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A dialogue concerning integrity within academia

A student’s creative dialog between four philosophers explores the importance of integrity in academics and win’s Ignite Integrity Contest.

Note: As it gears up for Ignite Integrity Week, March 25-31, Research Integrity shares the winning entry to its fall 2017 Ignite Integrity Contest which invited creative expressions exploring the importance to act with integrity in academics, research or as a professional. The winning essay by mathematics major Kenneth Broadhead follows.

Three philosophers, an Empiricist (E), a Rationalist (R), and a Transcendental Idealist (T) discuss with a fourth philosopher, the Skeptic (S), the value of integrity within a profession, research, and academics in general.

The Empiricist: By your expression, I judge that you have acquired some new doubts concerning the nature of things, my friend. Am I correct?

The Skeptic: Indeed, it would appear you are correct my friend. For, I have found dwelling in my mind the beginnings of doubt concerning value of integrity within academia.

The Rationalist: That is a serious topic my friend; you doubt that integrity holds any value in this field at all?

The Skeptic: Oh no, perhaps I misspoke, and was not understood-I suppose it more accurate to say that I doubt many others have good enough reasons to assert that it does indeed hold value.

The Rationalist: So, then you do not doubt the value of honesty within academia.

The Skeptic: Not at all my friend. I do consider it to hold some value, and I suspect that we might all agree on at least this matter...

The Rationalist: Exactly what kind of skeptic are you, then, if you do not doubt its value, and instead insist that it does in fact hold value?

S: A consistent one: For even a Skeptic, who doubts that we may know with certainty anything at all, may hold beliefs. The Skeptic's target is certainty, that is to say, Knowledge; not truth. Indeed, if it were not for doubt, we would never see it fit to ask a question; if we never asked questions we would never seek answers-without this search, what can one say constitutes philosophy, what progress could be made at all? It is from doubt that our search for Truth emerges, our search for something of value...

T: Ladies and Gentlemen, I do believe we are traveling well beyond the bounds of our current task. For our friend here doubts only that the general assertion "integrity within the field of academics holds high value" can be satisfactorily justified by many individuals. If we are to proceed in this conversation, we must stick closely to the task at hand, lest we make no progress at all. While these abstract questions and thoughts do indeed have a time and place to be considered, now is neither the time nor the place; so, let us discuss them elsewhere.

R: I concur.

E: Tell us then, my skeptical friend, what thoughts exactly do you supposed to have sown the seeds of doubt concerning the ability of some to justify the claim that integrity in academia has value?

S: A number of thoughts have led to this doubt. Consider: in every place of learning, inevitably, one sees that familiar old statement "academic dishonesty shall not be tolerated," followed by threat of punishment, or sanction. It appears obvious that this threat is imposed to dismay those who may be in a position to commit to such dishonesty from committing it. Yet, if such integrity be important, or valuable, why would institutions need to ensure conformity to such behavior under threat of sanction? I then think that anyone who requires such sanctions, does not believe that integrity truly holds value; and thus, would be unable to truly justify the claim that it does.

R: This point is well taken. One would certainly expect those who could justify believing such integrity has honesty would not need to be coerced into living by its guidelines, for they would live by them regardless of imposed punishment. If these threats are indeed needed, then we may expect few could truly justify belief in the value of such integrity.

S: In addition, it appears to me that we are simply too habituated to the simple custom of integrity in academics, research, or professional positions. Surely, most individuals, when asked of its value, would reply that integrity in academia is of great value. But are we to suspect that each one of us has dedicated great time and thought to the justification of this belief? While it is certainly possible, it seems unlikely that many of us would have dedicated sufficient time to the justification of this axiological claim. Instead, it seems far more likely that we hold these beliefs solely due to custom-solely due to these belief's secure entrenchment within our societies myriad of customs.

E: Surely, people would simply attempt to justify it on the grounds of the moral value of integrity in everyday life.

S: But would not their justification fall short? For how many people in ordinary life could truly be expected to provide adequate abstract moral reasons for the moral necessity of honesty, and therefore the value or importance of integrity within academia, when such considerations are, as one may suspect, to be considered far from any visible application by most? Would not an examination of the most common arguments lead to the realization that they are unsatisfactory, failing to provide us the certainty we desire in moral matters? After all, even the most well-established Ethicists among us remain in a state of doubt and disagreement.

R: I will concede that it appears unlikely that such axiological claims could be satisfactorily justified in the manner you describe by the majority of those how may purport to believe such claims.

S: Yet, I still wonder if it will remain this way in present company? Could such a belief be justified? What say you?

E: Well, as we all believe it to be of value, might we not simply provide our reasons for believing such a proposition, and allow that they might serve as a justification for such beliefs to be held by others? Since we seek only to justify the belief that integrity in academia has some form of value, we need not concern ourselves with the same level of rigor faced by the moral philosophers, nor the glaring eyes of certain epistemological doubts when making claims.

