Interview with Dr. Tracey Bretag: Academic integrity

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

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Quick take: New technologies have brought many challenges for academic integrity. One of them is contract cheating. There is no quick fix to this issue, but it is important to establish supportive mechanisms for academic integrity policies.

Adelaide, Australia

Dr. Tracey Bretag has dedicated the past 15 years to academic integrity research. She is an Associate Professor and Director of the Office for Academic Integrity at the University of South Australia, where she led The Academic Integrity Standards Project, The Exemplary Academic Integrity Project and the Contract Cheating and Assessment Design Project (currently in progress). Dr. Bretag is also the founding Editor of the International Journal for Educational Integrity, which disseminates research on that subject across all sectors.

In this interview, she talks about the rise of contract cheating, the importance of establishing supportive mechanisms for academic integrity policies and the challenges that new technologies have brought to the subject.

Cristina Wagner

How would you define academic integrity and why is it so important in academia?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

According to the International Center for Academic Integrity, in the United States, academic integrity is premised on five fundamental values: honestytrustfairnessrespect and responsibility. These values are put into practice through the additional virtue of courage. In Australia, we tend to talk about what it means for the academic community to put into practice those values. If the students don’t work honestly, they won’t be learning that much. A classic example of that is if students cheat in an exam, they don’t have the prerequisite knowledge they need for the next subject or level, or indeed for professional practice.

It’s also important for the value of people’s qualifications, because if employers or other sectors in higher education cannot trust that your qualification is obtained honestly, then that undermines their trust in graduates’ abilities. It’s also important for the institution’s reputation.

And finally, when we go out into professional practice, if we haven’t earned those qualifications honestly, we put the public’s safety at risk. Here’s an easy example: if a doctor is doing an operation, if that doctor has cheated on exams, as a patient you don’t want to worry that he or she really knows the difference between your pancreas and your liver, right?

Cristina Wagner

In your opinion, what are the main causes of academic dishonesty?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

I think academic dishonesty, or breaches of academic integrity, are really systemic issues. In terms of higher education, its whole focus has changed through the years. The massification and the internationalization of higher education have had an impact in many ways. When we have second language learners, students from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who are educationally less prepared, we need to put appropriate support in place so that they can achieve their learning potential.

We have increasing competition at every level: for places in a university, for jobs when students graduate, for research funding, for institutional reputation and so on – so competition is everywhere.

And digital disruption and new technologies have made more and more information available, and it hasn’t actually increased our learning and our capacity to think critically. All of those things had come together to create a “perfect storm” where students have started to see their qualifications as simply pieces of paper that they should get so that they can get a job. They don’t understand that they are at that institution to study, to learn, to be personally transformed so that they can contribute to the transformation of society. And then, on top of all of those things, we’ve got personal motivations. Some people in education cheat, just as there is a small percentage of people in wider society who cheat.

Finally, particularly in higher education, there’s a lack of genuine support, funding and resources for really good teaching and learning practices. The fact of the matter is, in higher education what really is rewarded is research. And to be really good in teaching, you need to have time for scholarship and to work on your teaching material. Ultimately, this results in both staff and students being unengaged in the learning process.

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.
Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

Cristina Wagner

Your research projects reviewed policies and procedures related to academic integrity, as well as the way universities educate students and staff about that subject. What were your findings?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

There’s no point in talking about academic integrity unless you have a really good policy in place. We looked at policies in Australian universities. And we looked at five core elements of exemplary policy: access, that means the policy is easy to locate and read; approach, meaning it should have an educative rather than a punitive focus; responsibility, and that means that a good policy articulates the responsibilities for all stakeholders, not just students; detail, in the sense that the students and staff need to go to the policy and understand what academic integrity is, what a breach of integrity is, and what the processes are for dealing with that; and support, that is, you can’t just talk about it, but you have to provide proactive and embedded systems to enable the implementation of the policy.

We did a very large survey of around 15,000 students, and the big finding was that there are mixed understandings about academic integrity policy and process, and that students don’t always understand what they have to do. In particular, our international, second language students were two to three times more likely to say they didn’t understand what academic integrity was, even with support.

