Preliminary Analysis “Institutions and Academic Integrity”


We are conducting a survey of higher education institutions. This survey will enable ombudsmän and integrity referents in academic institutions to compare their practices with those of other institutions that are similar to them.

The data collection is being carried out from January to June 2020 from our samples in France, Switzerland, Montenegro/Kosovo, Spain/Portugal, Romania and Canada. The results will be presented at the International Colloquium for Research and Action on Academic Integrity in Coimbra, on 30 and 31 October 2020, which will bring together actors involved in the development of integrity policies and who have taken an active part in carrying out these surveys.

Feel free to comment on this exploratory analysis in order to improve it. Thank you!

Preliminary Analysis “Institutions and Academic Integrity”.

Michelle Bergadaà

1. Introduction

We conducted a survey of integrity referents, ombudsmen and people involved in integrity case management in France during January and February 2020. The open questionnaire consisted of 18 questions covering 5 themes: Theme 1: Identification of facts, Theme 2: Institutional guidelines, Theme 3: Internal and external communication, Theme 4: Monitoring and control, Theme 5: Complaints handling.

This interim report has been drawn up on the basis of a floating analysis of the first thirty completed questionnaires out of 121 directly solicited “integrity referents”. As this is a qualitative analysis, an in-depth examination of thirty detailed answers is sufficient to carry out a floating analysis, but of course not to propose a structuring of the field, nor to extract a social representation of the concept of integrity in institutions, nor to propose profiles by geographical areas.

The questionnaire continues to be disseminated more widely (areas of Canada, Spain/Portugal, Montenegro, etc.) during the months of March to June 2020 and will allow a comparison of practices by geographical areas. The results will be presented at the Coimbra Conference to be held on 30-31 October 2020


2. Respondents and non-respondents

A first general observation is the good response rate (24.79%), and therefore the interest in our study among the majority of the integrity officers and ombudsmen we personally contacted. A few, on the contrary, are passionate about the questions we asked, which allow them to “reflect” and invite us to come and speak at conferences to present our methods for analyzing files, mediating and conducting investigations, as we did in February 2020 in four Quebec universities.

When questioning ten of the non-respondents, the reason given was lack of time: “We have already been asked to fill out questionnaires at the national level, please contact them” or “I was appointed too short to answer your questions“. A French paradox revealed by the answers obtained is that the answers systematically refer to a central (i.e. Parisian) authority and then act in a totally independent manner within the institutions.


3. Exploratory study

We illustrate, as usual, our analysis with significant verbatim of respondents.

3.1 The formal integrity framework

  •    Concerning the main problems of breach of integrity of the institution. These are of four kinds:
  1. Ethical problems: “There are three main types of breaches: plagiarism, manipulation, data fabrication. In addition, there are problems of copyright on articles/patents and issues related to the publication of works with controversial scientific bases.”
  2. The lack of involvement of the institution, which maintains a complicit ethical vagueness. “I was the only one affected, since the rest of the university doesn’t give a damn, whereas it claims, on its institutional website, to fight against plagiarism and paradoxically proposes links to the IRAFPA website”. Plagiarism, data manipulation, guest authors, clan conduct of authors who quote each other to increase their visibility are cited.
  3. The ordinary excesses of morality. Here too, the theft of slides between colleagues, obvious conflicts of interest, the reuse of student work in multiple courses, unsanctioned plagiarism, juries of convenience, falsified and uncontrolled recruitment files, etc. are all cited in bulk.
  4.    Problems Thus: “The vast majority of cases concern publications (conflicts over the list of co-authors).” Also cited are threats received by those who denounce abuses.
  • Concerning the difficulties encountered in resolving these ethical problems. We note the following as highlights:
  1. The fact that the world is closed: “Committees are often judges and parties since it is the Professors of a discipline who are also the members and therefore the rapporteurs”.
  2.  Fear of reprisal is a concern for a majority of respondents: “Fear of reprisal by some in key positions at the university and reluctance of research organizations”; “Fear of reprisal by some in key positions at the university and reluctance of research organizations”; “Fear of reprisal by some in key positions at the university and reluctance of research organizations”; “Fear of reprisal by some in key positions at the university and reluctance of research organizations”.
  3. The lack of a frame of reference in this area: “Lack of regulatory text on scientific integrity. Lack of national reference framework for possible sanctions. Divergence of procedures between different institutions (universities, research institutes) in cases involving persons belonging to more than one institution.”
  4. The loneliness of ombudsmen or referents of integrity: “Fear of destroying one’s career for non-incumbents, fear of destroying fruitful collaborations, of damaging the reputation of colleagues, of giving a bad image of the institute.
  5. Lack of involvement of their peers: “Teachers, in general, who are very sensitive to this problem. It is sometimes difficult, however, to bring them to the Disciplinary Committee because they feel judged by their peers.”


