academic misconduct, are part of an honour code culture that is seen more often in the United States (McCabe and Pavela 2000; see McCabe and Trevino 1993). Honour codes are rare in Canadian postsecondary institutions and, if present, are typically modified (MacLeod and Eaton 2020) in that they do not require unproctored exams or pledges (McCabe and Pavela 2000).
Strengths, limitations, and future directions
Despite the information that our study findings provided, we recognize several limitations of our work. First, our sample size is relatively small, making it difficult and inappropriate to generalize our findings to the international student population in Canada. We suspect that challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic may also have affected students’ availability to participate in our research on a larger scale. In addition, generalizing the findings from a study such as ours should be done with caution for at least two reasons. First, the international student classification in our research was quite broad as postsecondary students with less than 5 years of study at high schools or postsecondary institutions in North America were eligible to participate. Furthermore, participants in our study were not necessarily classified as international students according to the official government definition as individuals enrolled at Canadian postsecondary institutions who are in Canada on visas or are refugees and do not have permanent residency status in Canada (Statistics Canada 2011). Second, although participants reported diversity in first languages, we did not ask participants specifically about their home countries. As such, we were unable to determine whether the experiences of individuals are common amongst certain subgroups of participants.
Future research could further explore the experiences and emotions related to academic integrity and misconduct with international students from particular regions to better understand the successes and challenges that they face in their postsecondary studies in Canada. Using a phenomenological research design, Szilagyi (2018) explored Nigerian graduate students’ understanding of the concepts of originality, criticality, and academic integrity in online courses at postsecondary institutions in the United Kingdom. These concepts were new to the participants interviewed and ideological differences between Western and Nigerian cultures were apparent, suggesting that diverse educational backgrounds and the needs of each student should be considered more intentionally (Szilagyi 2018). In her personal experience as a Nigerian graduate student in Canada, the first author of the present study identified with some of these feelings reported by participants in the present study. In her experience, plagiarism and contract cheating are discussed and discouraged in Nigerian tertiary institutions. Discussions of academic integrity and academic misconduct (as defined in the North American context), however, are rare. In addition, closely replicating source material may be considered good studentship and an indication of respect for the work or teaching of professors.
The third and fourth limitations of our study is that few students completed Part 5 of our survey and no students agreed to participate in the interview, which were both designed to more fully understand the emotions of international students in relation to the disciplinary process. We speculate that lack of participation in these two aspects of the study may have been due to two factors: (1) not having engaged in or not being investigated for academic misconduct, and/or (2) mistrust and fear associated with the prospect of describing experiences (including emotional experiences) related to academic misconduct to unknown researchers. Many students are aware that international students are overrepresented in academic misconduct cases, leading to the perception that they engage in these behaviours more often than domestic students. We were sensitive to this commonly held belief in the design of our study and were careful to frame the study in neutral language (i.e., academic integrity rather than academic misconduct) to avoid perpetuating the negative stereotype that international students are more prone to cheating behaviour. We had intended to better understand the range of negative and positive emotions that students experienced and whether the experience caused undue stress (Baird and Dooey 2014; Brooks et al. 2011; Crook 2018; Dalal 2015; Isbell et al. 2018), presented as a valuable learning opportunity, or otherwise impacted their educational experience. Despite this limitation, our findings did suggest that improvement in existing supports and having compassionate and fair decision makers/administrators involved in the academic misconduct disciplinary processes is necessary to ensure that the experience can be educative rather than being strictly punitive.
Finally, we acknowledge that restricting participation in our study to international students may be viewed as both a limitation and a strength. Many of the risk factors for engaging in cheating behaviours are similar for domestic and international students (Bretag et al. 2018a), but the consequences may have more serious long-term implications (e.g., retention and graduation) for international students (Fass-Holmes 2017). Therefore, the scope of our study was limited so that we could focus on learning more about a specific issue that students from abroad are confronted with when they study in Canada. Our findings also challenge the racist normative narratives that international students engage in more academic misconduct because they lack the knowledge about integrity and contribute knowledge to an understudied area in academic integrity research.
To advocate for strengthening the academic support for international students, our intention was to acquire information about their knowledge of and emotions related to academic integrity and misconduct. Our experiences as foreign graduate students and academic staff working to support students and faculty motivated us to learn more about the experiences of international students as concerns for supporting this population of students continue. It is also imperative for us and for other researchers to continue to question biases and reflect on how previous education, training, and life experiences influence the design of academic integrity studies involving international students.