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Pressure to Plagiarize and the Choice to Cheat: Toward a Pragmatic Reframing of the Ethics of Academic Integrity

David O. McKay School of Education, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602, USA
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Educ. Sci. 2024, 14(3), 244;
Submission received: 16 December 2023 / Revised: 23 February 2024 / Accepted: 24 February 2024 / Published: 27 February 2024


In light of the burgeoning influence of LLM AI programs like ChatGPT in a variety of academic contexts and the COVID-19 pandemic’s expansion of virtual classrooms and coursework, the philosophical framing of academic integrity and plagiarism is being re-examined. In concert with these technological changes, students are also facing increasing pressure to succeed in their academic pursuits. Inasmuch as the consequences of failure in these contexts are often dire academically, socially, and financially, we argue that students often weigh the choice to plagiarize not as an ethical issue but as a pragmatic mitigation of risk. Using three salient examples of plagiarism and cheating from higher education in North America as case studies, we explore the pressures and contexts that have influenced the choice to engage in plagiarism and cheating through this pragmatic lens. As an ethical framing of the issue of academic integrity has been less effective in ameliorating plagiarism in this pressurized climate, we propose a way in which educators, administrators and policy makers might approach the issue in this same pragmatic frame. In short, rather than combat plagiarism by teaching its moral repugnance, we propose educators could argue instead that plagiarism and cheating are pragmatically untenable simply because they are detrimental to learning.

1. Introduction

With the advent of generative AI technologies like ChatGPT and the increase of online learning options in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a resurgence of conversation about plagiarism, cheating, and academic integrity, especially in higher education [1,2,3,4]. Historically, these issues have most commonly been framed as ethical questions, even in non-Western contexts [5]. In the midst of this most recent wave of technology, however, the framing of plagiarism as a moral-ethical issue is being called into question [6]. Such questioning is supported by increasing evidence that educating students about plagiarism and its ethical wrongness does little to dissuade them from engaging in it [7,8]. In light of this framing, rather than engage in ongoing discussions about the ethics of plagiarism and academic integrity, we propose to reframe the conversation around utilitarian pragmatism instead. In other words, rather than make the argument that cheating is morally wrong, we put forth the idea that cheating is detrimental to the learning process itself.
We further situate plagiarism and cheating within the context of Dewey’s idea that learning depends on the presence of creative struggle and risk. Without these, he maintains, meaningful learning capable of remaining durable after the conclusion of formal schooling seems unlikely [9]. Because the consequences of academic failure are so dire, students often approach their education in terms of the mitigation of this kind of risk: what some have termed academic “de-risking.” When seen through this lens, plagiarism, again, becomes less of a moral-ethical concern and more of a pragmatic, logistical one. Instead of countering this pragmatic argument in favor of plagiarism with a historical rebuttal regarding its moral repugnance, the purpose of this paper is to use this same pragmatic line of thinking to argue against plagiarism’s utility. In other words, this paper leaves the issue of the ethical-moral dimension of cheating and plagiarism aside and argues, first, that many frame these behaviors as pragmatic mitigation of risk and, second, that this very framing could also be used to suggest that cheating is unpragmatic as it is detrimental to one of the primary purposes of education, that is student learning.

2. Literature

Plagiarism and cheating, together with other practices related to violations of academic integrity, are considered among the most persistent and pervasive problems in contemporary academia [10,11,12]. Several studies have shown that these problems of academic dishonesty extend across national contexts to students in the United States [13], Canada [14], Hong Kong [15,16], Taiwan [17,18], Ukraine [19], Poland [20], England [21], and New Zealand [22]. Yet, despite the expansive nature of this problem, several difficulties have arisen in determining and studying the pervasive influence of cheating and plagiarism. Murdock et al. identified some of these difficulties, particularly “a reliance on self-reporting and the lack of agreed-upon definitions” [23] (p. 187). One survey distributed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics to middle and high school students in the United States revealed that while more than half of the participating students reported cheating behaviors, over 25% admitted to having lied on one or more questions within the survey [13]. The unreliability of data indicated by this report suggests not only that cheating may be more widespread than extant studies have shown but also that the complexity of student perceptions of academically dishonest behavior remains underexplored.
The lack of agreed-upon definitions of cheating and plagiarism additionally complicates data regarding this issue. While studies in this area address a variety of cheating behaviors, there seems to be a lack of uniformity in the behaviors targeted across these surveys and studies, which in turn makes the process of scholarly comparison across such studies complex [23] (p. 188). Scholars early on sought to establish a universal definition of academic integrity and plagiarism by theoretical means that could be followed with precision across a variety of contexts [24,25,26,27]. Others sought a similarly universal definition of these terms by extensively cataloging instantiations of the phenomenon until, at last, landing upon a core definition shared among them [28,29]. Yet, from the perspective of education researchers, the historical development of the concept of plagiarism and academic integrity has been and continues to be philosophically fraught with muddled terminology and a noteworthy lack of consensus [6].
Indeed, Bretag’s Handbook of Academic Integrity provides such a wide array of definitions from over a dozen international sources that it seems to portray implied advocacy for a socially constructed conceptualization of these ideas [27]. The dissonance continues as the same text, in the midst of this constructivist framing of the issue, also calls for a standardized definition from the International Center for Academic Integrity to be applied across all these contexts. Yet, if taken as a social construct, such a standardized approach would be inappropriate as “such definitions always remain questionable and are always subject to challenge and revision” [6] (p. 73).
Framing the issue becomes even more problematic as the very plagiaristic tendencies educators attempt to eradicate among their students have been present in the textbooks from which they teach [30]. Furthermore, Shelley Angélil-Carter argues that plagiarism remains “a disputed concept” not because of some moral deficiency on the part of students but because of a lack of understanding about what constitutes academic dishonesty in the first place [31] (p. 61). While the bedrock ethical notion of integrity upon which these other constructs rest is often seen as rather straightforward by educators attempting to teach students about plagiarism, Diamond calls into question its universality, as well. Foundational to the notion of integrity, she argues, is taking into consideration the rich contexts that inform the decisions and attitudes on which that judgment is predicated [32]. Importantly, few of these contributing contexts, Angélil-Carter maintains, appear to include the “intention to deceive” [31] (p. 113). In short, we echo Jamieson and Howard’s statement that “the debate over what constitutes academic integrity obscures the very issues it tries to codify” [6] (p. 72). Yet, “if there is a single point of agreement among the disparate models and measures used to assess cheating,” Murdock et al. stated, “it is that it is widespread” [23] (p. 199). In light of the obscurity and complexity that have resulted from attempts to approach plagiarism and academic integrity in moral or ethical terms, we attempt to recast the issue in a different frame. Much like Dawson’s reframing of the issue of academic integrity in terms of validity instead of ethics [33], we recast it here as an issue of pragmatic utility. In other words, inasmuch as students have been shown to choose academically dishonest behavior in terms of pragmatic mitigation of academic risk, we advocate for academic honesty in these same terms: that cheating, regardless of its moral or ethical wrongness, is simply detrimental to learning and pragmatically unwise in the long run.

