We conducted an institutional self-study of student and faculty perceptions of, and experiences with academic dishonesty. We conducted this research for three main reasons. First, we wanted to understand whether our institution was experiencing an academic integrity crisis, as academic integrity has become a growing concern in colleges and universities. Our second reason was to add to the Canadian literature, which has experienced a paucity of research into academic integrity (Eaton and Edino 2018), particularly concerning contract cheating (Eaton et al. 2019; Lancaster 2019). Furthermore, exploring academic integrity at our medium-sized, teaching-focused institution also allowed us to investigate the relationship between academic integrity, university size, and faculty-to-student ratios, for which research is mixed (e.g., Arnold et al. 2007; Davis et al. 1992; McCabe et al. 1999; Tatum et al. 2018). Finally, we wanted to understand whether contract cheating, an increasingly growing concern for educators around the world, and particularly in Canada, where rates of contract cheating are largely unknown but have been previously reported as “all indications are that contract cheating is a problem” (Lancaster 2019, p. 8) was a problem at our university. This institutional self-study (Eaton et al. 2020) was a first step into in our efforts to use an evidence-based approach to institutionalize academic integrity as part of the university’s commitment to maintaining a tradition of academic integrity and personal civility within an environment that encourages intellectual exchange, creativity, originality, and discovery (Bertram Gallant and Drinan 2008; Eaton et al. 2020).
Academic dishonesty, cheating, and other forms of academic misconduct describe “a transgression against academic integrity, which entails taking an unfair advantage that results in a misrepresentation of a student’s ability and grasp of knowledge” (King et al. 2009, p. 4). In a recent review of the educational integrity research within Canada, it was found that most students are likely to engage in some form of academically dishonest practice during their careers (Peled et al. 2019; Stiles et al. 2017; Vandehey et al. 2007).
Of particular concern recently is the rise in contract cheating, defined as work submitted to educators by students who present it as their own work when, in fact, the work was completed by a third party. We prefer this “inclusive” definition (Eaton et al. 2019) because it is useful for investigations interested in the teaching and learning perspective of contract cheating and emphasizes that the student has actively opted out of the learning process, rather than requiring some monetary transaction to have occurred, as in some definitions that are more-so interested in the market components of contract cheating (e.g., students use of businesses such as assignment completing services, Rigby et al. 2015). The rates of contract cheating in Canada are largely unknown, but, using previous work and data from Statistics Canada, Eaton et al. (2019) estimated that up to 71,000 postsecondary Canadian students have engaged in contract cheating.
However, more work needs to be done within Canada. Eaton and Edino (2018) found that in the 25 years prior to 2018, studies concerning academic dishonesty/integrity conducted within Canada were somewhat split across descriptive/qualitative studies versus analytical/quantitative studies (54.4% versus 44.6%, respectively). Eaton and Edino (2018) also found that these studies mostly focused on students, most of which was quantitative in nature. However, the authors identified only one such study focused on faculty, and only found a handful of papers focused on both students and faculty. Eaton and Edino (2018, pp. 17-18) concluded that research contributions from Canada concerning academic integrity are “notably impoverished,” and called for “an increase in evidence-based, investigator-led, and funded research to better understand the particular characteristics of educational integrity in Canada and more intense participation in the ongoing global dialogue about integrity.”
The University of Lethbridge, located in Southern Alberta and founded in 1967 on traditional Blackfoot land, bills itself as “Alberta’s Destination University” and prides itself on small student-faculty ratios and ability to foster relationships between students and faculty. The University of Lethbridge has always emphasized undergraduate teaching, and, over the past 10 years, the University of Lethbridge has specifically sought to balance research priorities with a focus on the impact and importance of teaching (University of Lethbridge 2018). Through key appointments of senior positions, the institution has sought to elevate the value of the teaching that takes place without sacrificing the quality and importance of the research that helps inform that teaching. We have also experienced relatively low rates of academic offenses officially reported by faculty, with rates representing, on average, one half of 1 % of the student body. Because our university has emphasized the relationship between faculty and students, and academic dishonesty has been suggested to occur less often when there is a trusting relationship between educators and students (Morris and Carroll 2015), we were curious if our university’s efforts to emphasize a relationship between faculty and students has resulted in a low prevalence of academic dishonesty. However, the extent to which students were engaging in academic dishonesty that either went undetected or was not officially reported by faculty to the dean was largely unknown, and thus we lacked key data in understanding the efficacy of the university’s efforts to support teaching in general, and academic integrity in particular.
