QED

Wanted: an Integrity Commissioner

A study of the doctoral regulations and dissertation requirements of universities indicates that certain research standards need to be met by postgraduate candidates. The public have access to these standards as contained for, instance, in PhD and plagiarism policy documents.

The question arises as to whether the public, as taxpayers, have a legal right to challenge a university which is perceived as not upholding its advertised standards. In other words, is there a legally-binding obligation on the university to meet consumer demand that its products measure up to its publicised product quality?

In all other spheres of our economy, the provider is required by law to avoid misleading advertising. It is reasonable to expect that publicly-funded universities would exercise particular diligence in this regard.

The practice to date, has been to leave judgements of quality control of academic awards to the universities themselves – acceptance of the principle of institutional judge and jury, which has been in place since the Inquisition. It has been suggested that there may be a case for the appointment of an Integrity Commissioner to hear appeals against universities’ rulings on malpractice. The justification for such an expansion of the university standards procedure, rests on the fact that the perceived need for universities to protect their intellectual reputation, disqualifies them as objective assessors of malpractice, notably dishonesty in research. Case law may well show that sufficient precedents exist to demonstrate the existence of such understandable but unacceptable protective bias.

This debate on standards also focuses on the way in which the criteria for appointment of Vice Chancellors have increasingly given priority to business CEO-type experience. The reason for this trend is obviously a clear need to universities to attract funds in an increasingly impossible situation to meet demand, with less resources per student. In this climate, negotiating skills, charisma, well-crafted institutional branding and brinkmanship on the actuality of delivering substance, are all regarded as what is required of CEO’s by university councils.

With escalating pressure to get ‘bums on seats’ (preferably full fee-paying or overseas) it is understandable that cost-cutting through offerings and presentation-modes which minimise staff costs may take precedence over intellectual integrity.

Shifting the standards debate from the Academic Board to the Vice Chancellor may appear inappropriate, even unfair, but in an era of competitive image-making, the sacrificing of institutional reputation to uphold transparent intellectual standards, demands serious risk-management judgements. The motivation to obfuscate vague processes to handle allegations of, say, plagiarism at doctoral level, would seem quite appropriate when assessing what the organisation and senior individuals stand to lose.

The moral high-grounders with nothing to lose by making allegations, should recognise the reality of this dilemma in the same way as politicians get themselves voted out of office by taking a moral stand.

The process in which an Integrity Commissioner (IC) is involved, is different from the process in which a Standards Officer, appointed by the Vice Chancellor, is employed – as occurred very recently at one university. The IC could be approached by the Staff Association or Student Union whose members have evidence that the standing of their own work and degrees is affected by what they regard as a very weak or fraudulent dissertation. Whether the unacknowledged use of others’ work, presented as one’s own, is fraud, deception, falsification or any other of a dozen synonyms for untruths, it has more than linguistic consequences.

The involvement of an IC should include the existing Appeal Procedure not only for the accused, but also for the alleging parties in the case of rejected allegations. At present, the University is a law unto itself. If it rules that the candidate has no case to answer, those making their presumably evidenced-based allegations have no recourse to a second opinion and may have to appeal to an external jurisdiction.

Scrutiny of the potential gains and losses to the university when considering the rejection or hearing of academic malpractice allegations suggests that the dice is heavily loaded in favour of rejection. The second dice is also loaded toward abstaining from or minimising penalties when hearings cannot avoid the decision that the allegations are valid.

The internal processes invariably lead to blame-shifting exercise which may move from the candidate (including dissertation helpers) to the supervisor(s) and the faculty post-graduate group (committee, panel). From there the focus may move to the Graduate Research unit (variously named), to the Academic Board, the university Governance Office (administration) and finally to the Vice Chancellor and even to the University Council.

In technical terms the buck stops with supervisors; in academic political terms it stops with whoever decides that the allegations could do serious reputational damage – individual and institutional. The problem arises when somewhere along the chain of command, the distinction between a harmless lapse and a hanging offence needs to be drawn. Those making the case for ‘a minor glitch’ can easily claim that nobody has been hurt by the malpractice, that the candidate genuinely considered their actions to be acceptable, that their supervisors made no objection, that the faculty panel was satisfied, that the examiners praised their effort and that the Graduate Research unit had approved their award.

Those claiming that the malpractice is of critical significance to the perceived integrity of the institution and its reputation, easily insist that the university has no moral option but to take corrective action sufficient to deter other would-be charlatans and to publicly demonstrate zero tolerance of intellectual fraud.

So why haven’t VC’s called for an IC? Some observers believe that the answer lies in the parallel between universities and the Catholic Church in their response to malpractice. While the PhD candidates and abuse victims may be in very different situations, one benefiting the other suffering from malpractice, the adage that ‘Man only begets wisdom when he has no option’ appears to apply to both institutions.

Such university/church comparisons may be drawing a long bow, nevertheless the individual and institutional motivations to preserve their intellectual and moral image respectively, are similar. Under the autonomous regimen of public universities, the good guy/bad guy perception of these institutions becomes more complex than meets the eye of the outside observer. One element, unrecognised to date, is the positive contribution of the self-appointed whistle-blower who claims that the university is failing to fulfill its advertised contract with the paying public. As referred to earlier, when the image of ‘world class research institution’ is threatened by evidence of hypocrisy on standards, the negative public perception of possible systemic or even endemic failure of intellectual rigour, is unsurprising. In all cases it is found that the ignoring or condoning of, say, serious plagiarism, is actually limited to very small segments of the disciplines. More often, failure of standards can be laid at the door of identified supervisors. This being the case, extrapolation to the institution as a whole is wrong and unfairly damaging.

This patchy softness in research rigour is partially the result of the age-old internal debate about the extent to which Academic Boards could or should override Departmental or Discipline autonomy on appropriate standards, notably for doctoral dissertations. Both loci of authority have defensible cases but when rare striking examples of standards failure become too blatant, traditional respect for collegial integrity can reach breaking point. At this juncture it becomes clear to all that an imaginary line has been crossed and even the most cynical academic has little option but to nod in agreement with the whistleblowers’ contentions.

Consideration of the validity of the evidence of plagiarism then becomes the key to decisions on corrective action. Plagiarism is usually understood to mean the unacknowledged use of other writer’s published work presented as one’s own. However, the concept of ‘overhelping’ by others (supervisors, research assistants, colleagues) must be included in judging any writing which purports to be worded by the candidate. There are no absolutes here and drawing the line becomes a subjective value judgement. Such judgements must be made on the assessment of whether the candidate is gauged to have sufficient personal understanding of the matter at hand to be able to successfully debate alternative views on the issues described in the dissertation. Such factual tests of scholarship must override supervisor’s altruistic tendencies to overhelp candidates, particularly disadvantaged candidates who naturally elicit empathy from their mentors. It was always thus and will remain thus. Without the diligent review of when enough is enough, the damaging though well-intentioned, willingness to provide candidates with ready-made literature reviews, scholarly comparisons of theories and impressive conclusions, will continue to plague the intellectuality of universities whose number of doctorates outvalue their quality.

Recommendations:

1. That Australian Universities investigate the extent of quality failure on doctoral research, inviting submissions from beyond their own staff.

2. That Australian Universities seriously consider the establishment of an Integrity Commissioner appointed by the Federal Government.

 

Brian Roberts, former Dean of Science at an Australian University

 

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