Are universities finally waking up to academic integrity?

I was delighted to read recently that academic integrity has become the highest priority of one Slovak university. This trailblazing institution has put truth and integrity at the forefront of everything it does, honouring its core values of honesty, trust, justice, respect, responsibility and courage.

In practice, students, teachers, researchers and administrative staff are encouraged to think about academic integrity in all their activities. Preventing cheating, plagiarism and other types of misconduct is central to their job descriptions, and strict penalties are imposed on those who give in to temptation.

Other higher education institutions in Slovakia declare that they are fighting plagiarism but provide no detailed information about how they do so. By contrast, this university offers radical transparency. On its website, you can easily look up statistics on the similarity of papers checked for plagiarism, according to field of study, type of paper (bachelor’s, master’s, PhD) and type of author (student, teacher, researcher).

I was also glad to see statistics on papers with similarity scores below 10 per cent. Why? Because the university is aware that anti-plagiarism systems are far from perfect and cannot reliably detect paraphrases, plagiarism of foreign-language papers and plagiarism of electronically inaccessible documents. Papers whose authors exploit this failing typically have a low percentage of similarity even compared with people who do not plagiarise at all, since most legitimate work builds on the work of predecessors. This is why increased attention needs to be paid to very low similarity scores.

Equally, the university is also emphatic that it does not assess the originality of papers solely based on the percentage of likeness found using automated systems. Instead, evaluators – recognised experts in their fields – are asked to use their knowledge of the literature to identify paraphrases and translational plagiarism and as well as plagiarism based on electronically inaccessible documents missed by the automated checks. Anti-plagiarism software focused mainly on work in the Slovak language has been mandatory in all Slovak higher education institutions since 2010, but this university is using two other systems to provide an additional check for works in foreign languages.

This integrity-first approach extends to reference sections. Every effort is made to ensure that due credit is always given and undue credit is always withheld, avoiding the perils of citation cartels.

Other information on the university’s website includes the preventive and proactive measures that it is taking to educate students and non-students about matters of academic integrity. In an easily accessible section, clear and unambiguous policies, procedures and processes related to academic integrity are laid out.

The university has formed a committee charged with preparing and updating those policies and processes. Its members promote materials about the purpose and values of academic integrity to students and staff alike. Another committee deals with breaches of academic integrity and proposes sanctions in accordance with established policies. And I was heartened to read publicly available statistics concerning the sanctions imposed on students and academics, according to field of study, type of paper, type of author and severity, who break the integrity rules. Further measures have been taken to exclude repeating tasks or exams year after year, which leads to a glut of past assignment papers posted online from which cheats can freely plagiarise.

The university’s rector has personally supported all these measures and has made sure that integrity management is pursued at every level of the university. Apparently this has sometimes required difficult decisions to enforce the imposition of harsh punishments on repeat offenders, but the rector accepts that the path of integrity can be a difficult and uncomfortable one to walk.

I think, though, that he is correct to believe that deep prevention in the first place but at the same time unbending rigour and radical transparency add to his university’s competitive advantage. The trust it inspires means that its degrees carry more weight than those of other universities; employers believe that this university’s graduates can do what their degree certificates claim that they can.

And yet… You have probably guessed by now, however, that this university does not exist outside my dreams. There is no university like this one in Slovakia, nor elsewhere in the world.

But are these practices to improve academic integrity really so unrealistic? I don’t believe so. Nor are their advantages. It is a challenge for the higher education sector.

Július Kravjar is a board member of the European Network for Academic Integrity, an association supporting universities to develop good practices in academic integrity.