2.1. Struggle and Risk in Learning

In How We Think, Dewey argues that creative struggle is necessary for learning and that learners can engage in creative struggle if they are in a position to engage their curiosity and explore a subject [9]. As they explore in this way, learners are free to test new ideas. Such engagement has the capacity to build curiosity, a love for the subject, and a love of learning more generally. Allowing for this kind of struggle in learning, however, brings with it at least some degree of risk—that is, such struggle may include (perhaps even inherently includes) opportunities for students to fail [34]. Despite this risk of failure, at least in Dewey’s view, struggle remains an invaluable dimension of human learning. When seen through this lens, policies or emphases that detract from or eliminate the possibility of struggle (as well as the failures such struggle precipitates) risk becoming detrimental to learning overall. An overfocus on outcomes, for instance, has the potential to cut the process of struggle short in the name of efficiency and reducing failure. For an educational institution, efficiency might look like an emphasis on shortening the time in which students complete classes or programs. For the student, efficiency may look like completing assignments or credentials with minimum effort. Financial instability may increase the efforts of administrators to reduce the risks associated with formal education inasmuch as risk, struggle, and the possibility of failure for students reduces efficiency.

2.2. The Pressurized Context of Academia

University finances have been increasingly strained during the past three decades. Despite funding increases in the last few years, in the United States, for example, public universities received less state funding per student in 2019–2020 as compared with the 1998–1999 school year after adjusting for inflation [24] (p. 20). State and local funding made up 27% of public doctoral degree-granting institutions’ budgets in 2019–2020, down from 34% in 2008–2009 [35] (p. 22). However, these universities are also being asked to provide more services than ever before. The cost to the university has increased for every degree type from 2008–2009 after adjusting for inflation [35] (p. 23). This combination of decreasing appropriations and increasing costs means that universities rely heavily on tuition for funding [35] (p. 20). Such an increase in funding from tuition suggests that institutions are often passing their financial pressure to students.
Increased financial strains on universities may also incentivize them to reduce costs and increase revenues. To address financial challenges, universities may consider increasing throughput using strategies to decrease time to degree (TDD) or increase online course delivery [36,37]. Shortening the time-to-degree (TDD) can be framed as a way to help both students and universities. For instance, delays in graduation are associated with an average decrease in post-graduation earnings by 8–15%, depending on the length and reason for the delay [38]. The universities can benefit because the programs that extend time-to-degree, like research opportunities, are also among the most costly to the university [39]. An analysis shows that average TDD and average credit hours per undergraduate completer have decreased in the United States since the 1990s [40]. This trend persists despite an increase in student factors associated with lengthening time in school, such as an increase in the average number of hours worked [41], a decrease in pre-university preparation [42], and a decrease in average weekly study time [43].
Denning, Eide, Mumford, and Sabey suggest that the decreasing time to degree must come from the supply side, or the university side, of the relationship because the demand side is seeing an increase in factors that lengthen TDD [43]. Other ways to increase throughput include offering more large classes like large lectures or online classes [37]. In a systematic review, Fehrman and Watson raise concerns about the quality of high throughput pedagogy, like asynchronous online discussions, because there is little agreement on alternatives or best practices, especially for newer online modalities [44]. This adds to the growing body of work that suggests that students perform worse on near-term measures of learning and performance compared to in-person classes [45,46,47]. Despite the supposed benefits to students of increasing throughput, financial strain to a school can influence it to de-risk in a way that may affect the quality of the education delivered. University-level de-risking (that is, supply-side de-risking) is not the primary focus of this paper, but we recognize that it may affect a student’s opportunities for productive struggle. As such, we do touch upon the implications of university-level de-risking for student learning, especially in our third case study. In our discussion, we make significant recommendations for how university administration might make changes in policy and procedure that would alleviate the pressures that lead to de-risking plagiarism and cheating behaviors among students. In short, this paper will focus on the considerations that may influence students (that is, the demand side) to de-risk their education through participation in academic dishonesty and plagiarism.
Many students have experienced financial instability that may influence their outlook on the utility and purpose of education. The American middle class has been shrinking since the mid-1960s, and in general, Americans have experienced less income mobility with each generation since then [48,49]. From 1980 to 2018, the ratio of income at the 90th percentile to income at the 10th percentile has increased from 9.1 to 12.6, an increase of 39% [50]. Only the wealthiest Americans saw an increase in their net worth from 2007 to 2016, whereas the wealth of families in the bottom four-fifths of the income scale decreased by at least 20% during the same time period. As of 2020, the average American carries about 101% of their net disposable income in debt [51]. For university students specifically, the average student loan borrower has about USD 40,274 in student debt across private and federal loans as of August 2022 [52]. This debt load also affects future decisions like the jobs someone takes, home ownership, and family planning [53,54]. In light of all this, some students may also be influenced by such pressures when considering the values and purposes of higher education.
Education is often touted as a solution to poverty, which offers a path to secure high-paying jobs and a middle-class income [34,36,55]. As people feel more financial strains, they may lean harder into the idea that the purpose of education is financial security. According to one Gallup poll, 49% of a sample of American students enrolled in higher education said that they chose to get more education to pursue a better career [56]. These focus on financial outcomes may then influence students’ approaches to their formal education [57], including attempts to reduce the risks of failure because they may perceive that failure could affect their future ability to meet their financial needs.
To be clear, education may feel risky because the measures of struggle feel consequential. As their future feels less certain, people will focus on what they feel is the surest path to solvency. Education ceases to be about learning, and it becomes a struggle to get the credentials to ensure survival. De-risking behaviors on the part of students make getting that magic paper easier. De-risking on the part of institutions is responding to financial pressure and the demands of students, employers, and society at large. Students’ focus on ensuring their future should not be viewed as a moral failing by itself because they are responding to a difficult climate. However, the pressure to perform may push some to act in ways that may have been historically perceived as unethical.