  • Regarding the types of integrity regulations that exist within the institution, we get three types of responses:

No regulations, or only for students, not for faculty: “Absolutely none that I know of for faculty research while a charter is imposed on students for professional studies”.

Very general current national standards: “Several national standards and internal university standards, such as academic regulations.”

Preventive actions and regulations of the institution: “Training for doctoral students and HDR candidates – a procedure for managing cases of breaches of scientific integrity and disciplinary procedures”.


3.2 The Dynamics of the Culture of Academic Integrity

  In terms of how these institutional guidelines are disseminated, it is mainly the Intranet that is used. They do not seem to be brought to the forefront, as most respondents frankly answer that they are not known to researchers. As a result, integrity guidelines, where they exist, are not formatted in the spirit of a “working tool” for researchers and students. Indeed, they have been developed from a legal perspective and not from a pragmatic perspective of controlling the creation of knowledge. “The place of lawyers in the system who work according to their standards and with their mental tools (which, by the way, cannot be blamed on them), i.e. (in the best of cases) administrative law, failing to place their thinking in a more appropriate context, which would be that of scientific culture. “In fact, failures are reported to lawyers, who find themselves having power over academic practices, without having the culture to do so. On the other hand, even if there is an integrity referent or ombudsman in the institution, breaches of integrity are not always reported to them. The main difficulty seems to lie in the willingness of teachers and researchers to “report integrity violations”.

• As to the overall process of apprehending fraud and plagiarism at the institution, these are (for the time being) not operational. But the perspective for the future varies greatly. It ranges from a certain optimism: “At the end of an experimental phase, which should lead to a clearer organisation and missions, consistent with the policies and practices of other universities (shared within a network, gathering all higher education institutions)” to a black pessimism: “It is non-existent. The appointment of an Integrity Referee has added opacity”. When mechanisms exist in the institution, they are little used: “The ‘system’ does not allow a real fight against the lack of integrity. Integrity is a value that is little recognized and valued in the academic world and in today’s society.” The reactions to our question reflect a melancholy that calls out to us: “There is no such thing as management and even less responsible management in universities in France” or “As for the procedure itself, I don’t think colleagues have ever consulted the document referred to above! “This discouragement of the Integrity or Ombudsman referents should mobilize us all, because it is clear that they want to do well and believe in their mission (at least for those who answered us, the sample being de facto insufficient).

 • Concerning scientific integrity training in their institution. More than half of the respondents answered in the negative (16/30). And, concerning the target audience, it is unanimous: PhD students. Our study on doctoral schools shows the same phenomenon: supervisors are not involved in the Integrity training process. In fact, it is only recently that they are developing in France, the area of this first analysis. However, they were not conceived in a holistic way, taking into account all the actors in the doctoral training, but in a functional way: it was “one more course of the curriculum, usually an optional course”.

• Concerning a scale of sanctions for students and/or researchers at fault in the institution, the system is not there. One answer to synthesize them all: “For the students, yes I know (it’s up to me to apply it). For the researchers, I don’t have the slightest idea…”.

• Concerning the possibility of taking into account an anonymous denunciation of fraud in order to circumvent the fear noted elsewhere. The reaction in France is still imbued with an imagination that does not exist in other countries: “I don’t like whistle-blowing” or “No, I am against anonymous denunciation, it is too vichistic a practice”. Let us hope that the coronavirus crisis and the endangerment of the health of all by the irresponsible conduct of a few will change this reactive tendency. In fact, since our 2006 surveys, attitudes have moderated and many of the responses can now be summed up as follows: “It is better to have measures to protect people who issue alerts by identifying themselves than to practice anonymity; it seems cowardly or fearful to me, and you don’t build integrity on fear. The problem is that these measures do not exist and the person who reveals a fraud must trust the person to whom he or she is speaking, knowing that his or her name will most certainly be revealed.