Not surprisingly, they reported that they have been involved in academic integrity breach investigations at a higher rate than local students. If you don’t understand what academic integrity is, of course you’re going to find it hard to demonstrate it in your work. And a surprising finding was that our postgraduate research students said they needed more support and resources around academic integrity, so that they also could do their work with integrity.

Cristina Wagner

Has your research revealed differences between occurrences of online learning plagiarism compared to face-to-face education?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

In my most recent research, on contract cheating, again we had over 15,000 responses from students across 12 institutions in Australia. We found that there’s very little difference in the types of academic integrity breaches between online and face-to-face students. What we did find is that it tended to be more collusion, which is unauthorized collaboration, in a face-to-face environment, because students on campus have a lot more social capital, but often cross the line into collusion. That was one interesting finding, but other than that, it was similar.

The other thing that we found is that a lot of cheating happens in online quizzes that students might be asked to do in a face-to-face environment. Educators need to be very mindful of the possibility of academic integrity breaches, whether the students are completely online, or whether it’s in a face-to-face environment.

Cristina Wagner

What are the reasons why students look for contract cheating?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

There are a couple of reasons why they do that. One of them is the proliferation of marketing-savvy online commercial providers. Students have always engaged in outsourcing their work to some extent, but now it’s not just your friends and family that might help you, there are these incredible marketing-savvy online providers.

And now students, particularly the second language international learners, who are struggling often in the western environment with the new learning requirements, are targeted by those unscrupulous cheat sites. They even infiltrate the universities systems, promoting their services through official email and social media sites. To make it more confusing, these unscrupulous cheat sites often use publicity to pretend they’re legitimate university services. I think at times it can be really confusing for students to differentiate between appropriate tutoring and support services, and those “services” that are really cheat sites in disguise.

Cristina Wagner

What other challenges arise from these new technologies?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

We have seen so many challenges over the last 15 years about plagiarism and students copying and pasting from online sources. To a large extent, those issues have been addressed through the development of very good text-matching software, as well as other learning support resources.

Our next big challenge alongside contract cheating is a whole new technology around online paraphrasing and translation tools. For example, an article written in Chinese. You can, at a click of a button, translate that into English very well, and then you can click another button, using other software, which will paraphrase that text so that it doesn’t get picked up by text-matching software. These tools are so easy to use and very difficult for markers to detect.

Cristina Wagner

What could universities in other countries learn from the results of your studies?

Tracey Bretag, Associate Professor, University of South Australia Business School. Photo: AFP Brenton Edwards.

The big lesson is that there is no quick fix to this issue. This is very complex. A culture of academic integrity requires a commitment at absolutely every level of the academic enterprise, from the way you market your university, the way you recruit students, the orientation you provide to students when they first come to your institution.

And then when students know what academic integrity is, you need to keep talking about it and provide training to teaching and administrative staff. But teachers need to have real resources so that they have time and the support to develop engaging, authentic assessment which will not only promote learning, but will be less likely to be outsourced.

I’m not suggesting that we’re going to eradicate cheating through assessment, but we are certainly going to address it to some extent. We need to understand the benefits and the downfalls of new technologies and be constantly adapting to address that. Let’s say, for example, the big push is for online education, but what does it mean in terms of authenticating the identity of students who you’ll never meet? The other thing that has come from our studies is that there is no point in talking about academic integrity if there are no real consequences when there are breaches.

We need to reevaluate what is happening, what are the issues we need to address, keep on top of technology and continuously learn about it. There is a very large international community working together to address those many issues. We should not get despondent that cheating is occurring, but get excited about what we can do to make cultures of integrity the norm in education.

Tips on how to develop an effective academic integrity policy

– Follow the five core elements of an academic integrity policy: access, approach, responsibility, detail and support.

– Get help. On the Exemplary Academic Integrity Policy website, there is software that helps with policy development. It provides many tips and examples for the proper development of policies so you don’t have to start from scratch.

– Listen to your stakeholders. Consult all stakeholders in your academic community to collectively develop a document. Students should take part in the development of this policy. If you come up with a policy that everybody owns, it is more likely to be complied with.

Infographic: The five fundamental values of academic integrity are: Trust, Honesty, Fairness, Respect, Responsibility which lead to Courage. The next big challenges are: Contract cheating, Online translation and paraphrasing tools.

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