2.3. Plagiarism and Who Does It

While a theoretical or philosophical definition of plagiarism remains less than precise, university policy can situate the issue with more clarity. Policy at the University of Oxford defines plagiarism as “presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgement…Plagiarism may be intentional or reckless, or unintentional” [58]. Other universities follow similar definitions. The Harvard College Honor Code prohibits “…plagiarizing or misrepresenting the ideas or language of someone else as one’s own…” [59], and Duke University states that a student may be charged with plagiarism if they “Copy, quote, paraphrase or summarize any source without adequate documentation” [60]. These, or functionally similar definitions, are used by many institutions and the lay public [61,62].
Psychological research has suggested that the presence of certain personality traits can be reliably indicative of a student’s proclivity for cheating. The presence of psychopathy [63], Machiavellianism [64], or a Type A personality [65] in a student, for instance, suggests a heightened likelihood of cheating. Impulsivity [66], low self-control [67] and perceptions of a strong external locus of control [68] can suggest a stronger likelihood of cheating behaviors, as well. Furthermore, academic competence has been shown to be inversely correlated to cheating behavior among students in university settings [69]. Researchers in psychology have proposed a similar relationship between self-efficacy and cheating [70]. What Murdock et al. called the “normative expectations for competence” [23] (p. 191) can also influence a student’s proclivity to cheat, including fear of failure [71], test anxiety [72], and performance anxiety [73]. In short, significant threads of academic research describe engaging in cheating or plagiarism as complex psychological processes involving an array of personality traits and natural proclivities.
Despite these trends, however, it seems that psychological and personality factors alone cannot account for the widespread nature of this problem. One longitudinal study at Washington State University, one of the largest universities in the western United States, estimated that between 60–80% of university students have engaged in some form of plagiarism at least once during their time in higher education [74]. Another study of university students in Hong Kong found that 70–80% of over 1000 students surveyed had cheated on assignments, and nearly 50% reported cheating on tests [15]. A total of 65% of the nearly 150,000 students surveyed across eight years in the United States and Canada confessed to unpermitted collaboration, copying, plagiarism, or other forms of cheating [14]. The significant numbers of students who have reported cheating behaviors in these studies suggest multiple motivations for cheating beyond students’ dispositions or moral codes. Additional proposed causes for cheating include poor education around what counts as plagiarism, the rise of easily accessible online textbooks, pressure to perform, especially in the case of first-generation students and minorities, and, of course, moral failings like a lack of self-control [75,76].
Ignorance, too, is not the only issue because previous work suggests that most students understand that practices like copying-and-pasting or paraphrasing someone else’s work without a citation are unethical [75]. And while various studies have shown that students’ beliefs regarding plagiarism predict their likelihood to engage in cheating behaviors [77,78], this work suggests, similar to Honz et al. [79] and Wangaard and Stephens [80], that some students may understand the ethical issues, but might engage in cheating practices anyway, especially in light of the pressures outlined above. This incongruency is so pervasive that over half of the high school students Wangaard and Stephens surveyed admitted to cheating behaviors while at the same time stating their belief that cheating is morally wrong [23] (pp. 192–193). We further explore the dynamics of such rationalization in the section that follows.

2.4. Rationalizing Cheating

Forms of cheating may signify a disconnect between learning and formal education in which outcomes, not learnings, become a focus of educational experiences. Financial difficulties may exacerbate the problems associated with this disconnect. A study of 1314 nursing students across four Australasian tertiary institutes found an inverse relationship between the number of hours worked and grade point average [81]. This issue could be a factor that explains findings from studies that showed an association between working more hours in college and positive attitudes toward plagiarism [82,83,84]. Student debt has additionally increased at about six times the rate of growth of the United States’ economy, on average, from 2012–2022 [52]. These factors could create a situation in which a student may feel financial pressure to work more hours, but increasing hours may create difficulty in keeping up with school work. So, some students might consider plagiarism to fill the gap. At this point, the goal becomes the grade, not the learning experiences associated with an assignment.
Students may think of education in terms of their specific situation, but they are also influenced by an unseen cultural pressure to perform. In The Tyranny of Merit, Sandel explains how Americans’ cultural obsession with personal responsibility both causes and compounds economic inequality to pressure students into academic perfectionism [34]. Elite colleges are accepting lower percentages of students than ever before, so many students have been subject to years of pressure to perform starting at a young age.
This pressure can have health side effects like anxiety disorders and depression and can also more generally alter the way that students think about their work [34]. Instead of seeing just college admissions as a series of hoops to compete over, the constant, all-consuming pressure of performance may make them see everything as a competitive hoop. Stated differently, if all that matters is winning, then one may find it easy to rationalize cheating, even when the benefits are unclear or overly risky.
Additional studies have suggested that students are more likely to cheat when they can place moral responsibility for these actions on something other than themselves. In such instances, blame is often shifted to teachers [85] who may have presented assessments that students judged to be unfair [86] or simply failed to implement measures to prevent cheating [87,88]. Students might also shift blame to some other contextual factor of the situation, as well [89]. Seen in this light, although students may recognize the moral wrongness of cheating, many demonstrate a willingness to cheat regardless so long as they can justify their choice by shifting the responsibility for doing so away from themselves. In other words, if some aspect of a situation is seen to weigh unfairly against a student, they may be more willing to rationalize cheating by shifting the blame to the source of the perceived unfairness. In short, the motivation to cheat can be built upon various contextual and psychological factors and pressures. This multifaceted conceptualization of the decision to cheat further illustrates the complexity of understanding and addressing instances of cheating and plagiarism.

3. Methods

In order to investigate this particular dimension of plagiarism and cheating in higher education contexts, we drew upon three case studies from North American institutions of higher education within the last several years. We chose to situate our theoretical investigation within the context of the case study approach because of its utility in investigating a specific phenomenon more in-depth [90]. In the present case, this approach is well-suited to explore cheating through the theoretical lens of pragmatism by elucidating a variety of perspectives regarding the phenomenon in question [91].
Inasmuch as we are attempting to give voice to the perspective of those who enact plagiarism and cheating in their respective academic spheres, we approach these case studies through an open-ended, interpretivistic lens. As we draw upon already extant artifacts and data, the present study relies heavily on qualitative textual and artifactual analysis and interpretation rather than qualitative interviews. Furthermore, the purpose of this study is not to generate a representative sample of approaches to plagiarism and cheating across a broad population. It is, instead, to situate and explore a proposed theoretical approach to ameliorating the problem of plagiarism and cheating within three salient cases that have garnered national and international attention. Moreover, this approach illuminates more clearly the major problems facing the concept of plagiarism as understood from the point of view of those who participate in it.
We chose the three case studies that follow based on specific, delimiting criteria that would explore the dynamics of student framing of plagiarism and cheating and the broader effects of this framing on the higher education community more generally. In an effort to make each case as generally representative of the broader trends of student plagiarism and cheating as possible, our first criterion was that each case be publicly known beyond the immediate local community in which it was perpetrated. Inasmuch as this paper primarily focuses on cheating and plagiarism in higher education contexts, our second criterion was that each of these cases is related to an institution of higher education, including either its students or faculty. The third criterion was that the perpetrators of the cheating or plagiarism in question framed the choice to cheat in terms of a mitigation of risk.
Within the bounds of these first three criteria, we further searched for a single case that would be illustrative of a different, key dimension of the repercussions of this pragmatic framing on student learning. We selected the first case because it featured detailed accounts from students that highlighted transcribed textual evidence of pragmatic reasoning in their choice to cheat. This illustrated the rich context in which university students engaged in this particular kind of pragmatic framing in a typical classroom environment that included the traditional pressures of assignments and grades. We chose the second case as an exploration of the dynamics of pragmatic reasoning to cheat among university students outside the classroom. Because the pressure of grading and academic assessment contributes so often to the choice to cheat, we sought a case in which these pressures were largely absent so as to examine the repercussions that a pragmatic framing of the choice to cheat might have on the learning experiences within a student’s extra-academic life. For the third case, we chose an incident in which the pragmatic choice to cheat was taken by non-student members of the larger academic community. While the case we found is not necessarily an instance of plagiarism, is does constitute a form of cheating on the part of a prominent institution of higher learning’s administration. As such, it is illustrative of the ironic position of an educational administration’s stance against cheating while engaging in the practice themselves, as well as the detrimental implications for student learning that may result from such actions.
To gather information regarding case studies one and two, we relied primarily upon reports from each of the corresponding institutions’ sponsored newspapers. This decision was based upon the assumption that these institutions would have the greatest access to the individuals involved and the contextual factors surrounding the instance of plagiarism. We also drew upon reports from other university newspapers which closely followed the cases. For the third case study, we gathered information directly from the analysis written by the professor who challenged his institution’s report to ensure the accuracy of our information.