T: For we do not claim that such integrity in fact has some abstract value to it, but only that, on the surface, one could be justified in thinking that it does.

S: Indeed, we might do such a thing; and we would indeed be burdened neither by the rigor faced by other moral philosophers, nor epistemological problems in proving that such integrity does have value. And, we might begin this endeavor by asserting one might simply say that it has importance, and thus a certain value to it, because we ascribe to it a value. It certainly appears as though it neither written in the stars, nor given by divine command, that we should preserve honesty within the field of academia. So, such deeply philosophical claims about morality will be put to the side for now, for us to discuss them elsewhere, in order that we might seek simply to provide reasons why one might be justified in believing that we should preserve honesty within the field of academia. Such beginnings, if accepted, might lead to a discussion of utility...

E: Indeed; I would think utility is the greatest method of justifying such a belief.

R: You would suggest such a thing.

E: You doubt the usefulness of integrity? It takes no great exercise of reason to see its use. For example, look at the social aspect of research: never today is great progress made by one person alone, but rather by multitudes of people: teams of researchers, professional communities as a whole, or a series of academics building off the collected works of their predecessors and contemporaries. What would happen if we could no longer count on the relative integrity of our fellow researchers, or colleagues? Progress in research would slow to a crawl, if not stop dead in its tracks. Think first of modern science: if few studies are trust worthy, for the authors themselves are devoid of integrity, large-scale verification and repeated testing would be near impossible since each study would have to be replicated by yourself, or by the few trusted sources there are, if any. Such processes would take immense time and effort, and no further progress could be made until those studies were repeated and verified, or shown to be inaccurate and nullified: for each new study is likely to build upon the last. What's more, and what's worse, who could be persuaded to fund the large studies necessary to bring significant progress to science, if so few were untrustworthy; or if the study, once completed, would be believed by too few to make any significant progress in that field of research? To make matters worse, what if, within a study, one cannot even trust one's colleagues? If one cannot trust those on one's own research team or those on the team of staff in the same study in which you contribute, would that not impede progress? To think one's own colleagues would fabricate the results of great effort and time, or attempt to assume credit for that which is not theirs: would not that cause you to refrain from contributing at all for fear of injury done to you by them, or from the injury that might result from your complacent association with them? Think too of mathematics. If each proof must be verified and reconstructed by each mathematician before it is to be believed by any other, how slowly would the science of quantity, structure, space and change progress.

S: Think now of philosophy: if no philosopher's work is credible, what a sorry state Mankind has fallen into! If we are to make little progress in Philosophy, then we are to make little progress in general.

T: Indeed; I suppose, it could only be worse if we realized today that we could not trust any of our predecessors, and all our progress was suddenly lost, as though all our knowledge and collected Truth was suddenly wrenched from our minds and tossed away.

S: Yet, still worse, would be if we couldn't trust our predecessors and had yet to realize it, for as the Taoist says "not to know and yet think we do know is a disease." Ah, but, perhaps we forget the few practitioners of our discussion: the professionals who attempt to put into place the applications of science, law, and all the rest?

E: Perhaps, since doctors are the most widely recognized professional, could we not simply look through their eyes to see what havoc the loss of integrity would have upon their profession?

R: How few patients will take a medicine if they neither believe it will better their health, nor had faith in their doctor!

E: A poet could have done no better!

S: Surely, though, we need not limit ourselves to discussions of utility. If we wish merely to justify the notion that integrity has some value, rather than provide absolute proof, then may not we say that it is obvious that most people would want to be seen as honest...

R: Yes, but more than that, most people would want to be honest in fact, not just in appearance, for there is something of value we perceive in honesty alone. Even the greatest liar would desire to be honest in fact, rather than just appearance. For no liar desires to be a liar, they simply desire to avoid certain consequences, or acquire certain outcomes for themselves. If one could acquire the same ends with honesty as one could with dishonesty, would anyone ever tell a lie? There is something about honesty that we as humans are drawn to: perhaps a certain awe that we might see in ourselves, if we are honest, or in others if they are. One could think of this as one does eminence. Just being respected by others fills us with joy, as others deem us great and worthy of reverence, so too does the act of honesty, for this too reflects positively on our character in our minds eye. It is easy to tell a lie in the face of adversity so that one might attain a desirable outcome, but it is far from easy to remain truthful when no such guarantee is provided. To remain honest proves, not only to ourselves, but to others too, that we have strength of character, and fills us with a joy and awe at our own strength and moral disposition, that only the act of being honest could. Nowhere is greater incentive for dishonesty found than in academia. To lie and cheat in academia or a notable profession brings with it, at least at first glance, the possibility of great rewards: there is great eminence in tow for those who make great contributions to a field of study, and one might solidify one's reputation, and perhaps even securer lasting fame within a profession position. But in doing so, one necessarily sacrifices one's integrity. In remaining honest, it is true: you may not gain eminence, you may not save or secure yourself a reputation: but still you shall remain an honest person, deserving of respect for your character and strength, and all the stronger in the face of adversity. In remaining honest in academia or in a profession, you are all the worthy of respect. Those around you should acknowledge this. But if none do, then they have simply yet to see you for who you are; or they remain quiet out of awe, or jealousy.

