A More Optimistic Way to Teach Academic Integrity: Standing with Honor on the Shoulders of Giants

Credit: iStock.com/phototechno
Credit: iStock.com/phototechno

A healthy academic community treats its members as honest people. As scholars, we presume that our colleagues earned their degrees without cheating, that they report the results of their research accurately, that they write their own papers. When we think of our colleagues as honest in these ways, we are presuming academic integrity on their part.

When students hear about academic integrity, however, it is often framed not as a positive value to uphold but as a series of prohibitions. They are told that they should not cheat on tests or concoct data or plagiarize their papers. Of course, it is true that students should not do these things; to the frustration of many, it is also true that some students (and even their professors) do commit these offenses. Academic dishonesty remains a widespread and complex problem, caused by deliberate misrepresentation as well as by negligence, and it is not clear that we are having much success eradicating it (Yu et al. 2018). Students don’t always know which behaviors might constitute an academic offense or how serious an offense can be. In thinking about plagiarism, for instance, students and professors often differ in their evaluations of how serious a problem it is to present an idea without citing the original source or to copy a source’s exact words without adding quotation marks (Park 2003; Wilkinson 2009; Jurdi and Chow 2012; Childers and Bruton 2016).

These students are scholars-in-training, so we should help them see the deeper logic of academic integrity as fundamental to the practice of research. To do this both effectively and humanely, I propose that we change our point of departure from preventing academic offenses to fostering academic integrity. Instead of describing pessimistically what academic offenses are and telling students not to commit them, we could start optimistically by guiding the students to a better understanding of why an honest presentation of research is so important in higher education.

One possible way to begin is with the familiar metaphor of standing on the shoulders of giants. This image is often used to convey the notion that if we are to make progress, we have much to learn from people who have already worked on whatever problem we are trying to solve. Its most famous formulation in English comes from Isaac Newton. He and fellow scientist Robert Hooke had been in contention over their respective roles in developing a theory of color. Newton decided to adopt a somewhat conciliatory tone in a letter of 1676, telling Hooke that René Descartes and Hooke himself had taken good steps, and that his own contribution built on theirs. He described his success in relation to theirs by saying that “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” These words were not especially original when they poured from Newton’s pen. The poet George Herbert wrote a few decades earlier that “a dwarfe on a gyant’s shoulder sees further of the two” (Merton 1993, 12–13, 31). In the 12th century, the philosopher John of Salisbury attributed the idea (with approval) to his contemporary Bernard of Chartres:

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature. (John of Salisbury 1955, 167; Stock 1979)

A charming part of this medieval version of the metaphor is that it emphasizes humility in the accumulation of knowledge: John of Salisbury and Bernard of Chartres attributed their perception not to their own genius but rather to their willingness to build upon the teachings of the ancients.

Illuminated manuscript page depicting Cedalion on the shoulders of Orion

Figure 1. Cedalion on the shoulders of Orion from a South German manuscript of the early 15th century. Library of Congress. Lessing J. Rosenwald collection, 4. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/rosenwald.0004

This humility is a good lesson to convey when teaching about academic integrity. We would all like our ideas to contribute to the advancement of knowledge. As researchers, we use the current conventions of academic integrity to acknowledge the work of others who have gone before us. We hope that future scholars will use our findings and that they, in turn, will acknowledge our work when they publish their own. But since not everyone feels comfortable perched on the shoulders of giants, some additional support may be required to help students stay aloft.

Show students how the acknowledgment of others’ work is done in your discipline. You may find it helpful to make an analogy to the scientific method, even if you are not teaching a science course. Students probably have some familiarity with reproducibility in science. Ask them what a “methods” section should do in a scientific paper, and guide them toward remembering that it should provide enough detail for readers to repeat the experiment as closely as possible (Turbek et al. 2016). I teach history, where the dominant citation system is the footnotes-and-bibliography one from The Chicago Manual of Style. We read academic articles where the entire bottom half of some pages is taken up by footnotes, and we discuss how this is probably the most cumbersome system for the writer but the easiest for the reader who wants to see right away where the information comes from. The footnotes allow the reader to replicate the study by finding and evaluating the evidence for themselves.

Encourage students to think about their readers and why academic integrity matters to them. If you are the reader, let students know that you are interested in their ideas and that you are eager to know more: you want to consult the evidence they have consulted and follow their thought processes. To do this effectively, you need to be able to trust that they are reporting their evidence faithfully. If students are writing for another audience, get them to think about why these people deserve a full and honest trail of evidence too. Point out that academic integrity respects the reader as a rational and curious person.

