Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Cheating Themselves

Universities must create communities where academic dishonesty is explained but not explained away.

By Miriam Schulman

Has cheating increased dramatically on college campuses in the past 30 years?

Photo by Charles Barry

If you answered yes, you share a general public impression of deterioration in academic integrity. But, in fact, research does not support this view.

Donald McCabe, who studied college cheating in 1990, found the number of students who admitted at least one cheating violation decreased slightly compared to a 1963 study by William Bowers. "That finding surprised me," McCabe told the journal Synthesis, "and surprises nearly everyone who hears it."

Not that academic integrity has ceased to be an issue. In a second study by McCabe, conducted in 1993, two out of three students reported they had engaged in at least one instance of dishonest behavior (from padding a bibliography to plagiarism). That figure was up slightly from Bowers' 1963 figure.

McCabe and his co-author, Linda Klebe Trevino, caution, "Although the number of students who cheat has increased only modestly, the students who do cheat are engaging in a wider variety of test cheating behaviors today and are also cheating more often."

But a tendency to tsk-tsk about the values of the younger generation may obscure the nature of the problem and what strategies actually work to combat it.

Some Problems in Definition

The moral high horse is a particularly bad vantage point for defining exactly what academic dishonesty is. Of course, when a student buys a term paper and hands it in over his or her signature, everyone agrees the behavior is plagiarism.

But proper attribution of sources is sometimes more subtle—so much so that professors themselves may lose sight of it. Santa Clara University Associate Professor of English Phyllis Brown, who helped develop her department's policy on academic integrity, remembers her own experience in graduate school.

After listening to one professor lecture for several weeks, she decided to go to the library and read some of the material he had put on reserve. There she discovered the uncited sources for many of the ideas the professor had put forward in class—in some instances, word for word.

Aside from sometimes failing to model academic integrity themselves, teachers, Brown believes, are not always sensitive to differing standards about plagiarism. Drawing on the work of Dorothy Wells, a university writing program administrator, Brown says, "What is appropriate attribution changes between high school and college, college and the professional world, etc."

Although a younger student may be allowed to copy information from an encyclopedia without citation, a university student is expected to footnote not only direct quotations but also borrowed ideas. Yet when that same university student enters the work world, a superior may appropriate his or her ideas without giving the individual credit for them.


Additionally, what may be considered cheating in one class may not be considered cheating in another, or the rules about cheating may vary between assignments even within a single course. "What some consider acts of cheating, which give an unfair advantage, others consider resourcefulness," observe Dana Brutoco and Maurissa Genereux, two SCU seniors who conducted a 1997 cheating survey at Santa Clara. "For example, while some faculty members allow a paper from one course to be the building block for a new paper, others consider that to be cheating."

Collaboration is a particularly gray area. A staple of the contemporary classroom, collaborative learning is supposed to mimic the work world, where projects are rarely completed by individuals in isolation. Effective as it may be pedagogically, collaboration can confuse students about what is morally acceptable.

Cheating behaviors related to collaboration are one area where the results of McCabe's 1993 study and Bowers' 1963 study differ markedly. When asked if they worked together on assignments when the professor had explicitly forbidden such cooperation, only 11 percent of students said yes in 1963 while 49 percent reported this behavior in 1993.


Many of the behaviors the SCU researchers found prevalent at the University, however, are acts the students themselves defined as clear instances of academic dishonesty. Overall, 83 percent of SCU students surveyed admitted to some form of cheating.

Why do students engage in conduct they themselves think is wrong? Many researchers site neutralization of deviance, a concept first defined by Gresham Sykes and David Matza in 1957.

Basically, neutralization is the old, familiar thought process that says, "Yes, this behavior is wrong, and society is justified in making rules to disallow it. BUT special circumstances make it OK for me to ignore this rule."

Sykes and Matza defined five ways individuals often neutralize deviant behavior: denial of injury, denial of the victim, appeal to higher loyalties, denial of responsibility, and condemnation of the condemners.