• Concerning the inclusion of persons from outside the university on commissions of inquiry for scientific fraud. Feedback has shown us that IRAFPA’s stance is out of step with current practice. The majority response is: “I don’t know. “No further comment. Which is odd coming from Integrity referents or ombudsmen. The fact that there may be a conflict of interest and endangerment of victims if the case is handled exclusively behind closed doors does not seem to be of concern to our respondents. Only one respondent expressed an academic logic: “Yes, on an ad hoc basis, in the form of expertise (for example, the reality of plagiarism in an article, undecidable for a non-specialist). Others do not consider the eminently subjective nature of administrative commissions: “No, the disciplinary committee is made up of students, teachers and administrative staff. We plan to integrate a jurist, retired from our institution. »

• As to whether an annual review of cases handled exists. When this is the case, in very few establishments, the recipient is the head of the establishment. Thus, for example: “Yes, the General Secretariat makes an annual review” and “once the cases have been anonymized” or “presented succinctly”.   None of the respondents said what use this report was ultimately intended for. Is it one of the many factual statistics relating to the management of an establishment? In what form are these cases reported if the use is not defined beforehand? In the study on Doctoral Schools we asked the question about the experience gained on the basis of a database of anonymised cases of misconduct. We found that there is no possibility of learning from the stakeholders, as the cases are forgotten once the files are closed. The learning curve therefore appears to be zero, since the heads of institutions, Integrity referrers, committee chairmen, etc. change before they can learn from the cases. This is not necessarily due to incompetence, as we had hypothesized in our previous work, but to the absence of learning mechanisms for the managers.

• Concerning the mechanisms they would suggest on the basis of their experience. We have to remove the palpable discouragement of the most motivated, otherwise the setting up of a network of integrity referents or ombudsmen will be useless: “The question of awareness-raising is, in my opinion, essential, but difficult… My experience, having organised conferences on the subject, shows that staff and students show little (or no…) interest in the subject. I therefore think that at all levels (laboratory internships, PhD, postdoctorate, recruitment, HDR, etc.) integrity issues should be recalled in one way or another”.

Respondents’ proposals were threefold:


  • Outsourcing the problem: “A body outside the university that would act as a guarantor of integrity, since the university’s services are failing”.
  • Functional measures: “Recruiting ethical people, more communication on this subject”; “Compulsory training also for staff after PhD in real sanctions“; “Setting up common typologies and graduation of sanctions (first at national level, then at European level)”. “Establishment of standard protocols per discipline.
  • Modification of the academic culture:A strong awareness-raising action over a somewhat long period.”; “A greater awareness among young researchers arriving in the institutions and new thesis supervisors (during the HDR transition) ; “Systematization of the awareness tool before each student’s academic career, but it is a profound change in our practices…“.

3. Crisis and Responsibility

None of the respondents in our sample – even though they were all mandated to act as integrity referrals, ombudsman or fraud and plagiarism commission chairs involved and answered our questions at length – seem able to impose their ideal of integrity. The reason for this is that each one imagines his or her role without “specifications” and that there is no precise framework for the terms and conditions of their interventions. And yet they are highly conscious of their responsibility: “Science itself is a victim and young researchers, potentially distorted by such practices, when they should be trained. In the end, the general public is poorly informed; on the other hand, it is struck by the crisis of scientific expertise, and finds it difficult to distinguish in the media hubbub, the work – estimable but preliminary – from the “facts” largely proven by work carried out in various contexts and by independent teams; not to mention, finally, the real “scientific” communications biased by financial or partisan interests.”

It must be said that everyone acts within a framework that maintains ambiguity, being themselves often judges and parties, often appointed, sometimes elected, sometimes driven by a real desire to co-create new mechanisms for the issues of today and tomorrow. Sometimes they are placed in this position because none of the “active” researchers wish to waste their time in this obscure position.

