Academic Dishonesty and Ethical Reasoning

Honesty and integrity are vital attributes of any physician or health-care worker, since our work involves dealing with vulnerable people who have to put their trust in us and our judgements.

They are also necessary integral parts of the academic basis for our professional practice – our science must be correct, and we must know what we are doing and be competent at it. Sadly however there is ample evidence to suggest that academic dishonesty remains an area of concern for academic and professional bodies. There is also burgeoning research in the area of moral reasoning and its relevance to the teaching of pharmacy and medicine, including how it is linked to academic honesty.

A just-published paper from the University of Auckland in New Zealand explored academic dishonesty and ethical reasoning in 433 pharmacy and medicine students.A questionnaire eliciting responses about academic dishonesty (copying, cheating, and collusion) and their decisions regarding an ethical dilemma was distributed. Multivariate analysis procedures were conducted. The findings suggested that copying and collusion may be linked to the way students make ethical decisions. Students more likely to suggest unlawful and inappropriate solutions to the ethical dilemma were also more likely to disclose engagement in copying information and colluding with other students.

Perhaps somewhat charitably, the authors say, ‘These findings imply that students engaging in academic dishonesty may be using different ethical frameworks’, and that ‘employing ethical dilemmas would likely create a useful learning framework for identifying students employing dishonest strategies when coping with their studies. Increasing understanding through dialogue about engagement in academic honesty will likely construct positive learning outcomes in the university with implications for future practice.’

Maybe so, but I would want to suggest that ‘different ethical frameworks’ is not a robust enough description when what we are dealing with is dishonesty (lying, cheating and breaking the law). This is inappropriate behaviour for health-care students and professionals, and in the UK at least could lead to erasure from professional registers and loss of the right to practice. Students and professionals need to understand clearly that such behaviour is totally unacceptable.
PRIME is committed to encouraging honesty and integrity in health-care practice and teaching, as well as compassion and altruism. Do you teach (and show by example) your students the importance of honesty in academic work and adherence to the law in dealing with ethical dilemmas in practice?

Our patients deserve honest carers who bring personal, scientific and ethical integrity to their work at all times. Anything less is unworthy of our vocation as those called to the work of healing.

Dr Huw Morgan
Senior PRIME tutor

1.     Marcus A. Henning, Sanya Ram, Phillipa Malpas, Boaz Shulruf, Fiona Kelly, and Susan J. Hawken. Academic dishonesty and ethical reasoning: Pharmacy and medical school students in New Zealand. Medical Teacher;  Ahead of Print : Pages e1-e7 November 2012


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