In the SCU survey, students exhibited several of these neutralizing tendencies. Denial of injury was common, with many students believing no one was hurt by their dishonesty. Indeed, 29 percent claimed cheating was justified if the student learned from it.

About a fifth denied the victim by blaming the teacher for their behavior. This thought process is clear in the comment of one student who wrote, "Cheating can be justified if the teacher is a tyrant—I mean it, really." It is also evident in the excuse for cheating offered by another 15 percent of students surveyed: that the work was "meaningless."

Appeal to higher loyalties took many forms in the survey responses. When asked why they had cheated, 75 percent cited the need to do well to please their families. Peer pressure was another popular answer. Students sometimes have a hard time denying requests from friends for unauthorized help.

Often, people concerned about cheating see the behavior as evidence of a lack of values; but neutralization suggests values are being weighed. Sykes and Matza, who developed their theory to explain juvenile delinquency, point out that, in society, "values or norms appear as qualified guides for action, limited in their applicability in terms of time, place, persons, and social circumstances."

Killing, for example, is usually wrong but might be justified by such things as necessity, insanity, compulsion, or self-defense. Neutralization, they argue, is an extension—however troubling—of this flexibility.

Moral Relativism

Ironically, that many students feel compelled to neutralize their behavior can be construed as a hopeful sign. It suggests they have not abandoned the basic value of integrity—just decided that, in certain circumstances, it does not apply to them.

To some students, cheating is not about values at all; it's about power. Some people, they argue, have the advantage of well-connected families; some are naturally bright; others get ahead through cheating. In these students' minds, all means are morally equivalent, according to Gary Pavela, who wrote a "Code of Academic Honesty," which has been adopted by several universities.

For these young people, Pavela observes, "Concepts like 'morality,' 'virtue,' and 'truth' have no meaning except to disguise and facilitate the use of power by those who have it, or seek it."

Some commentators blame the absence of value considerations on the academy itself, where, the argument goes, students are taught moral relativism as a kind of religion. As U.S. News and World Report columnist John Leo puts it, "Postmodern theory on campuses denies the existence of any objective truth: All we can have are clashing perspectives, not true moral knowledge."

Situational Cheating

The SCU study suggests the majority of students have not proceeded so far down the relativistic path. Only 23 percent said they thought cheating could be justified. In other words, the virtue of integrity is there to be drawn on. What factors influence whether or not it comes into play?

One factor is identified in this comment on the SCU survey: "I'm an English major, so I don't think cheating in my English courses could be justified, but copying homework or cheating in a math class that has nothing to do with my future career is different."

Students also make distinctions in the seriousness of cheating behaviors and, for example, may allow themselves to use sources without footnoting even though they would not purchase a term paper.

To some of these students, integrity is not a virtue in and of itself. The ultimate question is not, Am I an honest person? but Will this behavior prevent my mastery of material I will need to become a competent professional?

This attitude may reflect less a deterioration in moral values than a different orientation toward education. In the 1960s, the concept of education for its own sake held greater sway among students. In the '90s, many young people look to the university more as a credentialing institution for business and the professions. Within this framework, cheating in a "nonessential" class may be more easily neutralized.

In addition, the focus on job (or graduate school) preparation makes grades far more important to the student's future. Pressure to maintain a high GPA has increased and, with it, the strain on students' moral fiber. "High grades needed for jobs or graduate school" was the second most prevalent excuse SCU students gave for their dishonest behavior.

A Culture of Dishonesty

The culture of classrooms and of the academic institution also has an impact on the individual's decision to cheat. According to the SCU survey, 30 percent of the respondents explained their behavior by saying, "Everybody does it."

In a Journal of Higher Education article about their 1993 study, McCabe and Trevino write that students' perception of their peers' behavior had the most influence on their own decision whether or not to cheat.

The strong influence of peers' behavior may suggest that academic dishonesty not only is learned from observing the behavior of peers, but that peers' behavior provides a kind of normative support for cheating. The fact that others are cheating may also suggest that, in such a climate, the non-cheater feels left at a disadvantage. Thus, cheating may come to be viewed as an acceptable way of getting and staying ahead.

