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Understanding Academic Integrity

"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

— Ralph Waldo Emerson
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"Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Academic dishonesty is one of the most difficult and serious issues that educators have to deal with, and this is even more of a concern within e-learning largely due to the perceived anonymity between the faculty and students. How do you, as an online faculty member, handle all of the facets of this problem?

The first step you should take is to carefully review the academic integrity policies of your university. Policies like these have been carefully composed and publicly posted for the benefit and direction of the entire learning community, so don't neglect this helpful resource. Check particularly for conduct and communication policies.

Many schools point to five main types of academic dishonesty:

  • Cheating. Cheating is intentionally using or attempting to use unauthorized materials, information, notes, study aids or other devices or materials in any academic exercise.
  • Fabrication, falsification, and forgery. Fabrication is the intentional invention and unauthorized alteration of any information or citation in an academic exercise. Falsification is a matter of altering information, while fabrication is a matter of inventing or counterfeiting information for use in any academic exercise. Forgery is defined as the imitation or counterfeiting of documents, signatures, and the like.
  • Multiple submission. This is the submission of substantial portions of the same work (including oral reports) for credit more than once without authorization from instructors of all classes for which the student submits the work. In other words, this is when students turn in the same thing for two different assignments.
  • Plagiarism. Plagiarism is intentionally, knowingly, or carelessly presenting the work of another as one's own (i.e., without proper acknowledgement of the source). The sole exception to the requirement of acknowledging sources is when the ideas, information, etc., are common knowledge.
  • Complicity. Complicity is intentionally or knowingly helping or attempting to help another to commit an act of academic dishonesty.

For the most part, these incidents of academic dishonesty concerns national and international intellectual property laws. Legal dictionaries define intellectual property (IP) as "an intangible creation of the human mind, usually expressed or translated into a tangible form, that is assigned certain rights of property." In simpler terms, both the idea and the product of that idea are protected by law.

Common Types of Academic Dishonesty

Technology has increased the opportunities for academic dishonesty exponentially, and faculty members must be keenly aware of some of these possibilities, such as through joining the International Center for Academic Integrity.

According to a recent survey by Common Sense Media, 35% of teens use their cell phones to cheat, whether by using the Internet on their phones to look up answers, text messaging one another for help, or looking at information stored on their phone in general. MP3 players are another common accessory used to cheat. Carin Ford at stated that "students can put anything on their iPods — including lecture notes."

But the classroom is not the only place where academic dishonesty via technology is an issue. While paper mills have long allowed students to get others to do their homework, especially when it comes to writing their papers, today, these services can be quickly purchased online in accordance with the specific assignment directions. Essentially, students can now easily pay for someone else to do their work with a few clicks of a mouse.


While detection and punishment for academic dishonesty is unavoidable, teachers should focus more of their attention on the prevention of such cases in the first place. Make students clearly aware of the policies on academic integrity, student conduct, and communication. These policies should be presented to students the very day your online class opens up and shared with students in several ways. Post the policies in the syllabus, with links to the student handbook and/or university catalog where they are located, and require students to sign an academic honesty contract. Include the links in your welcome email to the students, and in your directions and discussions with students. Avoid future confusion by sharing examples of when they might run into uncertainties over what is academically dishonest.

Finally, make sure students understand that the policies of the university that you are abiding by are part of the larger framework of laws that protect the ideas and products of individuals. It is essential to manage your online course(s) from day one to prevent or reduce academic dishonesty. Adkins, Kenkel, and Lo Lim provide an excellent summary of the research and some additional tips, such as developing a rapport with your students. The more "humanized" the interaction becomes, the less likely students will be to cheat, much in the same way that people are more likely to cheat a faceless entity like "the government" than a person they know personally. Become someone your students know personally and not a faceless instructor.

You can also consider developing meaningful assessments, as students are more likely to cheat if they see an assignment as just "busy work" that the instructor will not pay much attention to evaluating. Make it clear that all of the assignments are valuable. In addition, remind students that educators use technology to uphold academic integrity through plagiarism detection software and have access to everything that happens in the LMS.

Help your students with proper citation skills as well so that they can avoid accidentally plagiarizing something. Invite tutors and other staff members from the learning center and/or library into your class to speak directly to students on how to properly do research and cite sources, what good academic research strategies are, and how to avoid plagiarism. Also consider designing courses that require an individualized approach to assignments and scaffold these so that there is a "paper trail" of each student's work. Protect the integrity of your tests by randomizing questions/answers, rotating tests used, setting strict limits on test, and using proctored settings.

Finally, model what you expect. If you expect your students to properly document sources, do so in your own course documents.


Using the preventative suggestions above should greatly reduce the incidence of academic dishonesty in your online courses; however, if you encounter an issue, there are some ways to detect academic dishonesty, especially plagiarism. Your own instincts are a great guide. If you receive an assignment that just doesn't seem like something he/she would produce, chances are good that you are on to something.

Make use of available technology. and other such plagiarism detection services may be helpful. Keep in mind that these detect potential plagiarism, meaning you may get a result that says 45% of the paper is "plagiarized"; yet, when you review it, the works cited page is highlighted as a large part of that percentage. These services also typically only search works available online, so information from a print-only source will not be detected. Within some of these limitations, however, detection services can be helpful as they do often highlight undocumented direct quotes or missing quotations marks. Finally, it may be possible to require your students to submit their own papers through It's helpful to have them do this with their first complete draft so they can learn to correct any detected issues prior to submitting the final draft.

Keep your own archive of student work in a secure location because students who are friends may share an assignment that was successful in your class a semester or two ago. Also, look out for signs of copying and pasting text. If you notice a sudden change in font, an added background color, mixed documentation styles, etc., investigate that those sections carefully.

If you have concerns, review the paper trail of the assignment's evolution. Do the student's discussion posts, working bibliography, and other earlier activities reasonably show a development toward the assignment? If you have suspicions, discuss them with the student. You don't have to start with an accusation of academic dishonesty. In fact, it's wise not to start by throwing out a term like ‘plagiarism' at the student. Instead, express your need to speak to the student about the project. Ask questions about the process used to arrive at the final submission.


Understandably, academic dishonesty of any kind can be difficult to address. You may feel like you not only have to be a teacher, you also have to be a detective, a lawyer, and now a judge. Therefore, as you approach issues of academic dishonesty, handle both yourself and your students with care.

First, set your emotions aside. You may feel angry, betrayed, or worried about the effect on your own professional reputation. Remember that most educators will experience this type of situation in their career. To move forward, review the institution's policies on academic honesty, conduct, and communication. See where the students have truly violated the policy and how faculty should proceed.

Remember that preventing and dealing with incidents of academic dishonesty shouldn't be the focus of your online instruction. Although every effort should be made to prevent and address these incidents, it's promising to remember that the vast majority of online students are employed undergraduates with an average age of 34. Due to their own professional experiences in the job market, the majority of these students are looking for a quality educational experience rather than an easy way out. Keeping all these points in mind will help you deal with academic integrity in a manner that is reasonable and compassionate for both your students and yourself.

FIND ACCREDITED DEGREES is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.