To propose clarifying this ambiguity of role, we refer to a theory that we have used in several of our writings. Figure 1 below summarizes the situation still observed in this study. Essentially, there are two types of ambiguity that occur when the decision-maker is faced with a choice [1] (Ball-Rokeach, 1973)

  • The first facet of the concept, “central ambiguity” (pervasive ambiguity), stems from the fact that the decision-maker does not know how to define the social situation in which his or her action will have to fit. He therefore does not know why he would act. The individual would then tend to tacitly reproduce the contextually acceptable patterns, and thus reinforce them through his action. This is why we obtained many conservative responses from respondents who expect centralized answers or who refer to an administrative or legal order, not an academic one. The reasons given often converge: “Reforms of liberal destruction of higher education and research have established a bureaucratic, hierarchical and authoritarian centralism, and have reduced the scope of collegial and debating bodies.”

However, at the level of the institutions we are interested in in this study, this “central ambiguity” has many more consequences than mere psychological discomfort. Thus, those in charge of integrity who would like a change in culture cannot but notice that the reminder of essential values should not be confined to a few formal ethics courses, but should give rise to debates involving all knowledge players, researchers, supervisors, administrators, etc., and not only students. What this central ambiguity tells us is that the characteristics of the profession are still and always described as “publish or perish”. And yet the characteristics of the profession are to lead to the creation of authentic knowledge to enable those who follow us to progress on solid bases, to indicate our sources to enable them to redo our analyses. Let us note that it is this same “central ambiguity” about our values and our profession that serves as the cornerstone of Girard’s propositions[2]: ambiguity is inscribed in the violence that animates men who desire what an “idealized other” possesses. This desire would lead to a destabilization of their society and, when confronted with a crisis situation, therefore as soon as they feel threatened, men would converge on a “scapegoat”. And this is typically what happens when a breach of integrity occurs: one looks for the ideal culprit, usually the student, assistant or external collaborator of the institution. There are few questions about the chain of negligence that led to the fraud. Our mediation systems always begin by eliminating this “central ambiguity” by reminding all the protagonists of the fundamentals of the profession. Only then can we begin to act to repair the damage.

  • The second facet, “focus ambiguity”, arises when a person understands the situation that he or she must act on, but is unable to define an appropriate strategy for action. The individual seeks to erase this “focus ambiguity” by defining the best possible choice, i.e. the choice that is least risky for him or herself. When this ambiguity is denied, or when we do not listen to the people who express their distress, the individual is led to a headlong rush that can lead him or her to take action. For example, the first work of our mediation efforts at IRAFPA also begins by asking the victims or whistleblowers to provide us with a list of all the people responsible for the situation. This first work of “de-dramatizing” the situation is done by contextualizing the case and taking a step back [3]. In the case of the respondents in this study, they are constantly grappling with this “ambiguity of focus”, as they have to invent the perimeter of their action. In the absence of guidelines and standards, they rely only on regulations that are generally unknown to their peers. But how can we hope to mobilize for the integrity of researchers, doctoral students, librarians, and administrators, if the Integrity referents themselves encounter this ambiguity? Even the record of integrity violations encountered is of no practical use and is only provided to the head of the institution.

For too long, student plagiarism has been used as a pretext for not wanting to admit the multiple breaches of ethics that occur in research bodies. It is now urgent that these institutional leaders grasp the theme of integrity and make it a matter of course at the heart of their mission. The productivity demanded of all political leaders, productivity measured quantitatively by citation indexes and rankings, has perhaps made us forget our job: to produce and teach knowledge. And there is no knowledge without integrity. It is not by highlighting an exceptional case of a breach of integrity from time to time, a case that receives media attention, that we can put the church back in the heart of the village. It is by being convinced, as are the Integrity referents in our sample, that we need to mobilise.

With regard to action with victims, every week IRAFPA receives requests for mediation. In order to appreciate the mediation work that these complaints call for, here are – in their entirety – four letters received at the beginning of the year 2020.

[1] Ball-Rokeach S. J. (1973), From pervasive ambiguity to a definition of the situation. Sociometry, 36, 378-389.

[2] Girard R. (1982), Le Bouc émissaire, Paris, Grasset.

[3] Cela nous évite aussi d’avoir à lire les centaines de courriels dans lesquels les victimes veulent voir les preuves des malversations.


Fig. 1 : Ambiguïtés. Site IRAFPA.

  • Rapport provisoire. Genève, 30 mars 2020.