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A Lack of Transparency

Why Academic Fraud is Becoming More of Problem


Students cheat and plagiarize more if they believe that most of their classmates do it. HSE Researchers examined how students’ educational environment – in particular, their perception of their classmates’ behaviour – increases academic fraud.

The Propagation of Deceit

Downloading papers from the internet, attempts to pass off other people’s papers as one’s own, and using cheat sheets during exams are often attributed to an unwillingness to study. Students don’t want to spend time and effort on preparation and would rather cheat.

Meanwhile, the reason lies not only in low motivation, but in the nature of students’ educational environment, say Evgeniia Shmeleva and Tatiana Semenova, researchers at the HSE University Center of Sociology of Higher Education.

Educational environment consists of the behavioural patterns of classmates and teachers, such as their tolerance of academic dishonesty. Students cheat more if they believe that many of their classmates do it, too. And even the likelihood of being punished is not always taken into account.

Academic dishonesty increases in academic environments that lack transparency, according to a longitudinal study that involved over 900 students from different departments of four Russian universities. Students were surveyed twice: at the beginning of their first-year studies, and at the end of their second year of studies.

Not Allowed. But You Can Do It.

The study revealed an interesting situation.

 On the one hand, the majority of students (over 80%) admit that plagiarism and cheating are unacceptable.

 On the other hand, the situation is different in reality. Half of the respondents said that even during their first year of studies, they cheated at least once (most often, they copied from another student).

 At the same time, many of them were aware of the risks of punishment for academic fraud.

However, the threat of punishment is, obviously, not effective enough. If it deters students from using cheat sheets on exams, it does not deter students from committing plagiarism. Students plagiarize regardless of the risk of punishment. And they believe it to be a common practice.

Every third respondent believes that most of their classmates cheat and plagiarize.

This data echoes other studies. For example, in a study among economics and management students at eight Russian universities, one out of six respondents believed that one can pass most exams at his or her university by cheating. And more than a third believed that their classmates downloaded papers from the internet.

Eventually, students get used to such behavioural patterns. Notably, ‘experienced’ students are more tolerant of academic fraud than freshmen.

Reasons for Fraud

Research shows that many factors lead to increased academic dishonesty.

 For example, Russian students often believe fraud to be justifiable. Some think that it’s easier to cheat than to spend time on studying for a test. Others explain copying as mutual help: why not help your friend on an exam?

 Students who cheat in school often cheat at university.

 Sometimes universities, particularly small local ones, lose funding if they expel students. They have to retain even those who are reluctant to study.

 Universities and teachers are not always consistent in punishing academic fraud. And the Russian society in general often takes a relaxed attitude towards cheating.

Undoubtedly, students’ motivation to study also impacts the level of honesty. While some students are interested in gaining knowledge and working hard, others are satisfied with demonstrating their abilities (or concealing their lack thereof) and getting a good grade. These students cheat more.

A student’s environment—namely, their classmates—is also an important factor. Data from international studies demonstrate that the probability of dishonesty is higher among students who believe this practice to be common among their peers.

Plagiarism: with Reproach, but without Fear

The main factor contributing to academic dishonesty is students’ perception of their peers’ behaviour, Evgeniia Shmeleva and Tatiana Semenova show.

Students are more likely to commit plagiarism if they believe that most of their peers do the same.

Meanwhile, the dangers of committing plagiarism are often ignored. The variables characterizing students’ perception of the possibility that their papers would be checked for plagiarism and the possibility of punishment turned out to be insignificant.

The authors say that, probably, simple experience of looking at other students who cheated and avoided punishment turns out to be more influential than the possibility of punishment. Sometimes teachers don’t notice plagiarism. Regardless, the situation with plagiarism, as compared with cheating, is more regulated at the university level.

This type of fraud also correlates with one’s assessment of his or her own academic performance. Low-performing students copy other people’s papers more often than highly performing students do.

Dishonesty as a Common Occurrence

One’s perception of his or her peers’ behaviour also impacts cheating. Students who believe that others do it are inclined to cheat more.

But, unlike with plagiarism, the frequency of this type of fraud also correlates with teachers’ behaviour. The higher the probability of punishment is, the lower the risks of this kind of fraud are. Unlike with plagiarism, the frequency of copying does not vary across universities.

As in the case of plagiarism, the frequency of copying correlates with one’s assessment of their academic performance. Low-performing students cheat more often.

Growing tolerance of academic fraud suggests that, as time goes by, students tend to cheat more often. This may be due to decreasing motivation and the impact of contextual factors. Dishonesty and a lack of transparency in university policy  correspondingly increase.


Authors of the Study:
Evgeniia Shmeleva, Junior Research Fellow at the HSEInstitute of Education Centre of Sociology of Higher Education
Tatiana Semenova, Research Fellow at the HSEInstitute of Education Centre of Sociology of Higher Education
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, October 26, 2019