Addressing the general climate of dishonesty on campus can have an impact on the problem. Ideally, according to a special report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a school should strive to create a sense of community. In that context, breaches of honor cannot be dismissed as victimless crimes but are understood to damage the scholarly enterprise in which students and faculty are engaged.

The report concludes, "What is needed, we believe, is a larger, more integrative vision of community in higher education...a place where individuals accept their obligations to the group and where well-defined governance procedures guide behavior for the common good."

If that sounds high-minded but abstract, schools can use several specific strategies to create a community with greater academic integrity. Most basically, they can

  • have a clear policy on cheating,
  • make sure the policy is discussed, and
  • enforce its provisions.

Honor Codes

In setting policies, many schools are paying new attention to a century-old tradition—the honor code. Although there is no one code, generally these systems include a definition of academic dishonesty, a pledge students must sign promising not to cheat, a promise to report instances of cheating, and student responsibility for dealing with offenders.

Despite difficulties in comparing institutions of higher learning, almost all the research suggests that the incidence of cheating is generally lower at schools with honor codes. McCabe and Trevino studied the influence of codes on academic honesty and offer this as one plausible explanation for their positive findings:

In most honor systems, students pledge to abide by a code that clarifies expectations regarding appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Thus, wrongdoing is more clearly defined under honor code systems. When the definition of wrongdoing is made clear, it becomes more difficult for potential cheaters to rationalize and justify cheating behavior, and the incidence of cheating may be lower as a result.

According to SCU's Brown, the important thing is not so much the code as the clarity. The institution must explain what cheating is and what will happen to students who get caught at it.

Teachers may assume students understand the issue, but Brown points out that not all do; just as students are at different stages of cognitive development, they may be at different stages of ethical development. "I believe academic integrity needs to be taught," she says. "It's important not only to have a discussion of the subject in the syllabus but also to weave issues of academic integrity throughout every course."

Effective Enforcement

Besides stressing honor, schools with good integrity records also tend to have effective enforcement mechanisms when students are caught being dishonorable. SCU Assistant Professor of Communication Laurie Mason, who supervised the SCU cheating study, flunks students who are caught cheating "even if it's only on a one-point assignment out of 100 points for the class."

Mason argues such stringent rules protect students who want to behave honorably. "You have to establish from the beginning of the class that there is such a low tolerance for cheating that no one feels they have to cheat to stay even."

Or, as a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education puts it, "Students will not internalize ethical values if they believe faculty are apathetic or uninformed about the process of detecting and sanctioning offenders."

Sometimes more effective than faculty sanctions is student control of detection and enforcement. Many honor codes make students responsible for reporting any cheating they observe and for serving on the judicial boards that mete out punishment.

One obvious reason these practices work is the greater probability that students—rather than faculty—will see cheating. But the involvement of students in the process has wider benefits. It underscores the message that colleges and universities are communities of students and teachers.

"We have to burst open the idea that teachers own the high moral ground," says Brown. She and other educators advocate the creation of university communities where faculty and students understand they are all responsible for the quality of the enterprise and they do not want to let one another down.

As McCabe and Trevino comment, "Our findings...suggested that the most important question to ask concerning academic dishonesty may be how an institution can create an environment where academic dishonesty is socially unacceptable."

Miriam Schulman is the editor of Issues in Ethics.

Further Reading

"Academic Integrity: Part I." Synthesis: Law and Policy in Higher Education 5.1 (Spring 1993).

"Academic Integrity: Part II." Synthesis: Law and Policy in Higher Education 5.2 (Summer 1993).

McCabe, Donald, and Trevino, Linda Klebe. "What We Know About Cheating in College." Change (January/February 1996): 29Æ33.

Sykes, Gresham M., and Matza, David. "Techniques of Neutralization: A Theory of Delinquency." American Sociological Review 22 (1957): 664Æ70.