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Taking Cheating Seriously: Academic Honesty without Sanctimony

by David Wasserman & Sheldon R. Gelman - March 12, 2009

This commentary is a discussion of some of the challenges and complexities of articulating and enforcing standards of academic honesty for an undergraduate student body.

It is not clear whether student cheating is a growing epidemic, or a fairly stable, widespread practice whose commission and detection have both been facilitated by the internet (Gibelman, Gelman, & Fast, 1999; Sisti, 2007). In either case, its frequency and frequent brazenness are an embarrassment to the ideals of academic integrity that administrators espouse (McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2001). As with many common, recalcitrant practices, it provokes conflicting calls for stricter enforcement and “decriminalization.” While some officials and commentators demand zero-tolerance, a recent Commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Blum, February 20, 2009) contends that academic honesty is “a question of education, not ethics.” We think both sides are correct, but in ways that offer little comfort to either cheating students or pious administrators. Although the standards of academic honesty are complex, variable, and ambiguous, their violation is usually blatant and egregious. Although the complexity, variability, and ambiguity of academic standards must be acknowledged, those features do not explain, let alone excuse or justify, most student cheating. We need education and consistent enforcement - education that actively involves students and gives them a deeper understanding of, and stronger reasons to value, academic integrity; enforcement that takes a more nuanced view of academic integrity than most university policies currently do. It is also critical for teachers to realize that academic integrity begins at home - that they themselves must not only avoid plagiarism, but adopt publication practices that are fair to their junior colleagues, and grading practices which are fair and transparent to their students. They must also engage their students in the learning enterprise: passive teaching is an invitation to academic dishonesty by students who are only tangentially involved by the educational process.

Take the case of plagiarism, defined as “the unauthorized use of the language and thoughts of another author, and the representation of them as one’s own” (Webster’s, 2001, p. 1011). Blum correctly notes that what counts as “authorized use” varies widely across disciplines and time, and is to some extent conventional and arbitrary. Of course, that variability cannot explain or excuse a student’s wholesale appropriation of multiple paragraphs from unacknowledged sources. But there is a connection: ignorance about specific conventions of authorized use reflects a broader ignorance of, or indifference to, the purposes of those conventions, which is to give due credit to others’ contributions in making one’s own (Ashworth, Freewood & MacDonald, 2003). If students regard class work simply as a means of advancement, they will have little reason save fear of detection to follow even the most straightforward rules. Gibelman and Gelman (2003) have argued that the factors that lead students to plagiarize center on education as a means to an end, rather than the quest for knowledge, the exploration of ideas, or the exposure to new ways of thinking. This position is echoed by Blum (2009), who notes that:

Teaching academic integrity as a constellation of skills, taught largely through the long apprenticeship of higher education, is the most promising approach for getting students to follow the rules of academic citation… That means teaching students what academic integrity involves, why professors value it, and how exactly to carry it out.

These are, however, two limitations on an educational approach to cheating. First, few students see their education as an “apprenticeship” in an academic discipline. Only a small percentage are bound for graduate school; most are planning to go to professional schools or to start work - if they can find it - and they have very little incentive to learn and internalize the norms of an academic culture. There might be a motivational foothold if they considered their college years as a time of intellectual exploration and enrichment; cheating would not serve, and might defeat, that purpose. But most students, regrettably, do not see college that way, and the relentless pressures to get ahead make it difficult for them to do so. This does not mean that the norms of academic honesty should not be explained to students; it merely means that no amount of explanation will prevent large numbers of students from cheating; strict, consistent enforcement will be necessary as well.

At the same time, enforcement will not be effective if it is seen as arbitrary and capricious, or disproportionate to the offense. The growing reliance by faculty on internet detection programs to ferret out plagiarism may prove a short-term deterrent, but it does not address the lack of commitment by students to the educational experience, and their cynicism about grading. An effective policy requires not only consistent enforcement by teachers who often find it easier or less awkward to overlook cheating; it also requires them to give students a sense that cheating is an injustice to each other. Students who do not know or care about discipline-specific citation norms should still be able to see that getting the answers to an exam by IM is grossly unfair, if not to the teacher, then to students who lack such access.

