Causes of Academic Dishonesty

There are a variety of causes of academic misconduct. Researchers have studied the correlation of cheating to personal characteristics, demographics, contextual factors, methods of deterring misconduct, even stages of moral development.

Incentives to cheat
Some scholars contend that there are students who have a pathological urge to cheat. The writer Thomas Mallon noted that many scholars had found plagiarism in literature (Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Reade being two notable examples) to often be perpetrated in a way similar to kleptomania (a psychological disease associated with uncontrollable stealing, even when it is against the interests of the thief). On the other hand, Mallon concludes it is probable that most "cheaters" make a rational choice to commit academic misconduct.(cf.)

Richard Fass puts forward the possibility that business scandals in the real world make students believe dishonesty is an acceptable method for achieving success in contemporary society. Academic dishonesty, in this case, would be practice for the real world. For some students, there would be a dichotomy between success and honesty, and their decision is that: "It is not that we love honesty less, but that we love success more." Conversely, other scholars consider that with the recent rise in corporate ethics related dismissals in the business world, this approach to cheating may be losing its appeal, if it ever really had any. However, it has been shown that the expected benefits of cheating as well as student´s morality plays an important role for the engagement in dishonest behavior.

Recent studies have indicated that there is no clear link between academic dishonesty and academic success. One study showed that students given an unexpected opportunity to cheat did not improve their grades significantly from the control group. Another study showed that students who were allowed to bring cheat sheets to a test did not improve their grades. While this may conflict with the common perception of cheating (one survey found only 13% of males and 46% of females think that cheating does not help grades,) it is often apparent to professors and members of academic conduct committees when a paper has been plagiarized by its inferior quality.

In the USA, on average one third of grade A students have cheated. And asserts that academic dishonesty acts as a shortcut, so even grade A students might be tempted to cheat. He contends that even if a plagiarized paper receives a relatively low grade, that grade is actually high, given how much time and effort went into the paper. In the study mentioned above (in which students were allowed to bring crib sheets to a test but did not improve their scores), the researcher concluded that the students used the crib notes as alternatives to studying, rather than as complements to studying, and thus spent less time preparing for the exam.

The federal government of the United States has mandated high-stakes testing as part of the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002. Schools and teachers are held accountable for the results. According to Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, co-authors of Freakonomics, teachers are known to "teach to the test": while not teaching the actual answers, they teach the questions and similar ones, and they neglect any topic that will not be tested on. Levitt also states that teachers may inflate the results of tests given in their classroom.Teachers and librarians can have a significant proactive impact on doing honest work.

Demographic and personal causes
Research has identified a number of demographic characteristics that appear to be important influences on cheating, including age, gender and grade point average. Older students, females, and students with higher academic achievement are less likely to cheat, whereas students involved with many extra-curricular activities are more likely to do so. Students involved in extra-curricular activities may be less committed to their studies, or may have more demands on their time, which interfere with their studies, creating a greater incentive to cheat. It has been found that younger students are somewhat more likely to cheat: one study finding the highest incidence of cheating occurs during Sophomore year at college. Although, cheating might be expected to decline with greater moral development, one experiment found that there was no relationship between how a student performed on a morality test and his likelihood of cheating (that is, students at a pre-conventional stage of morality are as likely to cheat as those at a post-conventional stage). Higher academic procrastination was also found to increase the frequency of seven different forms of academic misconduct (using fraudulent excuses, plagiarism, copying from someone else in exams, using forbidden means in exams, carrying forbidden means into exams, copying parts of homework from others, and fabrication or falsification of data) as well as the variety of academic misconduct. This German panel study among thousands of university students argues that academic misconduct might be a coping-strategy to overcome the negative consequences of academic procrastination such as lower performance.

Race, nationality, and class all show little correlation with academic misconduct. There is also no correlation between how religious someone is and the likelihood that that person will cheat. A comparison between students of different religions yielded similar results, although the study did show that Jews tend to cheat less than members of other religions. One of the strongest demographic correlations with academic misconduct in the United States is with language. Students who speak English as a second language have been shown to commit academic dishonesty more and are more likely to be caught than native speakers, since they will often not want to rewrite sources in their own words, fearing that the meaning of the sentence will be lost through poor paraphrasing skills. In the University of California system, international students make up 10% of the student body but comprise 47% of academic dishonesty cases. In British universities, students from outside of the European Union make up 12% of the student body but comprise 35% of academic dishonesty cases.

Contextual causes
Academic misconduct is more easily traced to the academic and social environment of students than to their background. These contextual factors can be as broad as the social milieu at school to as narrow as what instructions a teacher gives before an exam.