4. Findings

In the section that follows, we describe three cases of plagiarism and cheating and discuss the salient themes and implications of each. The first of these is a recent string of cheating and plagiarism incidents at California State University, Los Angeles, in which students coordinated with one another to share answers to particular assignments through a phone app. We include this as a salient example of how students rationalize cheating in terms of pragmatic mitigation of risk amidst the traditional assessment pressures of a classroom setting. The second is a case of a university commencement speaker from Duke who plagiarized large portions of her speech from one that was given earlier at another top university’s commencement ceremonies. This case illustrates how the pressure to plagiarize can apply beyond the typical academic pressures of grading and assessment. We maintain that this case, though outside a traditional classroom setting, was also detrimental to the learning of the student in question. The third case explores an instance in which faculty at Columbia University altered the metrics whereby the US News and World Report measured the quality of their institution so as to attain a higher status in their evaluation assessment. This final case explores how the pressures of academic assessment have led higher education administration to cheat on such assessments, as well. We argue that the university’s prioritization of its rankings led the administration to focus more of its resources on manipulating the metrics of the ranking organization than on the improvement of student learning. In each of these cases, we explore the motivations and contexts that led to the decision to engage in plagiarism or cheating, paying special attention to the dynamics of seeing the choice to do so as a pragmatic mitigation of academic, social and financial risk.

4.1. A Case of Cheating for a Grade

Cheating and plagiarism are not only problems at institutions of higher education generally but appear frequently at some of the most prestigious institutions of education in North America. In the past five years, students have been caught cheating in university classes at Harvard [92], West Point [93], and UCLA [94], among others. University students have even posted papers about plagiarism on Course Hero, a website specifically designed to facilitate student plagiarism [95]. This section will focus on a recent incident of plagiarism at California State University, Los Angeles, in 2021 because it represents a salient case that clearly showcases a variety of attitudes toward cheating and plagiarism as well as possible administrative responses to it
According to news reports, students in at least one class coordinated to share answers to restricted assignments like tests and homework via a group chat app [96]. The incidents came to light when a student in the class with knowledge of the ongoing actions posted about it in the class’s online discussion board. A screenshot of the interaction gained popularity on social media, particularly on Twitter, under the hashtag #CSULA [97,98]. The online responses range from condemnation to justification of academic dishonesty. The responses seem to correspond to particular attitudes toward the purpose of university education.
Some condemned the acts of cheating and plagiarism. In the whistleblower’s post, the student argued that group chat apps allow for greater communication among students, but this increase in access to other students can be abused when students take credit for the work of others in the class. Specifically, she stated that sharing work “puts other people in a position where they do not have to work as hard” [99]. An alumnus made a similar comment, stating, “If you need to cheat your way through college, you shouldn’t be there in the first place” [96]. Another commenter on social media stated, “…if you are cheating in class, you should probably be removed. You’re not learning the material” [100].
Such responses suggest that some believe that part of the value of tertiary education lies in work performed as part of a course. In the case of the original poster, the assignments may allow students to practice skills learned in class, or the value may be in working hard through problems that they find difficult. The latter two comments make a point that extends beyond the class, as they imply that the purpose of university enrollment is to do work or learn specific material. This set of comments may not extend as far as Dewey’s when he asserts that freedom and creativity are required for learning. However, these statements do seem to align with Dewey’s argument that learning requires struggle [9]. The comments in this set imply that cheating requires less work than not and that lack of work devalues education. The last two statements, in particular, imply that circumventing possible productive struggle renders university enrollment less meaningful.
Others felt that sharing answers was justified. For example, one student implied that the work was not conducive to learning, so she should not be expected to perform the work as intended. She stated, “…[Professors] just assign you busy work, and they leave you on your own to basically teach yourself, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be…how do you expect us to take an exam on something that you’re barely teaching?” [96]. Another student framed cheating as justified based on a monetary investment, saying, “A lot of kids are cheating, but it’s because we are being cheated out of our education. We’re paying $8000 on tuition every year, and we’re worried we’re not going to pass. Students aren’t going to pay $8000 a year to fail, especially during a pandemic” [96].
In both of these cases, the students suggest that they should be allowed to cheat because they had entered into mutual agreements with the university for the delivery of a product. They imply that if the university does not uphold its end of those agreements to provide professor involvement or passing grades, then the student should not be expected to abide by their previous agreements with regard to academic honesty. This set of possible responses treats university education as a commodity—a thing that can be obtained via payment either in-kind or in cash. Regarding the first student’s justification for plagiarism based on the perceived low educative value of their “busy work” assignments, we submit that such a student has limited grounds to make the argument that the assignments in question would not have resulted in quality learning because they never fully engaged with them in the first place. Had they completed the assignment in this case and thereafter found that it had not resulted in the learning outcomes promised by the instructor, the students might have pragmatic grounds to engage in plagiarism and cheating. However, because they engaged in plagiarism before trying the classwork “experiment”, as it were, the assertion that they would not have learned anything if they had engaged in the assignment properly is based on little more than an assumption. While professors must be held to rigorous standards for transparency about how their assignments lead to the learning outcomes outlined in a given course, such transparency must be balanced by at least some degree of trust on the part of students to try the experiment of the assignments before resorting to plagiarism.
The statements from both of these students additionally seem to divorce class activities from learning or productive struggle. The first student describes classwork with the implication that the purpose of such work is to enable students to pass exams. The second student similarly focuses on passing classes as the product for which students are paying universities. So, the primary goal of course activities seems, in their view, to be the final result of a grade rather than any sort of process-oriented, developmental dimension to learning. In this view, students may feel that if they have paid a reasonable price and the university jeopardizes their grade, they are justified in ensuring those outcomes themselves because they believe that payment entitles them to a certain outcome. Such views are likely at odds with Dewey’s ideas of productive struggle, as Dewey conceptualized learning and struggle as a varied and individualized process as opposed to a guaranteed outcome [9]. The set of views suggested by these students do not seem to consider such a process, instead conceptualizing higher education as the most efficient use of inputs (i.e., time or money) into outputs (i.e., grades). When viewed through this pragmatic, functional lens, cheating becomes nothing more than an efficient means to increase grades with fewer demands on time.
In this case, the administrator overseeing the investigation did not directly comment on the debate on learning or the purpose of classwork in university. In an official statement, she said, “I do think that we need to do more to educate students about what cheating is/isn’t and examine address [sic] the underlying factors that can lead to cheating” [96]. This statement suggests that a significant number of students who cheat only do so because they do not know that their actions may be considered cheating by the university. In this case, university officials’ efforts to solve or at least mitigate the problem of plagiarism are centered on defining that which constitutes cheating. In doing so, they rely heavily upon an assumption of cheating’s moral repugnance within a student’s worldview.
However, from this case at least, it seems clear that students do not inherently approach the question of whether to cheat or plagiarize as an ethical or moral issue. These students at California State University, Los Angeles, instead characterized plagiarism as an economic issue or even as one of vindication for an educative contract unfulfilled by a university for whose product they exchanged payment. Morality and ethics seemed remarkably absent from their justifications for choosing to plagiarize their coursework. A reframing of plagiarism as a functional issue rather than an exclusively ethical one may help alleviate this problem. Rather than exclusively educate students on the definition of plagiarism and hope for an a priori ethical aversion to it among students, the administration might also focus on how plagiarism is detrimental to learning itself. This could then turn the economic and contractual arguments in favor of plagiarism on their head by demonstrating within this framework of functionality that cheating is, independent of the question of its moral repugnance, detrimental to learning. Seen in this way, the argument for the efficient functionality of plagiarism and cheating erodes within its own framing as it breaks down the very contractual foundations upon which many students base their choice to cheat in the first place, again, by rendering coursework unable to contribute to lasting student learning.

