On Becoming an Academic Integrity Activist: Reflections on the Impact of COVID-19 on Scholarly Identity

Topics: Blog, Spotlight

During the COVID-19 pandemic I have evolved from being an academic integrity advocate to being an academic integrity activist. I have learned that being an activist does not require being an antagonist. Some activism is big, bold, and public and other kinds are quiet, discreet, and cooperative. Standing up for what matters is important no matter how you do it.

In a book chapter I am writing with Dr. Natasha Kenny for Academic Integrity in Canada (forthcoming, 2021), we discuss how academic integrity work is often invisible. It involves conversations with individuals, small groups, and big committees. These conversations can be unscheduled and informal or they can be formal and demand a ton of preparation, including reports and slide decks. All too often, these reports are internal documents that never become publicly available. I expect many schools have collections of such reports and documents that never see the light of day. These are the invisible artefacts of integrity.

In academia, the work we do must be visible in order to receive recognition in regular performance reports, and applications for promotion and tenure. But much of the work that many of us do as academic integrity leaders, researchers, and activists is entirely invisible. I am sure I am not alone when I become frustrated beyond words when administrators and colleagues demand “evidence” for aspects of this work that are in a pre-evidentiary state. When I – and others – started becoming vocal a few years ago about the ways in which contract cheating companies blackmail students, we were mocked by some colleagues as being sensationalist and dismissed by others who insisted that unless we had “evidence” that we had no business to be making such claims.

When Yorke et al. (2020) published their article on blackmailing of students by contract cheating companies, the academic integrity community finally had evidence to substantiate what we had been talking about for years. When Australia’s national quality assurance body for education, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA), developed an infographic to help promote awareness about how contract cheating companies blackmail students, that further legitimized the conversation. Over time, we will gather more evidence and have more conversations about the insidious practices of contract cheating, but the underlying issue of critics shutting down conversations about important issues due to lack of “evidence” remains problematic.

During the Black Lives Matter movement, a number of academic integrity advocates began having conversations about how particular student groups are over-represented in academic misconduct reporting. This is a topic that Tracey Bretag addressed in her workshop, “Academic Integrity and Embracing Diversity” when she joined us at the Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity. There is some evidence from other countries that students from particular backgrounds get reported more often for misconduct than others, but as yet, we have not collected data on this in Canada. Let’s get one thing straight: Just because we have not yet collected data on a problem does not mean that the problem does not exist.

In 2020, I produced a discussion paper about why we need more data relating to student misconduct to better understand how and when students from particular groups might be over-represented (Eaton, 2020). Critics (particularly in my own country of Canada) emerged from the woodwork to demand “evidence” that there was injustice and implicit bias with regards to which students get reported for misconduct. I am paraphrasing, but the general gist of the comments was, “until you can prove to me that international students do not cheat more than domestic students, then I don’t believe you.” I carefully try to explain that those who get reported for misconduct may not include everyone who commits misconduct. The critics are not interested. Their myopia prevents them from entertaining the idea that a problem might exist even in circumstances where formal data are not yet available. Once again, we find ourselves in a pre-evidentiary state.

Insisting on having “evidence” for invisible work is frustrating, and at times it seems downright ludicrous. Many of us who work in academic integrity research are working as fast as we can to conduct research and gather the necessary data. As I have pointed out in an article I co-authored with a graduate student a few years ago, in Canada, very few researchers have successfully received any federal funding to study these questions (Eaton & Edino, 2018). I will keep applying for federal research grants to study these topics. Until then, I do the work anyway, because it is important and urgent.

For me, doing academic integrity research is not an ideologically agnostic endeavour. This work is not values-free.  It is entirely values-laden. When one studies ethics in educational contexts we do not do so because it is merely an intellectual endeavour. We are not dispassionate, detached, or objective. In many cases, we are passionate not only about the work, but about change that can result because of the work. For many of us, academic ethics inquiry is intertwined with advocacy. We do this work because we care deeply about our students, our colleagues, and the systems that are supposed to support us all.

I have had many sleepless nights mentally preparing for conversations about academic integrity and ethical issues in education, particularly during the pandemic. These conversations may happen quietly or behind closed doors, leaving no trace that they ever occurred. The impact of the conversations can change the trajectory of how individuals or organizations act. Just because work is invisible does not mean that it does not have impact. And in the world of academia where we are under constant and unrelenting pressure to show the “impact” of our work, much of this work will continue to go unrecognized by our superiors. But we do the work anyway knowing that sometimes the invisible efforts are just as effective – if not more so – at creating lasting change.

Dr. Leslie Reid, the University of Calgary’s Vice Provost Teaching and Learning, has commented to me more than once that change happens “one conversation at a time”. During this pandemic, my identity as an academic integrity activist has definitely evolved. I recognize that I must undertake the invisible work in addition to – not instead of – the visible (and quantifiable) work such as research articles, book chapters, books, conference presentations, and so on. But like so many others who engage in this work, I know that the invisible work matters.

I will be an activist on my own terms: having one conversation at a time, sometimes publicly, but also (and often) privately. But no matter how those conversations happen, they matter.

Eaton, S. E. (2021). On Becoming an Academic Integrity Activist: Reflections on the Impact of COVID-19 on Scholarly Identity. University of Calgary. http://hdl.handle.net/1880/113130



Bretag, T. (2019). Academic integrity and embracing diversity. Workshop presented at the Canadian Symposium on Academic Integrity, Calgary, Canada. http://hdl.handle.net/1880/110278

Eaton, S. E. (2020). Race-Based Data in Student Conduct: A Call to Action. Retrieved from Calgary, Canada: http://hdl.handle.net/1880/112157

Eaton, S. E., & Edino, R. I. (2018). Strengthening the research agenda of educational integrity in Canada: A review of the research literature and call to action. International Journal of Educational Integrity, 14(1). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-018-0028-7

Kenny, N., & Eaton, S. E. (2021). Academic integrity through a SoTL lens and 4M framework: An institutional self-study. In S. E. Eaton & J. Christensen Hughes (Eds.), Academic integrity in Canada: An enduring and essential challenge: Springer.

Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). (2020). Contract cheating and blackmail. Retrieved from https://www.teqsa.gov.au/sites/default/files/contract-cheating-blackmail.pdf?v=1591659442

Yorke, J., Sefcik, L., & Veeran-Colton, T. (2020). Contract cheating and blackmail: a risky business? Studies in Higher Education, 1-14. doi:10.1080/03075079.2020.1730313


Related Reading

Eaton, S. E. (2020). Academic Integrity During COVID-19: Reflections from the University of Calgary. International Studies in Educational Administration, 48(1), 80-85. Retrieved from https://prism.ucalgary.ca/handle/1880/112293

Eaton, S. E., & Turner, K. L. (2020). Exploring academic integrity and mental health during COVID-19: Rapid review. Journal of Contemporary Education Theory & Research, 4(1), 35-41. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4256825

About the Author
Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Her research interests and expertise focus on academic integrity.