The Ethics of Academic Practice: Combatting Exploitation and Working for Social Justice

Is modern academia an economy of theft?

I am continuing with my contemplations on the 5 Mindfulness Trainings and how they can inform an ethics of academic practice.

In this second post I take the training on ‘True Happiness’:

True Happiness

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need. I will practice looking deeply to see that the happiness and suffering of others are not separate from my own happiness and suffering; that true happiness is not possible without understanding and compassion; and that running after wealth, fame, power and sensual pleasures can bring much suffering and despair. I am aware that happiness depends on my mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that I can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that I already have more than enough conditions to be happy. I am committed to practicing Right Livelihood so that I can help reduce the suffering of living beings on Earth and reverse the process of global warming.


What is meant by this ambitious declaration and how might it be imprinted on my academic practice?

I want to begin at the end, as it were, and the direct referencing of a commitment to reversing global warming.  This is a kind of aside but bear with me.

In referencing global warming specifically I feel that Thay is indicating that while the ‘trainings’ are universal, in the sense that their core orientations can be applied in any context, they should be adapted to the specific contexts within which we live.  This understanding of the universal yet contextual nature of the ‘trainings’ is important.  The ‘trainings’ are to be worked with rather than simply applied.  They are designed to sensitise us to certain ways of being rather than rules to be imposed.

The only authority behind the ‘trainings’ is our own commitment to ethical practice.

…and now down to business.

There are a number of topics that arise during discussion with colleagues on the academic development programmes I run that deal with issues of integrity and honesty.  They can arise in two specific contexts, those of academic integrity/plagiarism, and the ethics of authorship.  But I want to add another, that of the increasingly institutionally ‘managed’ nature of our academic CVs.

Plagiarism, authorship, and integrity

I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others

When writing, as academics or students, we are entering into discussion with communities of thinkers and writers – past, present and future.  Central to the idea of scholarly activity is the dispassionate exchange of ideas in the common pursuit of knowledge – that is, the ideal of the Republic of Letters (see the Networking the Republic of Letters, 1550-1750 project for an interesting piece of research on this).  I know this is an idealised notion of academic and scholarly activity.  I also know that it can hide the imperial and gendered natured of the enterprise.  But there is something in the idea that offers different ways of being an academic in the contemporary moment.

What I take from the idea is the notion that we are never the ‘owners’ of knowledge, of ideas, of text, but only ever the custodians.

Viewing knowledge-work in this way places a slightly different emphasis on issues of academic honesty and integrity.  Often, we come to these issues in relation to students who ‘cheat’.  Actual scholarly work on this demonstrates that it is seldom as easy or straightforward as our anecdotes would suggest.  This is usually how it is initially surfaced in discussions with colleagues in academic development programmes.  Then the discussion shifts towards considering the issue in terms of enculturation of students into the disciplinary forms of academic writing and of how we, as academics, deal with referencing.

But I think there is some value in also contemplating how we are custodians rather than owners of knowledge.  The idea of the custodian of knowledge can encourage practices of care and consideration which are, in my view, healthier and more productive kinds of sensibility than mere attention to the rules of referencing, or how to punish students who cheat.  The attention to proper referencing should not be an issue of rules but rather of the ‘public’ nature of our knowledge-work.  We not only share our knowledge-work, but make ourselves accountable through such mechanisms as referencing.  In modern parlance there is an ‘open source’ element to academic practice – we are revealing the code.

A possible negative side to the custodian metaphor is that we can become reverential towards knowledge, of attending to the gatekeeping function of protecting cannons of knowledge.  Such approaches are inevitably conservative and restrictive.  But if we think of the custodian role as one of care, and respect, this still leaves knowledge-work as open and as something we then leave to others to continue working with.

I feel that there is some mileage in this metaphor, but I need to explore it further.

…and institutional ‘management’ of academic CVs

But, perhaps the issue most pertinent to this ‘training’ is the increase in the way the institutions we work for seek to manage our scholarly activity in the pursuit of market advantage.

What do I mean by this?

The emergence of the what scholars such as Simon Marginson call the ‘global university’ and heightened global competition in higher education has brought in forms of management that views our individual scholarly ambitions as little more than institutional assets.  What I mean by this is the idea that my scholarly research and writing are viewed as contributing to or undermining my employing organisation’s stock of status capital.  The ethical, social, or cultural content of my scholastic activity is therefore of no real importance other than in its capacity to contribute to the university’s competitive ambitions as measured by various ranking systems.

This fundamentally undermines the idea of the Republic of Letters and of the scholar as a custodian.

It introduces a subtle, I think, change in the nature of social relations in academic practice.  This change is in the direction of making academic practice one of ‘value relations’ in the classic Marxist sense.  For more on this perspective I think it is worth looking at the work of Joss Winn.  In this change of relations the university acts much more like the traditional capitalist enterprise directly and indirectly appropriating my academic labour.  The drive is not to have control over my labour (and here I am referring specifically to academic writing and the direction of academic research) in order to produce better or ‘higher quality’ research, but as a private good (private for the university) in its efforts to improve its market position.

As well as leading to a ‘carelessness’ in the way academics and students are treated in universities, it changes the social relationship to knowledge.  Rather than being custodians of knowledge, as individual academics, we are increasingly encouraged to view writing and research and teaching as private property that can improve our individual status within academic markets.  It also means that our employers, universities, seek to appropriate (steal) the fruits of our labour.  Knowledge is there to be plundered.

Stealing from the poor….

It is one thing for employing organisations to be seen in the role of capitalist ‘robber barons’ of academic labour.  But when we see our role as custodians of knowledge then this also implies a certain social relationship to those who participate in our research and so form the basis for our writing.  Surely we have a duty of responsibility here as well?

Much of my research has been concerned with the impact of policy on different groups, often with an explicit social justice dimension.  When this work involves interviews I am inviting folks to talk with me about their experiences, concerns, interpretations, etc.  Some of these people will be those in positions of power, others not.  I believe that there is a duty placed upon me then to treat their participation with care, responsibly.  We are used to the various ethical protocols we are asked to sign up to.  But there is something that is not mentioned in these protocols – the duty of not appropriating their generosity and commitment of time, or their openness, simply to build a career.

Indeed there can be two levels of appropriation going on simultaneously.  As the academic I may appropriate their involvement in my research as part of a strategic manoeuvre designed to improve my career prospects.  And, my employing organisation may appropriate this as part of its strategy to improve its advantage in relation to other institutions.

Both are forms of theft.

The ethical cost of eroding the custodian role

What can we do in such circumstances?

It seems to me that we (academics), collectively, are allowing and enabling  this theft to continue.  Apart from complaining privately we seldom refuse, let alone resist this economy of theft.

The question remains, then, what can we do?