Cheating is usually defined as deliberately engaging in dishonest or fraudulent behavior for one’s own gain. When applied to academic dishonesty, cheating often falls into the category of plagiarism, that is, the use of another’s work without giving appropriate attribution. Sometimes the plagiarism is characterized as a breach of copyright or an infringement upon another’s intellectual property rights. In all cases, cheating and or plagiarism are breaches of expected norms of academic behavior in both the K–12 setting and the university setting.

In law, cheating, although it is fraudulent behavior and academically dishonest, does not rise to the level of a legal cause of action. Most litigation pertaining to cheating and plagiarism is brought because of procedural violations when bringing the cheater to task or for claims of retaliation for other misdoings.

Astudy of law school students and plagiarism, perhaps the most common form of cheating, concluded that one should consider why students cheat and plagiarize. There are several compelling reasons. For example, law school students, for whom competition is extremely keen, cheat to maintain high academic standings. In an ongoing national study of undergraduate students by the Center for Academic Integrity at Rutgers University, nearly 50,000 undergraduate students at 60 institutions were surveyed over a period of over four years. The results are cause for concern. Of the nearly 50,000 students who participated, 70% admitted to some cheating. Further investigation revealed that those institutions that have strong honor codes have far fewer reported incidents of student cheating. Longitudinally, over a period of nine years, these studies show that honor codes and engaging students in resolving affairs of academic dishonesty decreased serious cheating by one fourth to one third.

Some cheating via plagiarism seems to occur because students are not familiar with the arts of note taking, topic organization, and writing. These students are careless, which results in unintentional plagiarism. A prime example would be the student who incorporated material into his or her work but failed to mention where the material was acquired. In addition, procrastination and poor organizational skills sometimes lead to ill-fated attempts to write papers quickly by cutting and pasting. The practice of cutting and pasting from the Internet, an increasingly common phenomenon on homework assignments, is a problem, because many students do not know to what extent material may be copied. Absent clear instructions, most students have concluded that this is not a serious issue. Some students tend to weave sentences from different sources on the Internet into their term papers without appropriate citations. In 1999, only 10% admitted to this practice, while that number rose to nearly 40% in 2005. Unfortunately, today, a majority of students do not believe that this method of cheating is a serious issue.

Most incidents of cheating that involve plagiarism involve students who have not learned proper writing skills. Students who repeatedly demonstrate an inability to use quotation marks properly, to indent large quotes, or even to use proper attribution where due may merely give a general citation at the beginning and/or the end of their entire written thought.

Finally, some students knowingly engage in cheating, whether plagiarism or looking at the examinations and papers of others, despite their understanding that the behavior is dishonest. They are willing to run the risk of getting caught or taking a chance that the faculty will not report them to the school administration or academic honors committees. Data from the Rutgers study showed that students were more likely to engage in plagiarism and cheating in those classes where they knew that the faculty would not report them.

Cheating in one’s work, or plagiarism, usually takes the form of the traditional misuse of another’s intellectual property. Yet, today, there is also the problem with “cybercheating” or “cyberplagiarism.” This act is not limited to materials inappropriately taken from the Internet but also includes using high technology to cheat in the classroom setting. Cell phones and PDAs are now the instruments of choice for students to transmit text messages to each other during a test, to “photocopy” tests and to share them with other students who will take the exams in later periods, and to email students not in the exam setting to obtain answers on the exams. This is all a deliberate form of cheating in the classroom.

The solution to cybercheating is not an easy one, because the technology is changing more quickly than most educators can change their testing practices. One solution is, however, maintaining and publishing wellwritten but simple school policies on academic honesty, ethical behavior, codes of conduct, and academic integrity. This is a positive approach to the problem— to explain expectations. Beyond that, policies must be prominently published containing broad definitions of plagiarism and cheating, descriptions of inappropriate uses of electronic devices, and consequences for ignoring breaches of expected conduct regarding the intellectual property of others. It may even be appropriate to require all entering students to participate in a workshop on academic honesty and to have them sign a statement of understanding so that they know the expectations and the consequences of breaches in honest academic behavior.

Marilyn J. Bartlett

See also Plagiarism

Further Readings

  • Gerdy, K. (2004). Law student plagiarism: Why it happens, where it’s found, and how to find it. Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal, 2004(2), 431–440. 
  • McCabe, D. (2005, June). Levels of cheating and plagiarism remain high. Retrieved January 27, 2007, from http://www.academicintegrity.rg/cai_research.asp 
  • Ponte, L. M. (2006). The emperor has no clothes: How digital sampling infringement cases are exposing weaknesses in traditional copyright law and the need for statutory reform. American Business Law Journal, 43, 515–560.