4.2. A Case of Plagiarism at Commencement

The case at Duke University in 2022 highlights another form of cheating: that of directly copying and presenting another’s work as one’s own. The university’s May 2022 commencement speaker was accused of preparing and delivering an address plagiarized from a 2014 Harvard commencement speech [92,101]. At Duke University, the honor of a student commencement speaker is not automatically conferred on a student by rank or status. Instead, any graduating student may submit a speech for consideration [102]. Duke held a competition with multiple rounds of rating, including submission of a draft and a mock performance, but the plagiarism was not discovered until after the winner gave her speech at graduation [101,103]. In a statement released via a public relations firm, the student in question said,
When I was asked to give the commencement speech, I was thrilled by such an honor and I sought advice from respected friends and family about topics I might address. I was embarrassed and confused to find out too late that some of the suggested passages were taken from a recent commencement speech at another university. I take full responsibility for this oversight and I regret if this incident has in any way distracted from the accomplishments of the Duke Class of 2022.
Her statement implies noteworthy attitudes toward plagiarism. After highlighting the honor of speaking, she acknowledges having consulted with “respected friends and family” [104] in the process of writing her speech. The act of seeking such advice, together with the recognition of prestige, suggests that the student’s perception of the opportunity included esteem and accolades, which she weighed to be of value. It was, perhaps, the pressure associated with attaining this prestige that served as a catalyst for this student’s choice to plagiarize another student’s speech, or at least unwittingly do so by using uncorroborated bodies of text from friends and family. It is noteworthy that the student’s statement does not frame the issue of her plagiaristic activities in moral or ethical terms but as a series of pragmatic, procedural choices.
Strangfeld identified “competitive pressures” as among the most common motivations for engaging in plagiarism [105] (p. 1). Such pressures, she argued, often stem from a combination of perceived societal, institutional, or even faculty expectations and the fear of being unable to meet them. She noted that the reasoning most students reported behind decisions to plagiarize is linked to “institutionalized inequity” and “struggling to fit the college student role or overcome long held feelings of inadequacy” [105] (p. 11). Students chose to plagiarize out of fear “that faculty would see them as ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid’” or that their “writing skills mark them as unfit to meet college student expectations” [105] (p. 10). When weighed against the pressure to measure up to expectations, whether real or perceived, the risks of plagiarism can be considered more profitable than its avoidance.
Fatima et al. similarly highlighted the role of pressure as a “critical factor in plagiarism” [106] (p. 34). McCuen outlined a distinction between external and internal pressure, identifying performance deficit as the source of internal pressure [107] (p. 153). These authors, however, introduced an additional dimension to this conceptualization of pressure, namely that pressure “is often affiliated with…the desire to achieve” [106] (p. 34). “The pressure imposed by the thought of achievement,” McCuen contended, “may bias an individual in such a way that reasonable, ethically reputable alternatives [to plagiarism] are ignored” [107] (p. 154). With this set against this backdrop, it might be argued that Parkash’s decision to plagiarize her speech was influenced in part by internal pressure stemming from a desire to achieve along with the fear of her own performance deficit.
Further, her official statement indicates that while she is “embarrassed” that she plagiarized another influential speech, she seems comfortable with the act of quoting words and ideas from friends and family without crediting them [104]. This kind of direct, uncredited quotation seems one of the few ways that could have resulted in the authorship of such a similar speech (shown in Figure 1) without an awareness of the source. Accordingly, even with a generous interpretation of her words, it might still be inferred that her actions were a result of weighing risks. Whether aware of the source material or not, it could be argued that she weighed the risk of using uncredited ideas—either from friends and family or a well-known speech—against the pressure resulting from a desire for achievement and fear of performance deficit. In this instance, the risk of failing under pressure appears to have outweighed the risks of plagiarism (or, at least, the social and academic risk of getting caught). Indeed, while consequences came in the form of several articles as well as consternation and regret expressed by individuals at her actions [108], the University itself failed to follow through on promises to further investigate and hold her and those who reviewed her speech accountable [109].
Parkash is far from the only commencement speaker to pass off another’s work as her own, though. Other noteworthy examples include reports of a student speaker at Columbia University plagiarizing part of their commencement address [110], the resignation of the president of the University of South Carolina after he copied retired Navy Admiral William McRaven’s well-known “Make Your Bed” speech [111], and several high school valedictorians who plagiarized their graduation addresses, as well [112,113,114].
While this trend of the preponderance of plagiarism in speech-writing among students and faculty is troubling, the repugnance with which it is met by the public is again largely based on approaching plagiarism as a moral-ethical question. Again, rather than engage in this dimension of speaking against plagiarism, we argue that from a pragmatic perspective, a student simply does not learn from copying another’s speech as much as she would from writing her own. “Writing”, wrote communications scholar Emig, “represents a unique mode of learning—not merely valuable, not merely special, but unique” [115] (p. 122). Quoting Luria, Emig further explained,
Written speech is bound up with the inhibition of immediate synpractical connections. It assumes a much slower, repeated mediating process of analysis and synthesis, which makes it possible not only to develop the required thought, but even to revert to its earlier stages, thus transforming the sequential chain of connections in a simultaneous, self-reviewing structure. Written speech thus represents a new and powerful instrument of thought.
[115] (p. 127)
Importantly, this kind of transformativity applies to the act of writing itself rather than only to writing within a particular academic frame. To deprive someone of this unique source of learning seems less than pragmatic in the long run because doing so disrupts the educative purpose at the heart of the endeavor. In this specific case, this student’s choice to plagiarize a speech deprived her both of learning about her own college experience through the “repeated mediating process of analysis and synthesis” described by Luria, as well as simply learning how to write a formal speech in and of itself. Within a broader context, it seems the most pragmatic course of action is to genuinely engage in didactic activities so as to realize their purpose rather than subvert them by engaging in academic dishonesty. To those who situate their decision to engage in plagiarism in pragmatic terms, this argument against plagiarism might persuade them otherwise.