Contextual factors that individual teachers can affect often make the least difference on cheating behavior. A study found that increasing the distance between students taking an exam has little effect on academic misconduct, and that threatening students before an exam with expulsion if they cheat actually promotes cheating behavior. Indeed, increased exam proctoring and other methods of detecting cheating in the classroom are largely ineffective. According to one survey of American college students, while 50% had cheated at least once in the previous six months, and 7% had cheated more than five times in that period, only 2.5% of the cheaters had been caught. As teachers invent more elaborate methods of deterring cheating, students invent even more elaborate methods of cheating (sometimes even treating it as a game), leading to what some teachers call a costly and unwinnable arms race. Increased punishment for academic misconduct also has little correlation with cheating behavior. It has been found that students with markedly different perceptions of what the severity of the punishment for cheating were all equally likely to cheat, probably indicating that they thought that increased penalties were immaterial since their cheating would never be discovered. However, if a professor makes clear that he disapproves of cheating, either in the syllabus, in the first class, or at the beginning of a test, academic dishonesty can drop by 12%. Some professors may have little incentive to reduce cheating in their classes below a point that would otherwise be obvious to outside observers, as they are rated by how many research papers they publish and research grants they win for the college, and not by how well they teach.

Teachers can, however, accidentally promote cheating behavior. A study found a correlation between how harsh or unfair a professor is perceived as and academic misconduct, since students see cheating as a way of getting back at the teacher. Also, students who see themselves in a competition, such as when the teacher is using a grade curve, are more likely to cheat.

Research has also shown a correlation between goal orientation and the occurrence of academic cheating. Students who perceive their classroom to have high mastery goals are less likely to engage in cheating than those who perceive their classroom to emphasize performance goals. In other words, students who are encouraged to learn for the sake of learning and who exhibit an intrinsic value of education are less likely to cheat than those who are encouraged primarily by grades and other extrinsic rewards.

The most important contextual causes of academic misconduct are often out of individual teachers' hands. One very important factor is time management. One survey reported two-thirds of teachers believed that poor time management was the principal cause of cheating. Often social engagements are to blame. It has been found that there is a strong correlation between extracurricular activities and cheating, especially among athletes, even those on intramural teams. It has also been found that student cheating rates rise significantly the more time students spend playing cards, watching television, or having a few drinks with friends. Relatedly, fraternity or sorority membership is also strongly correlated with academic misconduct.

One of the most important causes of academic misconduct is the contextual factor of an environment of peer disapproval of cheating, that is, peer pressure. Psychologists note that all people tend to follow the norms of their peer group, which would include norms about academic dishonesty. Thus, students who believe that their peers disapprove of cheating are less likely to cheat. Indeed, multiple studies show that the most decisive factor in a student's decision to cheat is his perception of his peers' relationship with academic dishonesty. For instance, on average 69% of students cheat at colleges with low community disapproval of academic misconduct, whereas only about 23% of students cheat at colleges with strong community disapproval of academic misconduct. Peer pressure works both ways, as a study found that there is a 41% increase in the probability of a student cheating if he or she has seen someone else cheat. However, even if most students strongly disapprove of cheating, there has to be a community in order for those norms to be enforced via peer pressure. For instance, larger schools, which usually have much higher cheating rates than small schools, tend to have a weaker community, being more split up into different peer groups that exert little social pressure on each other. Another measure of a college community, how many students live on campus, further shows a significant relation with a school's cheating rate.Relatedly, many professors argue that smaller classes reduce cheating behavior.

Ethical causes
No matter what the demographic or contextual influences are on a student who decides to engage in cheating behavior, before they can cheat they must overcome their own conscience. This depends both on how strongly someone disapproves of academic dishonesty and what types of justifications the student uses to escape a sense of guilt. For instance, students who personally do not have a moral problem with academic misconduct can cheat guilt-free. However, while many students have been taught and have internalized that academic dishonesty is wrong, it has been shown that on average a third of students who strongly disapprove of cheating have in fact cheated. People who cheat despite personal disapproval of cheating engage in something called "neutralization", in which a student rationalizes the cheating as being acceptable due to certain mitigating circumstances. According to psychologists of deviant behavior, people who engage in neutralization support the societal norm in question, but "conjure up" reasons why they are allowed to violate that norm in a particular case. Neutralization is not a simple case of ex post facto rationalization, but is rather a more comprehensive affair, occurring before, during, and after the act of cheating. Researchers have found four major types of neutralization of academic dishonesty, which they categorize by type of justification. Denial of responsibility - that is, the accusation that others are to blame or that something forced the student to cheat - is the most common form of neutralization among college students who cheated, with 61% of cheaters using this form of justification. Condemnation of condemner - that is, that the professors are hypocrites or brought it on themselves - is the second most common form of college student neutralization at 28%. The third most popular form of neutralization among college students is the appeal to higher loyalties, where the student thinks their responsibility to some other entity, usually their peers, is more important than doing what they know to be morally right. About 6.8% of cheaters in higher education use this form of neutralization. Denial of injury - thinking that nobody is worse off for the cheating - is the fourth most popular kind of neutralization at 4.2% of cheaters.