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No, Not Everyone is Committing Plagiarism

In a remote learning environment, it can feel like everyone knows a shortcut, but in reality, a majority of students walk the path of integrity.

Jonathan Bailey
Jonathan Bailey
Plagiarism Consultant -- Plagiarism Today

When looking at the statistics on academic integrity, it’s very easy to believe that literally everyone is cheating in one way or another. And with remote learning and asynchronous instruction the new norm across the globe, it may feel to many like the opportunity and impetus to cheat has only increased.

According to surveys conducted by Dr. Donald McCabe and the International Center for Academic Integrity, some 68% of undergraduate students admitted to cheating, either on written assignments or on tests. That means that over two-thirds of students of the 71,000 surveyed admitted to having cheated on at least one assignment. Other studies have found similar numbers with a CollegeHumor survey finding 60.8% of students have cheated at least once.

However, those eye-popping numbers belie a much more nuanced truth. Yes, cheating and plagiarism are serious problems that need significant attention, but if you are one of the students that are committed to doing original work, there’s no reason to feel alone. Likewise, if you’re an educator, there’s little reason to blindly mistrust your students.

Because, while it may seem like everyone is cheating, most aren’ t. In fact, it’s likely a small minority of students are responsible for the vast majority of serious academic integrity incidents. Let’s take a moment to recognize those participating in positive change.

Behind the Numbers

The important thing to remember about those numbers is that they reflect any student who had a single lapse of academic integrity at any point within the survey’s timeframe. They say nothing about the frequency or the severity of the breach.

To that end, those numbers actually stop quickly when you look at students committing such infractions repeatedly.

For example, one survey found that, while 59% of surveyed high school students admitted to cheating on a test in the past year , only 34% said they did it more than twice, cutting that number nearly in half.

While 34% is still significant, representing more than one out of every three students, the numbers also decrease the further one gets into their academic career. Looking at the original ICAI numbers, 68% of undergraduate students become 43% at the graduate level. That’s less than half of students admitting to violating academic integrity standards.

Likewise, the greater the severity of the breach, the fewer students that are doing it. For example, though ICAI numbers found that 62% had admitted to cheating on a written assignment, another study at Swansea University found that only 15% had used a ghostwriter for a paper .

It seems clear that other shortcuts such as poor paraphrasing and omitted citations are much more common and make up the lion’s share of academic integrity issues on written assignments.

In short, while an alarming number of students have engaged in some form of academic dishonesty, those infractions tend to skew more toward the rare and relatively minor. Academia is not filled with students that routinely use essay mills or otherwise regularly cheat. Those students are still a significant minority.

And it’s hugely important to battle the perception that they are common. Otherwise, students that would ordinarily complete work with integrity may instead view cheating as necessary to stay competitive, something that one survey found 54 percent of students believed .

Looking Ahead

To be clear, academic integrity is still a serious issue and the data does have a lot of bad news within it. Integrity violations are either remaining steady or growing depending upon the statistics and the vast majority of self-admitted cheaters say they were never caught.

There is much that needs to be done in this space to improve fairness for all students and the answer isn't casting it as a problem where “Everybody is plagiarizing” or “Everybody is cheating.” The number of students that are active, repeat, and severe cheaters is still small compared to the rest of the student population. It’s important that students and educators alike understand that. Otherwise, it’s easy for students to just give up on academic integrity, or for educators to respond in ways that may actually make the situation even worse.

While violations of academic integrity are serious, the situation is far from hopeless. Remembering that the major violators are a minority will serve students and teachers alike.

In the new world of remote learning and asynchronous instruction, supporting each other includes sharing trust and encouragement. Helping students to feel seen, trusted, and supported encourages both academic growth and academic integrity.