4.3. A Case of University Cheating

The disconnect between learning and university education is not limited to students. The pressure of merit can also manifest at the university level. Recently, the utilities and accuracies of university rankings have been highlighted by the Reed College report on the calculation of rankings [116], Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast episodes on the subject [117], and the refusal to participate by top law schools, including those at Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. John Manning, dean of Harvard Law School, said in his statement on the matter, “We at HLS have made this decision because it has become impossible to reconcile our principles and commitments with the methodology and incentives the U.S. News rankings reflect” [118].
In February 2022, Michael Thaddeus, a professor of mathematics at Columbia University, published an analysis of the metrics that Columbia reports to one of the best-known university ranking organizations in the United States, U.S. News and World Report [119]. This analysis shows that Columbia reported highly unlikely or even demonstrably false information to U.S. News about performance metrics. The difference between reported and actual metrics reflects possible financial pressures, while others seem to reflect a struggle with the definition of quality education and how they reconcile those issues with the ranking system. Additionally, Columbia seems to have shown a repeated pattern of changing policy to improve in the rankings when that option was presented to them.

4.3.1. Financial Pressure

Class sizes (8%), student-faculty ratio (1%), and spending on instruction (10%) together make up about 19% of the U.S. News ranking [119]. To make gains in these areas, a university may have to make difficult or unpopular decisions to dedicate more resources to hiring faculty and other instructional expenses. Improving on these metrics could also mean politically unpopular changes like limiting enrollment in programs or the university as a whole, as well as changes in curriculum and instruction. Pragmatically, these three areas share a similar issue with regard to the ranking data: it is both logistically easier as well as less financially demanding to misrepresent these metrics than to make the slow and possibly divisive effort to improve in these areas.
For example, Thaddeus’s analysis found that Columbia inflated its spending on instruction with a simple accounting change (see Figure 2). The school reported patient care expenses from the university medical school as instructional expenditures, even though this category should not be included, according to U.S. News.
This small change increased Columbia’s reported expenditure on instruction by more than 50%. This measure, in turn, accounts for about 10% of the ranking score. In this way, Columbia could improve rankings without changing policy or making possibly difficult financial or instructional decisions.

4.3.2. Issues of Quality

The focus on improving rankings can lead to the pursuit of the metric over considerations of quality. Faculty with doctoral degrees, full-time faculty, and graduation rates factor into U.S. News’s rankings. Columbia seemingly falsified their reports of these metrics but, in doing so, neglected cases in which their metric may drop despite a possible improvement in educational quality.
For example, Columbia reported that 100% of their full-time, non-medical faculty hold a doctoral degree [119]. This figure seems out of place because the next highest is Princeton, with 94%. Indeed, it is also easy to disprove. According to the analysis, 66 full-time Columbia College faculty teach with a bachelor’s or master’s degree only. One could argue that faculty without doctoral degrees provide less quality education on average because they may not have demonstrated the same depth of knowledge as a similar professor with a doctorate. Columbia does not seem to hire the average master’s degree holder, however. The 66 faculty without doctoral degrees include distinguished scholars and contributors to their fields including the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature [119,120,121].
In this case, falsifying their metrics might, at first, seem the most pragmatic solution for the sake of improving Columbia’s ranking. Rather than counter this perspective by calling upon the moral questionability of false representation generally, we contend that the falsification of these metrics is less sensible within a broader pragmatic framing of the issue. If the quality of learning at Columbia manifested itself independent of its relationship to the metrics used by US News and World Report, over time those metrics might become less reliably indicative of an institution’s quality overall. This, in turn, might enable institutions to pursue that quality itself unencumbered by the pressure to fulfill the data points meant to measure that quality. In other words, the general adoption of such an approach would put the cart back behind the horse, as it were, with data points measuring quality pursued independent of those measurements as opposed to neglecting the pursuit of quality in favor of fulfilling data points for their own sake.

4.3.3. Policy Change

Thaddeus highlighted one instance in which Columbia seemed to accurately report their metrics for retention, graduation rates, and student debt. These three factors account for about 40% of the U.S. News ranking, so universities have an incentive to report high numbers. With respect to these metrics, Thaddeus did not find evidence of falsification. Instead, evidence suggests that Columbia adjusted policies and practices to improve metrics in such a way that could diminish the quality of the educational experience for some students.
In the 2022 rankings, Columbia has the highest rank for graduation and retention, with a reported 96% of undergraduates receiving a degree in 6 years or less, 95% for students who had demonstrated financial need and 97% for those who did not. These figures are somewhat misleading, as the methodology for this metric only includes undergraduate students who started their university career at Columbia. This is a small portion of Columbia’s student body because about 41% (5583) of Columbia’s 13,727 students in Fall 2020 were graduate students. Additionally, more than 30% of undergraduates are classified as transfer students. So, these figures that account for about 22% of the rankings only use about 42% of students in the calculations.
Transfer students at Columbia seem to be left with significantly less support than their traditional first-time student counterparts. Transfer students have a lower six-year graduation rate (85%) than students who start at Columbia (96%), but such a gap between first-time and transfer students does not exist at other elite private schools with high transfer populations like the University of Southern California and George Washington University. Columbia transfer students are also more likely to face financial hardship, as demonstrated by Pell Grant eligibility, a federal program for students in need. Transfer students likely also have a higher than average student debt burden because Columbia does not offer as generous a financial aid package to transfer students as it does to traditional first-time students.
Whether intentional or not, Columbia’s decision to accept such a high proportion of transfer students seems to contribute to Columbia’s high U.S. News ranking despite poorer outcomes on average for that population. So, both the cases where Columbia reported inaccurate data as well as this accurate reporting of outcomes data point to a focus on rankings over student learning or the quality of education. Like with the students in cases one and two, Columbia’s goal seems to be less about growth or productive struggle and more about the “grades” it receives in the form of U.S. News and World Report rankings. While there is little evidence of plagiarism in this particular case, the overall orientation at strategically manipulating metrics in order to accomplish particular ends within a system of contractual exchange (that is, rankings for strategic metrics) sets the stage for students to view their own academic choices regarding cheating and plagiarism as similarly ethically innocuous. Reframing these choices as functionally detrimental to the flourishing of human learning rather than as an ethical barrier to efficiency in scholastic hoop-jumping may have to begin with the administrators themselves before trickling down to students.

