Is Academic Honesty Important?

The concept of Academic Honesty has a long and noble history. Before the days of the printing press, the wide dissemination of information and greatly increased levels of literacy, scholarly knowledge was mainly the preserve of small elite. The urban universities and the church – initially the Roman Catholic Church – were the strongholds of learning, although there were a few noted schools and academies who worked under a system of patronage.

This was a world in which most of the elite knew each other, and to a certain amount because of their backgrounds, trusted each other.

Written communication was of necessity by manuscript, and no regular system of citation of existing work was needed. This situation probably contributed to a certain amount of unintended plagiarism. The concept of intellectual property or copyright. Ideas were generally held to be universal property, to which no individual had a right of ownership or use.

Academic honesty is rather difficult to define precisely, but it can be considered to be an ideal whereby all forms of cheating or artificial gain of advantage is avoided in the production of academic writing. It is much easier to describe academic dishonesty in terms of cheating, plagiarism, fabrication, deception and academic misconduct.

Academic dishonesty has not always been regarded as unethical or immoral. Throughout the 19th century, cheating and plagiarism were a well accepted commonplace in American colleges.

It is still common today, with some authorizations suggesting that up to 70% of US High School students have indulged in some form of cheating. (1)

If we are concerned about academic honesty, we must clearly understand why it matters. Donaldson and Ruben (2) suggest that there are seven main issues with which we must concern ourselves.

Cheating leads to inequality, in that it is probable that those who cheat and plagiarize gain an unfair advantage in test graduations over those who do not, thus negating honest effort.

Most educational establishments see their role as not only passing on knowledge, but also as inculcating honest and ethical standards and behavior. Allowed cheating to flourish at best underlines this aim, and at worst, destroys it completely.

Part of the process of education is learning how to seek out and use information. Those who cheat and plagiarize their way through school simply never learn these essential skills, and develop a moral view which accepts that this is an acceptable or at least permitted form of theft.

Cheaters in college tend to go on to be cheaters in university and graduate school, and cheating becomes an ingrained habit which can spill over in to their business and social dealings.

Institutions which are seen to condone or fail to deal with academic dishonesty risk becoming discredited and of losing their reputations, with the result that they are perceived as failing and may no longer attract adequate funding and support.

Whitley and Keith_Spiegel report (3) that "The name of the institution is prominently linked with the dishonest activity, and such associations can sully, at least temporarily, its reputation. be more
permanently tarnished.

A further point of concern is that many of those who go through the entire educational process find themselves as leaders in society and in very responsible positions of authority. It is important that society is led by people of moral strength and value who can be trusted. Axiomatically, cheats can not.

Up to this point we have considered some of the impacts of academic dishonesty in the student body. Unfortunately though, professorial dishonesty is not unknown, although it is uncommon. Students are entitled to a fair and unbiased scrutiny of their work, and to objective grading of their abilities. If these precepts are not upheld, the integrity of the not only the staff member concerned, but of the entire institution are called into question.

Honesty in academic life is just as important as honesty outside of it. Perhaps, indeed, it is even more important as the future of every one of us will some day be in the hands of those which we have entrusted to our academics.


1. Wilfried Decoo, Crisis on Campus: Confronting Academic Misconduct (Cambridge, Mass .: MIT Press, 2002), 23.

2. Forsyth, D. and Ruben, Z. Ethics and Behavior, Vol. 11, Number 3, 2001 (Lawrence Elbaum Associates, New Jersey and London) 217.

3. Whitely, B. and Keith-Spiegel. P. Academic Dishonesty: An Educators Guide, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, London 2002, 6