Cheating: A Sign of Income Inequality?

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 ( 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 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.

Related Care2 Coverage

Systematic Cheating Found in Atlanta’s Public Schools

Something Else to Blame on Facebook & Wikipedia: Plagiarism

Nevada Student Hacked His Way to a 4.54 GPA



Photo by Hariadhi via Wikimedia Commons

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Rana Newbury
Rana Newbury3 years ago

I used to sit by a classmate who, one day when the professor had to step out for an emergency during an exam, asked me to give her the answers. Of course I said "no I work too hard for my grades." She was miffed, but walked to another classmate who gladly gave her the answers. I was more than a little upset as when someone cheats they remove some of the value of my hard earned grades. My 3.75 gpa came at a great cost to my personal relationships as I did also work and take care of family while in school. I still do! I take pride in my grades & I don't cheat (though I've thought about it).

Jillian Edwards
Jillian Edwards3 years ago

I think you'll find that many of those students from high income families feel less pressure to study and some will fund financially hard pressed students from poorer backgrounds to do the work for them. Students from low income backgrounds, if they have managed to reach college or university are usually motivated enough to do their own work. They have more to prove.

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V.3 years ago

While talking to a teacher here about Finland’s school system and its success, I was shocked to find out that we had something like Finland years ago, she called it tracking. She said that tracking worked and students did a great deal better during that time. However a few parents did not like the idea and took it to court. What a shame that our children have suffered so. So many tests have not helped and lead to more cheating. We can tackle the PROBLEM or we can, as always, tackle the SIDE EFFECTS!!!!!!

Carol Gilster
Carol Gilster3 years ago

This article tends to make it appear that most cheating is done by low income students. That no explanation is presented of cheating by more privileged students indicates an unfortunate bias. I submit that many more privileged students cheat because they have always paid for tutors and other expensive assistance and have become lazy or simply have never learned to try to do the work by themselves.

Juliet Defarge
judith sanders3 years ago

There are quite a few web sites that offer research and term papers for sale. I have no problem with students buying these- as long as they are properly cited as a source for the work they hand in. Prices at at about $10. per page, so that is not our of reach for most students who are in college.

Drusilla P.
Drusilla P.3 years ago

When I had classes long enough to have at least one exam in the classroom, I had no problem (a lot of silliness and some brilliant howlers, but no cheating: with completely empty tables and me keeping an eye on them all, they couldn't cheat), but now... I have to assign my students homework, and even though I explain at the start of each semester that plagiarism won't be tolerated, there's always at least one who thinks I'm too stupid to notice the change of style and quality between paragraph one and two.
I can't speak about all students all over the globe, but mine steal written work because they're lazy (and they think I can be fooled).

Adam G.
Adam G.3 years ago

I have spent a lot of time in school with people whom I know are cheating, and to be honest, their grades can't compete with the students doing real studying. Cheaters are fundamentally lazy. So lazy, in fact, that they are too lazy to cheat effectively. They may pass their courses, but it is not as if these slovenly people are any threat in the job market. I think it is more of a case of them trying to pacify their parents rather than trying to attain actual educational credentials.

With all that being said this is still a major problem for the academic world. It is VERY rampant. I would easily say over 50% of students are cheating. It's just too easy in the digital world.

Stanley Balgobin
Stanley R.3 years ago

Cheating has become the norm for winning! ThIS IS ONE RESULT OF UNBRIDLED CAPITALISM! Another is GREED! Yet another outcome is LOSS OF DEMOCRACY! We now live in a society and a growing world of having to cheat to survive. We live in a dishonest society; it is "dog eat dog" no one cares about their neighbor, their fellow man. The younger generation just "DO NOT CARE" anymore, about anything. They see a dysfunctional education system, hypocritical adults, lying politicians, injustice at every turn, exploitation such as humongous dispaity of incomes, and an increasingly materialistic world at the expense of our environment, our health care protection, and huge debt to get a basic college education, while an increase in illegal wars and criminalization of a natural herb. Teachers are supposed to enforce rules of honesty in the classroom, when the students only see dishonesty and injustice in their daily lives. I hope the Mayan calendar prophesy is correct and fulfilled on December 23rd 2012 .......for all of our sake.

Wesley Struebing
Wesley Struebing3 years ago

I probably missed something. Which group is most likely to cheat? High- or low-income? Or is the point of this that cheating is greater in countries with a larger income inequity?

monica r.
monica r.3 years ago

All I know is that Scott Walker cheated in college. Possibly on academic work though his grades weren't great. But definitely he cheated in student government elections (and also dropped out after getting caught).

And look at him now. He cheats and surrounded himself with cheaters (embezzlers, child enticers/kiddie porn fans) and has bent or broken laws to get his way.

Someone who would cheat in school will cheat in business. I wonder too, was it the POOR kids cheating in states with big earning gaps, or the RICH kids, having learned from mommy and daddy who created that wage gap by cheating? Poor kids don't usually get to go to college, do they?