Academic Ethics, Honesty and Integrity

Anyone who believes in the value of academic research would consider academic ethics / honesty / integrity as something that cannot be compromised. The academia is a system, just like the legal system, whose credibility depends highly upon the integrity of the operators. Strict ethical codes and regulations are there to minimise possible corruption that would cause the ivory tower, or the court likewise, to collapse into rubble. In other words, they are to forestall academic dishonesty.

The most commonly mentioned kind of academic dishonesty is plagiarism – copying others’ ideas without acknowledgment, which is the same as stealing people’s intellectual property. Another kind of academic dishonesty is improper or unethical obtainment of data, for example, without the consent of participants, or deliberately obscuring the purpose of the project when obtaining data.

These are all ACAD 101. What attracts my attention here is how different academic institutions refer to this core value that we embrace: academic ethics? academic honesty? academic integrity?

Some institutions prefer to use the term academic ethics. Ethics, commonly used to refer to moral principles, is a philosophically complex term. Forgive me for not being able to elaborate on this due to the lack of knowledge about moral philosophy, but this piece of news about an ethics professor might be something to think about. Unlike honesty and integrity, ethics has nothing to do with a person’s character. It’s in the action itself – we don’t call somebody unethical, but we would say an act is.

In Hong Kong, a number of universities, including The Chinese University of Hong Kong where I studied, adopt the phrase academic honesty. Academic honesty, at the first glance, is the conspicuous opposite of academic dishonesty, the way most people term the sin in the academia. (I googled a bit and did find the rare use of the phrase ‘academic disintegrity’ on a few webpages.) Researchers ought to be honest – honestly informing participants of the purpose of research, honestly using the data collected, honestly presenting the findings. Honesty refers to one’s attitude when performing an action, and more than that.

A check on Oxford English Dictionary yields more insights about the word ‘honesty’. It is related to the Middle French word honnesté, meaning ‘virtue, honour, integrity’. Coming to think of that, the word ‘honest’ does sound related to the word ‘honour’, which denotes much more than truthfulness. An honest person in this sense is not only candid, but also respectable and honourable for being virtuous. Academic honesty then means more than ‘not lying’ – it speaks of the importance of maintaining the honour of the academia, the communal esteem shared by people in the academic community.

Yet some other institutions would adopt the term academic integrity. This is the term I like the most, perhaps partly because it is one of the five core values of QC boys (Note: my alma mater, Queen’s College). I’m quite proud that my secondary school celebrates integrity as an important value. But what exactly does this word mean?

According to Oxford English Dictionary (again), ‘integrity’ is the ‘soundness of moral principle; the character of uncorrupted virtue, esp. in relation to truth and fair dealing; uprightness, honesty, sincerity’. From the OED definitions we can clearly see that the concepts of honesty and integrity are inter-related, each constituting the other.

Cambridge Dictionary Online defines ‘sb’s artistic, professional, etc. integrity’ as ‘someone’s high artistic standards or standards of doing their job, and that person’s determination not to lower those standards‘ (my emphasis). Here integrity has the meaning of unyielding consistency and adherence to certain standards. Perhaps different people have different artistic standards, but when it comes to academic integrity, it refers to a set of agreed standards which everyone entering the established community must not compromise, as the impact otherwise will not be individual but collective.

The word ‘integrity’ has one additional layer of meaning when referring to objects, and that is ‘the condition of not being marred or violated; unimparied or uncorrupted condition; original perfect state; soundness’. The soundness of the academia as a whole can be marred and corrupted by individual acts of impropriety, and this points to the seriousness of academic dishonesty. Once corrupted, it is difficult – at least takes great effort – to make intact again. (I’m not innocent enough to believe that the academia is intact without any corruption now, but one must hope for an ideal if one believes in the value of the system.)


This is why we should take academic dishonesty seriously. If we allow people to obtain an academic degree using problematic data, or if we allow dishonest researchers to publish inaccurate findings, we are allowing corruption of the system from within, not only tarnishing the reputation and credibility of individual institutes, but also compromising the honour and integrity of the entire intellectual community.