But a commitment to academic honesty requires something more: a recognition that grades reflect achievement, however imperfectly. Students who see grading as a lottery will find it hard to take cheating seriously. Teachers can reduce student cynicism by the procedural fairness of their grading -- by making the criteria for grading as clear as possible; by designing assignments that measure identified objectives and are clearly related to actual classroom discussion; by making sure that submitted assignments match the assignments given; by making assignments interesting; by setting clear expectations; by taking considerable care in evaluating student work and employing checks against inconsistent evaluations by different teachers or by the same teacher at different times; and by allowing meaningful appeals from students who feel that they have not received the grades they deserve. One of us has found wide disparities in the grades given by different faculty to identical assignments (Gibelman & Gelman, 2001). If students feel that their grades depend on the luck of the draw, it will be easier for them to rationalize cheating. Though it is impossible to eliminate unjustified grading disparities, it is possible to reduce them by exercises designed to achieve “inter-rater reliability,” and by formal or informal mechanisms for appeal. A large body of research over the past three decades has shown that even more than favorable outcomes, the perception of procedural fairness contributes to norm-compliance, even when it is costly or difficult (McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2001).

Another critical aspect of enforcement is the gradation of offenses. As Blum (2009) maintains,

just as we distinguish between tasting a grape at the supermarket and stealing a car, we don’t want to lump together all infractions of academic norms. There are big differences among imperfectly mastering citation norms, omitting quotation marks, and turning in someone else’s paper.

Although most universities have a range of penalties, from an “F” in the course to expulsion, there need to be more options on the lower end of the spectrum, from warnings to points off to lower but not failing grades. Not only will such lesser penalties be more appropriate for minor infractions that reflect carelessness more than wholesale disregard of clear norms, they will make enforcement easier. Fewer safeguards and formalities are required to lower a grade than expel a student. It is well to bear in mind the research indicating that frequency of enforcement is a more effective deterrent than size of penalty.

Another issue in enforcement is not so much practical as moral. Teachers do not always practice what they preach, or, perhaps more accurately, they don’t see that some of their own questionable practices may be condemned by their preaching. A senior faculty member who exploits the work of junior colleagues without listing them as authors is in no position to complain about students who fail to adequately acknowledge their sources (Gibelman & Gelman, 1999). That does not excuse the students, let alone justify their conduct, but it does contribute to a corrosive atmosphere of hypocrisy.


Ashworth, P., Freewood, M., & Macdonald, R. (2003). The student lifeworld and the meaning of plagiarism. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 34(2), 257-258.

Blum, S. D. (2009). Academic integrity and student plagiarism: A question of education, not ethics. Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved March 11, 2009 from http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i24/24a03501.htm

Gibelman, M., & Gelman, S.R. (1999). Who’s the author? Ethical issues in publishing, Arete, 23(1), 77-88.

Gibelman, M., & Gelman, S.R. (2001). Grading: A problem of credibility. Arete, 25(2), 1-11.

Gilbelman, M., & Gelman, S.R. (2003). Plagiarism and academia: Trends and implications. Accountability in Research, 10(4), 229-252.

Gibelman, M., Gelman, S.R., & Fast, J. (1999). The downside of cyberspace: Cheating made easy. Journal of Social Work Education, 35(3), 367-276.

McCabe, D.L., Trevino, L.K., & Butterfield, K.D. (2001). Cheating in academic institutions: A decade of research. Ethics & Behavior, 11(3), 219-232.

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (4th ed.). (2001). New York: Random House.

Sisti, D.A. (2007). How do high school students justify internet plagiarism? Ethics & Behavior, 17(3), 215-231.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 12, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15591, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 6:53:39 PM

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About the Author
  • David Wasserman
    Yeshiva University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID WASSERMAN is Director of Research at the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University.
  • Sheldon Gelman
    Yeshiva Unversity
    SHELDON R. GELMAN is the Dorothy and David I. Schachne Dean at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University.
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