Furthermore, our university has no institutional-wide academic policy, with policies spread across the Principles of Student Citizenship, an undergraduate policy, and a graduate policy. There is no formal training in which students are taught to become familiar university polices regarding academic integrity, and consequences are largely up to the discretion of the faculty, and can range from the student needing to complete additional work, to expulsion. We believe this places our university somewhere between stage 1, “primitive, minimal policies and procedures” and 2, “radar screen, a set of policies and procedures in place but not fully developed or followed” of Pavela’s four categories of academic dishonesty policies (Pavela 1997). Crafting thoughtful and carefully developed polices have been shown to be important in developing a culture of academic integrity (Morris and Carroll 2015), and good academic integrity policy can reduce academic dishonesty and increase academic integrity (MacLeod and Eaton 2020).
Thus, concern for the rise in academic dishonesty, and contract cheating in particular, alongside interest in understanding the extent to which institutional interventions not directly aimed at academic integrity has nonetheless impacted it, led us to conduct a study at our own institution to ascertain if academic dishonesty is an issue at our medium-sized (~ 8700 students), mostly undergraduate Canadian university. By considering both student and faculty perceptions of, and engagement with, academic dishonesty at our institution, we hoped to not only understand the particular features and needs regarding academic integrity at our own institution, but to also add to the literature concerning academic integrity in Canada, and ultimately assist in the development of a common understanding of academic integrity institutionalization challenges (Bertram Gallant and Drinan 2008).
Bertram Gallant and Drinan (2008) developed a model of academic integrity institutionalization. Academic integrity institutionalization is a term used by Bertram Gallant and Drinan (2008) to refer to the application of institutional theory in the establishment of academic interiority whereby factors that influence behaviors and inhibit or stimulate institutionalization are considered at the institutional, rather than individual, level. Thus, rather than consider academic dishonesty a problem comprised by the behaviors of the individuals involved, “[i]nstitutional theory suggests that an organization can mobilize around a change initiative or innovation, implement that innovation, and then see the innovation become stabilized or institutionalized within the organization” (Bertram Gallant and Drinan 2008).
Bertram Gallant and Drinan (2008) outlined four-stages of academic integrity institutionalization, with the first being “Recognition and Commitment.” Recognition and commitment entails recognition of the importance of academic integrity and voicing a commitment to it, and can include idea generation, evaluation, recognition of need, and the establishment of a need to respond to an issue. Institutional self-studies of academic dishonesty that are committed to using the results as part of an evidence-based effort to improve academic integrity is one clear avenue of recognition and commitment in academic integrity institutionalization (Bertram Gallant and Drinan 2008; Eaton et al. 2020).
In what follows, we present the results of our institutional self-study into the perceptions of, and engagement with, academic dishonesty. First, we explored the perceptions of and experiences with academic honesty at our university via a set of matching surveys given to students and faculty, with particular attention focused on incidents of contract cheating and self- plagiarism. After establishing that academic dishonesty does occur at the University of Lethbridge despite extremely low rates of contract cheating and self- plagiarism, we further interrogated our data to understand both why our university experienced such low rates of contract cheating, and where possible points of prevention and intervention would be most valuable for the kinds of academic dishonesty students did admit to engaging in. We first predicted that students who reported that they were adequately taught what constitutes academic dishonesty at our university would, as a consequence, witness incidents of academic dishonesty more than those who did not, as such students would be better able at identifying academic dishonesty in the first place. Given that longer tenure in postsecondary education increases the chances of interacting with others, we also expected that participants with more experience in postsecondary education would be more likely to report witnessing incidents of academic dishonesty and included experience to account for this possible effect. Additionally, we predicted that witnessing incidents of academic of dishonesty would also differ across discipline, given that different disciplines use different metrics and have different foci for student outcomes. Detecting such differences with regard to discipline is critical for developing evidence-based policies, and follows the recommendation of Eaton and Edino (2018) of including discipline-related analyses in academic integrity research. Finally, we also explored the extent to which student perceptions regarding academic integrity corresponded with whether or not they witnessed academic dishonesty.