4.4. Plagiarism and the Value of a Degree

According to one survey, a majority of new graduates express regret that their college education did not contribute to the development of job skills like networking, computer software, and communication [122]. Arguably, they chose these skills because these competencies show up frequently in job postings. In other words, they seem valuable in the marketplace. Students feel the stress of an increasingly uncertain economic future, so their view of the purpose of education has become focused on the return on investment of additional schooling. While individual skills have an ROI, the entire credential has arguably the most value because it is seen as proof of a pattern of hard work, intellect, and other virtues [32]. In this sense, some students may see cheating as a way to ensure a return on the time and money spent on schooling as well as a shortcut to something akin to proof of the superiority of character.
Obtaining credentials is risky. As mentioned previously, the university is expensive, and many students incur what might be termed a perilous amount of debt for the degrees they hope will pave the way to financial freedom. Other dimensions of getting that degree can feel risky, as well. The traditional university class grading structure includes assignments and summative exams whose points count in a student’s final grade. Some professors use alternative methods like grading contracts, which emphasize practice and improvement over criterion-referenced assessment. However, alternative forms of grading are rare in universities. More often, every point counts in a final grade, so students may feel an outsized pressure to perform perfectly on even the smallest assignments. In theory, these assignments might be for practice and retention. But because they count toward a final grade, those formative assignments end up functioning in both the final grade and the minds of the students like a high-stakes, summative assessment. Under these conditions, one can see how a student can feel pressure to cheat in what might, on the outside, seem like a low-stakes situation. The cumulative nature of a traditional grading style crowds out even honest attempts to encourage practice and exploration because the riskiness of the exploration seems to consistently loom in the background.
In this context, students may feel an unyielding pressure to perform every assignment perfectly. This pressure can make cheating seem like a necessary evil to their current and future survival. This does not necessarily make plagiarism or cheating morally defensible, nor is it the purpose of this paper to address such an argument. This merely illustrates the multifaceted contexts that surround and inform decisions that some students make to cheat. For example, one study found that factors like the pressure to perform predicted plagiarism behaviors more than students’ attitudes or perceptions of plagiarism [76]. This suggests that students who feel high pressure to perform may engage in cheating even when they believe it is unethical.
This pressure is not an isolated incident in education or in contemporary American society. The US has long embraced elements of a prosperity gospel, that is, the idea that there is a direct correlation between the quantity of wealth an individual possesses and the moral character of that individual [34]. In this framing, if the moral character traits of intelligence and hard work are considered of the most value, formal education (especially higher education) could easily become something of a great sorting machine whose purpose is to separate the smart from the dumb, the hard-working from the lazy.

5. Discussion

Currently, policy and practice focus on teaching university students what plagiarism is, making students commit to an honor code or other ethics contract, and catching instances of plagiarism and cheating with ever more sophisticated technological means like TurnItIn or linguistic similarity detection artificial intelligence [123,124]. Such efforts have become even more difficult, if not altogether impossible, in light of recent developments in AI like ChatGPT. Whatever the case, these efforts do not address the reasons for which students plagiarize. As mentioned earlier, lack of knowledge is only one of many factors that contribute to cheating [76]. Pressure to succeed and the anxiety associated with the current system of grading, credentialism, the economic consequences of performance in university, and the vanishing middle class in the United States all play a part in cheating behaviors [34,76]. Universities and professors can only address some of these contributing factors, but their efforts can have an impact within their schools and with their students. The following sections will address what universities and teachers can do to more comprehensively address plagiarism by bringing policy into better alignment with the goal of fostering student growth and learning. Additionally, we will outline various ways in which these recommendations might mitigate some of the conditions that contributed to cheating and plagiarism in the three cases from our findings.

5.1. Implications for University Policy

Many contemporary universities use more punitive measures than positive incentives to reduce cheating. These policies leave much to be desired in terms of addressing the pressure that incentivizes students to cheat in the first place. Murdock et al. stated that current reactions to incidents of academic dishonesty are more often directed to “improving the ‘detection industry’” than investigating and addressing the factors and attitudes at the root of such incidents [23] (p. 198). Schools may have honor contracts and mandatory online training courses that outline a zero-tolerance policy for cheating, but they often expect a level of perfection from students when awarding admission, scholarships, and grades that implicitly reward cheating behaviors like plagiarism. As stated previously, students cheat even when they know it is ethically wrong or against school policy because of the pressure involved [76,106,107]. While it might be argued that universities could decrease instances of cheating by increasing the consequential risks through strict punitive measures, such an approach neither addresses the pressures that inhibit a student’s ability to focus on learning rather than academic performance measures nor can it guarantee student compliance. Because of this, we propose that universities shift their focus to considering and addressing potential causes of the anxiety and pressure to succeed that seem to be more at the heart of the problem. If curriculum and assessment practices could change to alleviate the intense riskiness of learning in higher education, students might be less inclined to plagiarize in order to de-risk the investment of their education.
Universities could institute policies that de-risk learning on a school level so students do not feel the need to do so themselves. They might start by setting such expectations at admissions, both for the school as a whole and for individual programs. Sandel suggests that one way universities can disincentivize cheating begins in the admissions process with a lottery of the qualified [34]. More recently, universities rate applications, often weighing GPA and standardized test scores heavily. This process encourages students and their families to make great sacrifices of time, money, and sometimes even integrity over an extended period to make marginal gains against other students. A longitudinal study of 604 Canadian teenagers found that academic achievement can lead to an increase in perfectionism, which in turn causes an increase in academic-related stress [125]. As already shown, academic stress can lead to an increase in plagiarism and other cheating behaviors [76]. So, as students do better in school, they may develop more academic stress and, therefore, feel they have more incentive to cheat despite theoretically having a greater probability of being able to do well on their own. Such is among the almost paradoxical dimensions of competition that incentivizes those who are already at the top to cheat.
Instead, university administration could set a minimum for the metrics that they would accept on an application [34]. Then, they fill the incoming class based on a lottery of those applicants who meet those minimum qualifications. This way, prospective students do not feel so much pressure to perfection, and the role of luck is made obvious instead of being obfuscated by wealth or connection. Students have less incentive to cheat for gains in rankings because the rankings do not matter past a certain point. This policy also makes the process inherently less competitive because there is no marginal gain that will guarantee a student a spot in the incoming class.
From a measurement perspective, a lottery of the qualified could be considered more valid because there is little material difference between a top 5% applicant and a top 6% applicant. A lottery of the qualified has the drawback and benefit of forcing universities to reckon with what college readiness means instead of relying on test scores to make this determination for them. Some schools started this reckoning and dropped their standardized college entrance exam (SAT/ACT) requirements years ago, while others have been pushed into it because of the COVID-19 pandemic and canceled tests [126]. However, the process of bringing values and policy into alignment is far from over. Many schools have simply shifted from one overly competitive, perfectionistic measure to another by focusing on GPA instead of SAT or ACT. Until universities are willing to address the full complexity of the relationship between admissions and learning, they may well continue to work at cross purposes by paying lip service to learning while demanding a narrow and perfectionistic idea of achievement that includes little room for the iterative processes so crucial for student growth and learning.
Similarly, some schools require already enrolled students to apply for a major with limited enrollment. This process has a similar form to that of university admissions and may even be plagued with the same problems of perfectionism and de-risking behaviors. In some ways, this internal admissions process is worse for the university because de-risking at this stage could involve cheating in the university’s own classes. For first-year admission, a university can claim that they have no direct effect on cheating in high school, but they cannot make those same arguments in the case of those who are pressured to cheat by the school’s own policies. In all cases, a lottery of the qualified will affect a university, probably by making them drop in the rankings against other universities, because rankings often use factors like test scores and average GPA. However, this is a small price to pay to improve education by reducing pressure on students and preserving curiosity.
Scholarships also pressure students to perform, especially in light of the high cost of tuition and the growing student loan burden. Schools could remove this burden by only offering scholarships on a need basis, or they could do a lottery of the qualified in this case, as well. Moving to a need-based model is likely more feasible because it appeals to people’s sense of charity in a way that a lottery of the qualified does not. However, a lottery forces a conversation around the role of luck in all of these contexts. This conversation is often pushed to the side or reserved only for issues of diversity and inclusion instead of its wider effects on the interconnected web of cheating, admissions, grades, and scholarships.
Other university policies that might serve to reduce academic pressures could include increasing both student access to and affordability of university housing, which could also reduce some of the pressure on students to demonstrate high academic performance, which is born of financial stress. Additionally, universities might mitigate academic pressure by allowing for late withdrawal from courses with little or no penalty and providing options for improving low grades, such as retaking a course for a replacement grade or submitting assignments that demonstrate learning of the material even after completing a course. Such policies could address the fear of failure, which is supported by the notion that struggling in a course on their first attempt places students in a position from which they likely will not be able to recover. Additionally, these and similar policies indicate a shift in focus away from performance measurement and institutional accountability toward student learning as assignments and assessments are used to improve individual student growth rather than to reflect on the success of a university program.
One general theme from these recommendations involves the de-risking of learning by focusing on the quality of that learning in terms of academic and holistic student growth. This thematic focus has the capacity to mitigate the conditions that led to plagiarism and cheating in cases one and three mentioned previously. In the case of California State University, Los Angeles, one of the students’ pragmatic arguments for cheating was that they simply could not afford to fail either financially or academically. University policies focusing on learning and growth while de-emphasizing punitive repercussions for student failure on the road to such growth might serve to ameliorate the pressures that can catalyze pragmatic arguments for cheating like those of students in the case of California State University, Los Angeles.
Furthermore, the thematic focus of this recommendation could additionally mitigate the conditions that led to the university-level cheating in the third case of Columbia University. While university rankings like U.S. News and World Report attempt to identify and measure constructs that are indicative of a university’s quality, a university’s focus on the attainment of these measures and rankings can eclipse the very student learning these metrics attempt to elucidate in the first place. As such, we put forth the idea of de-pressurizing university ranking metrics in much the same way as we have proposed to de-risk student assessment. This, in turn, might allow universities and perhaps higher education as a whole the freedom to flexibly attempt new approaches to their teaching that could serve students better than the pressurized parameters of ranking risk might allow.

