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Academic Dishonesty and Online Education (Part 1): Understanding the Problem

The EvoLLLution | Academic Dishonesty and Online Education (Part 1): Understanding the Problem
Academic dishonesty has always been a challenge in the postsecondary space, but as more and more programming is moving online it’s critical to find ways to minimize its prevalence in this new environment.

Academic dishonesty is any act of deception done with the intent to misrepresent one’s learning achievement for evaluation purposes (Singh & Thambusamy, 2016). Academic dishonesty can occur in all types of educational settings and is viewed very negatively in our society, giving rise to the system of policies, procedures and student honor codes that most U.S. higher education institutions have in place today.

Given that online students and faculty are often separated both in terms of space as well as time, perhaps it is not surprising that questions about academic dishonesty in online learning have existed since the inception of the delivery format (Watson & Sottile, 2010). The assumption that the face-to-face classroom is the best foundation for faculty to control academic honesty is deeply entrenched in our higher education culture.

Forms of Academic Dishonesty Often Associated with Online Learning

While academic dishonesty can take many forms and there are obvious overlaps among categories, the three concerns expressed most often with respect to online learning are plagiarism, cheating and identity misrepresentation.

Plagiarism: Is online learning creating new opportunities for plagiarism?

Plagiarism is not a new phenomenon, but we seem to go through cycles of greater and less concern about it (Buranen & Roy, 1999). Recent research indicates that anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of undergraduate students engage in some form of plagiarism at some point during their time in college, with violations ranging from inserting a few unattributed sentences into a paper to purchasing an entire essay to represent as one’s own work (Szabo & Underwood, 2004). Over the last several years, any distinction that may have existed between online and face-to-face courses with respect to plagiarism has blurred with the ubiquity of digitized materials and Internet-enabled devices that provide easy “copy and paste” functionality and instant access to “paper mills” for all learners regardless of instructional delivery method (Gabriel, 2010; Watson & Sottile, 2010).

Interestingly, recent studies suggest that the internet itself has not necessarily contributed unduly to the problem, however. A study by Scanlon and Neumann (2002) found that the “frequency of plagiarism using the internet followed the same pattern as did conventional forms and was self-reported at similar levels” (p. 382). Similarly, Selwyn (2008) found that student-reported levels of online plagiarism were commensurate with their levels of non-internet-based, “traditional” plagiarism (see also McCabe, 2005). Selwyn concluded, “this particular form of online ‘deviance’ is… more a case of ‘old wine in new bottles’ rather than a new phenomenon born of the technology itself” (p. 476). Stated differently, it appears from the research that those who are inclined to plagiarize will do so by whatever means are available and those who are not inclined to plagiarize are not likely to be tempted into academic dishonesty by the mere existence of the internet.

Cheating: How do we prevent online students from getting unauthorized help on a quiz or test?

After surveying more than 71,300 undergraduate and 17,000 graduate students, McCabe (2016), a longtime researcher and leader in the Center for Academic Integrity, estimated that the percentage of higher education students who cheat at some point during their academic career—using crib notes, copying answers from another’s paper, and/or helping someone else with answers on a test—to be at about 68 percent for undergraduate and 43 percent for graduate students. As is the case for plagiarism, the increasing use of internet-enabled electronic devices and web-based assessments in the classroom has muddied the distinction between online and face-to-face courses with respect to cheating.

In fact, the recent research on cheating on web-based assessments—regardless of course delivery type– has been mixed, with some studies finding no significant difference between web-based and paper-based assessments (Black, Greasers, & Dawson, 2014; Grijalva, Nowell, & Kerkvliet, 2006), others finding that student cheating on web-based assessments is significantly higher (Lanier, 2006), and still others finding that students actually cheat less on web-based assessments (Stuber-McEwen, Wiseley, & Hoggatt, 2009).

