A national survey by Clemson University’s International Center for Academic Integrity has found that more than 60 percent of undergraduate students, and more than 40 percent of graduate students, cheat in some way or other on their written work. The internet gets its brunt of the blame: It is just too easy, and too tempting, to cut, paste, change the font and a word or phrase or two here and there. Some have suggested that, in an age of mixing and sampling, students no longer have a clear distinction of what is original work vs. copied, i.e., plagiarized.
Lukas Neville, a doctoral student at Queen’s University in Ontario, suggests another reason: Income inequality. In the latest issue of Psychological Science, he says that states in the U.S. where there’s more evidence of academic dishonesty also show a large gap between the rich and the poor. These income gaps lead to less trust among people and, therefore, more cheating.
Neville’s own experiences teaching undergraduates led him to undertake the study. After finding that students had plagiarized assigned papers, he considered using automatic services (Turnitin.com is one) to check if students were cheating and then became interested in studying why it is that students cheat. Neville focused on trust, on the theory that “if students don’t trust each other, some of them might think they have to cheat to keep up with their unscrupulous classmates.”
Limitations of Plagiarism/Income Inequality Study
These premises make sense, though, as the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, the evidence that Neville used for his study is “limited”:
For starters, it’s circumstantial, based on the frequency of Google searches for things that seem linked to cheating on papers. Neville looked at Google searches for phrases like “free term paper” and the names of Web sites like Essaytown that offer paper-writing services or pre-written papers. Google breaks statistics on these searches out by state, which is a big help. It means that Neville was able to compare the number of searches in each state to measures of income inequality from the U.S. Census Bureau. (He did balance things out, statistically, to account for different numbers of college students in each state, how large the colleges are, and other factors that could affect the frequency of searches.)
Here is another caveat from my own experiences finding that students had plagiarized written material. I have not so much caught my students using papers written by some online service but have instead found portions of text copied from various sites around the internet (such as SparkNotes and PinkMonkey.com) and inserted into a student’s paper. In more than a few cases, I have been able to detect plagiarism simply because some parts of a paper seem to be written by someone different. A search on Google has often led me to a site with the plagiarized passage.
Support For Plagiarism/Income Inequality Study
In support of Neville’s theory, other research has shown a link between income disparity and distrust, as the Chronicle of Higher Education notes. Richard Wilkinson, professor emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, indeed found that
… trust levels were highest—between 50 and 60 percent—in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Utah, and Wisconsin where the gap between the top and bottom income levels was the lowest. In states where income inequality was highest, like Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia, trust levels were lowest, below 30 percent.
The Chronicle of Higher Education also points out that people in countries with greater income inequality (Australia, Portugal, the United States) trust each other far less than those from the social democracies of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.
Neville’s research does shed a different light on cheating. He suggests that, if cheating and income inequality are connected, honor codes could help solve the problem as such would “help foster trust in our colleges and classrooms.” His study focuses on cheating as a practice of students seeking to get ahead of other students.
But shouldn’t we also address the deeper issue of income disparity and address the pressures on lower-income students — needing to complete schoolwork and maintain their GPA while having to work and take care of family members while wanting to act like everything is ok — that may lead them to cheat?
Students, Teachers and the Classroom Social Contract
A final note. Cheating is also about student-teacher interactions. As a professor who, like many college teachers, not only has to have a plagiarism policy but has to explain and enforce it, I have felt a violation of trust — a breach in the social contract of the classroom — when a student plagiarizes written work. I’ve tried to create written assignments that can’t simply be copied from internet sources and to require more in-class essays and oral presentations. With the latter, students are assessed on skills such as public speaking and their use of visual materials.
In an age when companies are suing each other over patent infringements and intellectual property is a hot topic, students need, more than ever, to understand that plagiarizing doesn’t pay. But we also need to be aware of underlying reasons for why a student feels compelled to cheat.
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