Academic Integrity in an Age of Misinformation

As an academic librarian, I often explore academic integrity issues, including topics like avoiding plagiarism and evaluating sources, with students and campus partners. These explorations and conversations often cover a wide range of topics and take many different forms, from sharing resources and tips to help a student more confidently cite their sources in workshops to deeper classroom discussions about what it means to ethically engage in scholarship. But for the past few years, I have also been focused heavily on issues surrounding misinformation. This focus has involved everything from examining intersections between information and media literacy to exploring the historical evolution of misinformation to considering how source evaluation and fact-checking skills need to evolve in the Internet age. I’ve been particularly interested in how librarians, with their traditional focus on information literacy instruction, can contribute to conversations around misinformation and to educational initiatives that empower people to both better recognize and combat misinformation in their daily lives.

Our current age of misinformation has an effect on nearly every aspect of how we consume and produce information, from the ways in which health news is reported to the emotional impacts of social media usage to the ethical implications of deep fakes to the literacy skills needed to identify fake news. Historically, conversations around academic integrity often provided a way for librarians to connect with campus partners to more deeply consider the research process. Currently, it seems that conversations and challenges around misinformation provide an opportunity to deepen and complicate those conversations and to consider our entire information ecosystem, and the ethics of that ecosystem, much more broadly.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to recently present at the ICAI Southeast Regional Conference at Emory University (you can see my slides and lesson handouts online). In my presentation, I endeavored to explore connections between academic integrity and misinformation and to consider how instructional opportunities might emerge around these two areas. I’m still exploring and considering these issues, but I was excited to have the opportunity to examine these issues with a group of professionals who think deeply about academic integrity and to think about ways we can empower our students to be informed and ethical consumers, users, and producers of information.

Misinformation as a term has been heavily debated over the past few years. Essentially, it refers to content that is false, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Misinformation, as an umbrella, term, can cover a wide range of false information, from a deliberately created conspiracy theory to satire that is inadvertently taken seriously. Overall, misinformation is increasingly everywhere, can be difficult to spot, can lead to distrust and conflict, and can make it difficult for people to find the credible information they need. Academic integrity is about ensuring that you are using credible information and are sharing information in an ethical manner, so as not to mislead someone.

What is interesting to me is how research and scholarship and our information ecosystem more broadly is largely about conversations. And misinformation and things like plagiarism can disrupt those conversations by making it difficult to identify facts, to establish trust, to encourage civility, or to even stay on topic. Both misinformation and academic dishonesty have a tendency to suck up all the oxygen and to derail conversations, with people debating the misinformation or, say, the cheating scandal itself rather than the original topic or research. And both misinformation and issues of academic dishonesty, like plagiarism, can be extremely emotionally charged. In fact, misinformation is often deliberately emotionally provocative.

In terms of ways forward with exploring the connections between misinformation and academic integrity, and instructional opportunities for addressing these topics, I’ve been intrigued by a few different approaches. The first is more skills-based, with a focus on fact-checking and source evaluation skills. These skills are often covered in library instruction scenarios and I could see opportunities for merging these topics with lessons on ways to properly and ethically use and cite credible sources in research projects. At the ICAI Southeast Regional conference I shared some quick fact-checking games that help students start thinking about the types of information and sources they encounter. Next is a more reflective approach that encourages students to consider the emotional ramifications of things like misinformation and plagiarism. I’ve been intrigued by how aspects of mindfulness education can be used to explore misinformation and to encourage people to slow down and reflect on their response to the media they encounter. Something like unintentional plagiarism itself can often be driven by factors like fear, and I wonder if there are ways (perhaps with something like a reflection prompt or a log) to encourage students to be self-aware, emotionally attuned, and ethical consumer, users, and producers of information and scholarship. Finally, I’m interested in ways to encourage conversations around the ways in which research and scholarship are conversations and role students play in those conversations and in the broader information ecosystems we inhabit.

Misinformation is an incredibly challenging topic and I am eager to continue exploring connections between misinformation and issues of academic integrity and ways to empower students to navigate and thrive in increasingly complex information ecosystems.

About the Author
Sarah Morris is the Head of Instruction and Engagement at the Emory University Libraries. Previously, she held positions at the University of Texas at Austin and at Loyola University Chicago. Sarah received her MS in Information Studies from UT Austin, and she has an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. Sarah’s teaching and research interests center around misinformation and intersections of information literacy and media literacy. She’s developed curriculum that addresses misinformation in partnership with organizations such as the Mozilla Foundation, the Capitol of Texas Media Foundation, The Association of College and Research Libraries, and Global Voices NewsFrames. Sarah is particularly interested in starting to explore issues related to misinformation and academic integrity in her work.
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