One plausible explanation for these mixed findings may be variation in the design of the assessments studied. It is much easier to cheat on a web-based multiple choice exam than it is to cheat on a web-based essay exam, for example. A recent study by Watson and Sottile (2010) seems to bear this out. The authors surveyed 635 undergraduate and graduate students at a mid-sized, mid-Atlantic university about the level and type of cheating occurring in online courses versus face-to-face courses. The data showed higher rates of cheating were occurring in face-to-face courses and that students were most likely to obtain answers from other during web-based test or quiz, regardless of course delivery format. This concern is echoed by Lang (2013), who argued that cheating may be less about students’ lack of a moral compass and more about the incentives to cheat we design into the learning environment–such as courses with very high performance stakes that rely on a single, multiple-choice assessment or use some other form of arbitrary grading criteria.

Identity misrepresentation: How do we know that the student who registers for the course and receives the credit actually does the work?

Identity misrepresentation, where a student hires someone else to complete academic work for his/her own credit, is another plausible form of academic dishonesty in online learning. Identity misrepresentation can range from hiring someone to write a paper or taking a test to hiring someone to complete an entire academic degree program. While there is a paucity of research on how prevalent a problem this might be, some argue that rigorous identity authentication is critical for protecting the reputations of online programs (Bailie & Jortberg, 2009; Smith & Noviello, 2012). Additionally, identity authentication recently made its way into the Higher Education Opportunity Act (2008), which requires accreditation agencies assure that institutions with distance courses or programs have processes in place that establish “that the student who registers in a distance education or correspondence education course or program is the same student who participates in and completes the program and receives the academic credit.”

Here again, the lines between online and face-to-face instructional delivery methods are not as clear cut as one might think. While student identity authentication is potentially an issue in online environments, face-to-face methods are also not definitive in establishing student identities in all situations (Shafer, Barta, & Pavone, 2009). No one checks photo IDs when face-to-face students enter a classroom to assure the same student who registered for the course is attending the classes and taking the assessments.

Academic dishonesty is certainly a concern in higher education, but the underlying issues leading to such dishonesty appear to be less about instructional delivery method and more about the ease with which students can find ways to circumvent academic work. Higher education needs to identify strategies and best practices that can be applied in both online and face-to-face settings, as well as in whatever new instructional context the digital age may bring.

This is the first installment in a three-part series by Bishop and Cini exploring academic dishonesty in the online setting and discussing strategies to overcome these challenges. In the next installment, Bishop and Cini will share some strategies to support academic honesty in the digital age.

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Series References

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Bailie, J. L., & Jortberg, M. A. (2009). Online learner authentication: Verifying the identity of online users. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2). Retrieved October 22, 2016 from

Black, E., Greasers J., & Dawson, K. (2014). Academic honesty in traditional and online classrooms: Does the “media equation” hold true? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 12(3-4), 23-30.

Blum, S.D. (2009). My word! Plagiarism and college culture. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Buranen, L., & Roy, A.M. (Eds.) (1999). Perspectives on plagiarism and intellectual property in a postmodern world. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Buchmann, B. (2014). Cheating in college: Where it happens, why students do it and how to stop it. Huffington Post (February 20, 2014). Retrieved October 22, 2016 from

Carroll, J. (2013). A handbook for deterring plagiarism in higher education (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Chew, E., Ding, S.L., & Rowell, G. (2015). Changing attitudes in learning and assessment: cast-off ‘plagiarism detection’ and cast-on self-service assessment for learning. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 52(5), 454-463.

Fischer, B.A., & Zigmond, M.J. (2011). Educational approaches for discouraging plagiarism. Urologic Oncology: Seminars and Original Investigations, 29(1), 100-103.

Gabriel, T. (2010). Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age, New York Times, August 1, 2010. Retrieved from

Grijalva, T., Nowell, C., & Kerkvliet, J. (2006). Academic honesty and online courses. College Student Journal, 40(1), 180-185.

Lanier, M. (2006). Academic integrity and distance learning. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17(2), 244-261.

