The elusiveness of academic integrity and its value: some musings against any relaxation of standards

One of the most complicated and elusive elements in the day to day of a professional academic have to do with some form of academic integrity and, particularly, with the keeping of academic standards. This is a fundamental part of our role in two main dimensions: peer review and student assessment.

In the peer review area, this relates to editorial functions (such as the blind review of manuscripts before publication in academic journals, or the publication of book reviews) as well as to the active participation in research debates (such as conferences, seminars or, these days, twitter and blog platforms).

In student assessment, the array of activities is even broader, from marking (and second marking) of undergraduate work, to external examining in other institutions, to supervision of postgraduate students and, maybe with the highest significance, the examination of PhD theses. The indivisible connection between assessment and academic standards can hardly be overstated (
see The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education's position here).
In my view and (still limited) experience, all these processes feed into each other and the only sensible strategy for a professional academic concerned with academic integrity and the keeping of academic standards (which are the only value that universities should really protect above any other) is to try to remain actively involved in both dimensions (ie peer review and assessment) and to resist the permanent pressures to lower standards here and there. It may sound slightly self-important, but I think that professional academic need to perceive ourselfs as a gatekeepers and resist calls to open the doors too often or too easily.
It is also very important for us, as a community, to be able to communicate to society that this is the core, most fundamental function that we develop and the most significant value we add in return for the (always too limited, always too insecure) funding of our activities. Hence, when there are debates about the purpose and function of higher education institutions and their (core) employees, we should always make sure to stress that we uphold academic integrity and enforce academic standards. It may sound too vague, but this is the most important function we can possibly perform. And it is also the most distinctive.
Otherwise, if we fail to keep academic integrity, the ensuing dillution of academic standards will end up resulting in a scenario where academic qualifications are completely irrelevant because they no longer tell anyone how much of an expert somebody is, or how qualified to develop activities in a field that requires scientific knowledge. It will also be impossible to distinguish one university from another on the basis of any valuable merits-based metric and, in the end, academic excellency will fade away.
Of course, keeping academic integrity is difficult to do and usually comes (sooner or later) at a personal cost. Nobody likes to tell someone else that their work/research is not up to the applicable standard and we all tend to get upset when we hear it. Nobody likes rejection or failure. However, professional academics need to be able to swallow that bitter pill every now and then, and make sure that standards are kept despite colleagues, peers or students getting upset or frustrated. Hopefully, their (academic) maturity will make those feelings go away and the objectiveness of the academic assessment will be recognised sooner or later.
In this time of the year, with so many assessments going on and so many pressures coming from rakings based on student satisfaction as yesterday's Guardian 2015 University Guide tables, it is worth reminding ourselves of the value and long-term relevance of what we do. We cannot always please everyone if that means that academic integrity is jeopardised. And, most importantly, we must not do it. If we sacrifice academic standards in the altar of satisfaction, the importance and long-term viability of higher education institutions will be doomed. Clearly, a bitter pill to swallow.