E: And you think this sacrifice is irrational, or in some way undesirable?

R: Indeed, I do; for we must think: Could one live a happy life while they are devoid of integrity?

E: I would think most people would rather have beneficial consequences than something so abstract as honesty.

R: To this I would remind us: all that glitters is not gold. It is pyrite that reflects light most brilliantly when first discovered, not gold; yet is it gold that we desire none-the-less.

E: This I will concede.

S: As a parting thought, one might even say eminence is better sought in honest action: for who would want to be the man who steals the work of Newton, rather than the man Newton himself?

R: This is a sound judgment indeed.

S: What say you, my friend? What think you of the nature and importance of integrity within academia?

T: I would think my friend, that in academic dishonesty, you show yourself too little respect.

S: How do you mean?

T: I think that our empirical friend was indeed correct in what they said. I think too, that our rational friend was even more so in what they had to say. But there is one component that seems to be missing from our justification.

E/R: And what might that be?

T: Self-Respect. However, I do not speak of self-respect in the same terms as our rational friend before me. I shall show you. Let us further consider why one might be dishonest within a field of study. Within any field of study, there are goals, expectations, requirements to be met. As our friend stated earlier, one would act without integrity only in order to reach these goals, expectations, or requirements; for no one is dishonest solely for the sake of being so. So far, are we in agreement?

E/R: Yes.

T: So then, I wonder, one is dishonest to reach the goals, expectations, or requirements given to them; yet, if, as we agreed earlier, one also wishes to be honest, why would not one simply honestly pursue these goals, expectations, or requirements? Perhaps, it is because they lack self-respect: they fail to see the inherent value in themselves, their worth, or their ability. They think too little of themselves: They value themselves and the work that they do so little that they feel the need to steal the work of others, or altogether fabricate the work they purport to do. To think that the work you do honestly can in any way be inferior to falsity, or work done through nefarious means, simply because it may not confirm what you or another wishes it to, is blasphemy against your own worth as a human. To think that one's reputation in a field of study or profession, is greater than one's reputation as decent human being is disrespectful toward yourself, and yourself most of all. If one doubts their ability, this is one thing; but to then, in dishonesty, attempt to cover up what you see as a deficiency in yourself is folly, for you slam the door of opportunity in your own face: you neither test your ability, nor seek to improve it. Never would one make such a suggestion to a colleague, so then why act upon such a suggestion yourself? To fear failure too, is one thing; but to risk your honesty in an effort to avoid failure shows an irreverence toward yourself that one can barely imagine: for it shows that you think all your worth is defined by your success, that one failure can take away all your worth and value. Perhaps now, to finish my point, we might return to that "place of leaning" you mentioned earlier, my skeptical friend.

S: All right.

T: When learning, students are faced with many a great obstacle: there is much expected of them, there is much they must to do. So great is this pressure that they, like any academic or professional, might be tempted fall into dishonesty: to cheat, to falsify, to steal, or lie. Yet here, like others, they would show themselves too little respect. For in cheating, one thinks too little of one's own ability; if one does not try one has never tested oneself or their abilities and actually found them to be lacking-indeed if one never tries, one denies themselves the cultivation of talents they might never have known about, or talents that have yet to come into being. If one falsifies one's work, one thinks too little of the work they do; even worse, one may wrongly think that their value is determined by the value others (and perhaps even they) see in their work-they fail to value their honest work as a creation of themselves: an honest and valuable person in themselves. In stealing the work of others, one again thinks too little of themselves; for they think their worth is determined by the value others see in the work they do, and so they steal that which they see as valuable and hope that value will become theirs. Most explicitly, in lying, one sees oneself as unable to contribute something meaningful, something of value; you think nothing of value can come from you, for you wrongly think yourself of little value. It is from the value of self-respect, that the integrity we have discussed gets its value.

E: What would one say to those who deny this? Who think that such dishonesty does not truly stem from a lack of self-respect?

S: Then they are either of two types: an honest person, or a dishonest one. If they be an honest man or woman, then they do not know, for they have not experienced the lack of integrity that we speak of, and therefore cannot reliably say what is its cause. If they be a dishonest man or woman, and still claim that it is not a lack of self-respect from which their dishonesty arises, well, I simply do not believe them, for they are dishonest.

T: I could not have said it better.

S: And with that, I think there is nothing left to say...

R: So, then, tell me: have we justified the assertion that there is value in integrity within academia?

S: Yes, I would say it appears as though we have. What think you, kind listener?

Kenneth Broadhead, undergraduate student, College of Science

Kenneth Broadhead posing with his winning essay