Lang, J.M. (2013). Cheating lessons: Learning from academic dishonesty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ma, Y., McCabe, D., & Liu, R. (2013). Students’ academic cheating in Chinese universities: Prevalence, influencing factors, and proposed action. Journal of Academic Ethics, 11(3), 169-184.

McCabe, D. (2005). Levels of cheating and plagiarism remain high. Retrieved November 21, 2012, from The Center for Academic Integrity Website:

McCabe, D. (2005). Cheating among college and university students: A North American perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 1(1). Retrieved October 22, 2016 from

McCabe, D. (2016). Cheating and honor: Lessons from a long-term research project. In T. Bretag (ed.), Handbook of Academic Integrity, pp. 187-200.

McCabe, D.L., Butterfield, K.D., & Treviño, L.K. (2012). Cheating in college: Why students do it and what educators can do about it. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.

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

McCabe, D. L., and Treviño, L. K. (1993). Academic dishonesty: Honor codes and other contextual influences. Journal of Higher Education 64(5), 522–538.

McCabe, D. L., and Treviño, L. K. (1997). Individual and contextual influences on academic dishonesty: A multi-campus investigation. Research in Higher Education 38(3), 379-396.

McCabe, D. L., Treviño, L. K., & Butterfield, K. D. (2002). Honor codes and other contextual influences on academic integrity: A replication and extension to modified honor code settings. Research in Higher Education, 43(3), 357-378.

Park, C. (2003). In other (people’s) words: Plagiarism by university students––literature and lessons. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 28(5), 471-488.

Park, C. (2004). Rebels without a clause: Towards an institutional framework for dealing with plagiarism by students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 28(3), 291–306.

Rolfe, V. (2010). Can Turnitin be used to provide instant formative feedback? British Journal of Educational Technology, 42, 701-710. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2010.01091.x

Scanlon, P.M., & Neumann, D.R. (2002). Internet plagiarism among college students. Journal of College Student Development, 43(3), 374-385.

Selwyn, N. (2008). “Not necessarily a bad thing…”: A study of online plagiarism amongst undergraduate students. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(5), 465-479.

Semple, M., Hatala, J., Franks, P., & Rossi, M. (2011). Is your avatar ethical? On-line course tools that are methods for student identity verification. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 39(2), 191-191.

Shafer, T., Barta, M., & Pavone, T. (2009). Student identity verification and the Higher Education Opportunity Act: A faculty perspective. International journal of Technology and Distance Learning, 6(8). Retrieved on October 22, 2016 from

Singh, P., & Thambusamy, R. (2016). “To Cheat or Not To Cheat, That is the Question”: Undergraduates’ Moral Reasoning and Academic Dishonesty in C.Y. Fook et al. (eds.), 7th International Conference on University Learning and Teaching (InCULT 2014) Proceedings, pp 741-752. DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-664-5_58

Smith, C. M., & Noviello, S. R., (2012). Best practices in authentication and verification of students in online education. Presentation at the 23rd International Nursing Research Congress. Brisbane, Australia

Stuber-McEwen, D., Wiseley, P., & Hoggatt, S. (2009). Point, click, and cheat: Frequency and type of academic dishonesty in the virtual classroom. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(3), 1-10.

Sterngold, A. (2010). Confronting plagiarism: How conventional teaching invites cyber-cheating. Change, 36(3), 16-21.

Vilic, B., & Cini, M.A. (2006). User authentication and academic integrity in online assessment. In M. Hricko & S. Howell (Eds.) Online assessment and measurement: Foundations and challenges (pp. 341-358). Hershey, PA: Information Science.

Watson, G., & Sottile, J. (2010). Cheating in the digital age: Do students cheat more in online courses? Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. Retrieved from percent2Egde_52119_member_208797940.

Xueqin, J. (2002, May 17). Chinese academics consider a “culture of copying.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, A45-A46.

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