Provide your students with exercises so that they can practice the habits of academic integrity. Lead them through a “Footnote Treasure Hunt” to find examples of different types of sources and think about why citations are important to the critical reader. Let them work through case studies of ethically murky situations. Pay particular attention to the confusions and temptations of digital learning to make it clear that academic integrity should prevail there as in the analog world (Etgar, Blau, and Eshet-Alkalai 2019).

Work with others at your institution to build a culture of academic integrity. Attend and contribute to professional development events at libraries and writing centers. Share resources with colleagues in your department. Be transparent with students about what academic integrity means at your institution, in your field, and for assignments in your course. When faculty, administrators, and students create and maintain an ethical community together, there is a better chance that everyone will understand the norms and expectations of maintaining academic integrity (McCabe, Butterfield, and Treviño 2012, 164–196).

Yes, students should know something of the specific rules in their institution’s code of conduct, and they should demonstrate some detailed understanding of how sources get acknowledged in their field of study. But these are hardly the inspirational ideas that draw students to our courses. Let’s help them understand why these things are so important in their academic work, and let’s presume good intentions on their part as they learn. It is through research and writing that students become part of a larger community of scholarship. By starting with what academic integrity really is and why it really matters, we’ll be inviting students to join us in upholding the values of sharing our knowledge so that we can all see further together.


Childers, Dan, and Sam Bruton. 2016. “‘Should It Be Considered Plagiarism?’ Student Perceptions of Complex Citation Issues.” Journal of Academic Ethics 14, no. 1: 1–17.

Etgar, Shir Ina Blau, and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai. 2019. “White-Collar Crime in Academia: Trends in Digital Academic Dishonesty over Time and Their Effect on Penalty Severity.” Computers & Education 141 (November). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103621

John of Salisbury. 1955. The Metalogicon of John of Salisbury: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the Trivium. Translated by Daniel D. McGarry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jurdi, Rozzet, and Henry Chow. 2012. “What Behaviours Do Students Consider Academically Dishonest? Findings from a Survey of Canadian Undergraduate Students.” Social Psychology of Education 15, no. 1: 1–23.

McCabe, Donald L., Kenneth D. Butterfield, and Linda K. Treviño. 2012. Cheating in College: Why Students Do It and What Educators Can Do about It. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Merton, Robert K. 1993. On the Shoulders of Giants: A Shandean Postscript. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Park, Chris. 2003. “In Other (People’s) Words: Plagiarism by University Students—Literature and Lessons.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 28, no. 5: 471–488.

Stock, Brian. 1979. “Antiqui and Moderni as ‘Giants’ and ‘Dwarfs’: A Reflection of Popular Culture?” Modern Philology 76, no. 4: 370–374.

Turbek, Sheela P., Taylor Chock, Kyle Donahue, Caroline Havrilla, Angela Oliverio, Stephanie Polutchko, Lauren Shoemaker, and Lara Vimercati. 2016. “Scientific Writing Made Easy: A Step‐by‐Step Guide to Undergraduate Writing in the Biological Sciences.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 97, no. 4: 417–426.

Wilkinson, Jenny. 2009. “Staff and Student Perceptions of Plagiarism and Cheating.” International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 20 no. 2: 98–105.

Yu, Hongwei, Perry L. Glanzer, Byron R. Johnson, Rishi Sriram, and Brandon Moore. 2018. “Why College Students Cheat: A Conceptual Model of Five Factors.” The Review of Higher Education 41, no. 4: 549–576.

Mairi Cowan, PhD, is an associate professor, teaching stream, and the program director for history at the Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga.

Some of this essay is adopted from an earlier publication written for historians: “Teaching about Academic Integrity by Making Citations Meaningful,” on the Canadian Historical Association’s Teaching/Learning Blog: https://cha-shc.ca/teaching/teachers-blog/teaching-about-academic-integrity-by-making-citations-meaningful-2019-09-16.htm. Thank you to science friends and colleagues Sanja Hinic-Frlog, Chris Meyer, Fiona Rawle, and Christoph Richter for their advice on what students should know about writing up methods.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Mairi. I love the metaphor of “standing on the shoulders of giants” and the emphasis on the positive goal of academic integrity.

  2. In the communal societies of the Majority World (where I have lived) I have found that a negative emphasis on “plagiarism” breaks relationship and invites students to find ways around policies, while students respond to positive approaches that help them see how a policy might facilitate growth.

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