5.2. Classroom Policy

Practitioners can discourage perfectionism and the pressure that can incentivize cheating by rethinking the way that they assess students and assign grades. Traditional models of grading assign points to tests, papers, and other assessments, and those points add up to a particular grade at the end of the semester. The professor may assign more points to one area over another to encourage certain behaviors. No matter how they weigh their assessments, this model emphasizes points that ultimately gamify education. Students learn that success in education is about a score rather than a growth experience. Gamification creates a situation that encourages plagiarism because cheating is a quick way to get points.
In order to break the hold of gamification, those who teach in higher education need to fundamentally rethink the purpose and practice of assessment and grading. Instead of thinking about grades in terms of a percentage or points, grading might do better to focus on growth and development. With this focus, professors might adopt a more straightforward process for obtaining an extension on assignments or collaborate with their students to establish a grading contract (see, for example, the work of Danielewicz and Elbow [127]). Grading contracts set the assignments and expectations for the semester. The student is informed of the requirements of the class, and the teacher agrees to give students the feedback that they will need to grow. Grading contracts provide a new framework for grading because they model improvement over time instead of focusing on winning what may be tantamount to a points-based game.
Grading contracts’ emphasis on growth is an improvement over the gamified model, but it presents challenges in the current milieu. This alternative method requires teachers to give constant detailed feedback on many assignments throughout the semester. Constant feedback allows for growth and improvement, but instructors need time to give thorough direction. The Conference on College Composition and Communication recommends that writing classes have about 15 students for this reason [128]. Other classes that use a continuous feedback style model would probably need to have a similar limit on the number of students for the same reason. Therefore, a university may need to rethink course delivery if they plan to implement grading contracts, especially in the case of traditionally large general education courses. Despite the possible gains in quality, a university would have to be willing to commit significant resources to reduce the student-teacher ratio to this end.
Anderman et al. examined the effect of the teacher-student relationship on students’ perceptions and attitudes toward cheating [129]. Breaking down “teacher care” into interpersonal concerns, that is, demonstrating interest in student well-being and pedagogical competence, or effective teaching and fair assessment, this and other studies indicate that pedagogical and interpersonal teacher care reduces the likelihood of cheating and plagiarism [130,131,132]. In light of these studies, we recommend that teachers and professors dedicate effort to demonstrating teacher care toward their students. Interpersonal care might be shown through being approachable, learning student names, or otherwise getting to know students in appropriate settings. Practices such as coming prepared to class, being willing to answer questions, and establishing a mastery-based rather than performance-based course might also indicate pedagogical care. In such a mastery-based course, students might be able to re-take assessments or redo work to demonstrate their learning and growth over time. This focus on mastery rather than one-time performance has been shown to positively influence student perceptions of cheating [73,133,134].
We again propose that these recommendations for classroom policy could substantively ameliorate the conditions that led to cheating and plagiarism in the first and second cases mentioned earlier. Another of the pragmatic arguments posed by students in the case of California State University, Los Angeles, was that they did not see the benefit of dedicating the necessary time and effort to complete an assignment that was, in their words, only “busy work”. The recommendation outlined above might address this and similar arguments. As professors work with their students to create a grading contract, for example, they might have an opportunity to clarify the purpose behind their assignments and invite students to be less inclined to view such assignments as “busy work”. Furthermore, as they provide frequent and thorough feedback on such assignments, professors have the opportunity to clarify their emphasis on student growth and learning rather than simply the completion of a task for which they can assign points toward a grade.
We further put forth this recommendation and the general environment that it might support as a potential means to mitigate the circumstances that led the student at Duke University to plagiarize her commencement speech. It is our assertion that a student who is consistently immersed in an environment focused on growth and learning through an iterative process of improving assignments in relationship with professors might be less experientially accustomed to cutting academic corners toward the completion of high-risk assignments. Inasmuch as a multi-year experience that supports learning and growth over time might shape a student’s perspective of their own learning, such a student might be less likely to suddenly depart from this learning pattern in order to succeed in a high-stakes assignment by engaging in plagiaristic practices that could rob them of the learning experience they will have come to value.

5.3. Reframing the Question of Cheating

One of the main purposes of this paper has been to argue that the choice to cheat is often a pragmatic consideration. In other words, those who engage in cheating can frame the question as less of a moral or ethical question and instead as more of a pragmatic mitigation of risk. This is certainly understandable in light of the risks that students face when so many of their future academic and career prospects depend on their continued academic performance. Yet, beyond the policy changes outlined above, we propose that professors and administrators might speak with students about cheating in the same pragmatic terms by which many students have made the decision to cheat already. In other words, rather than appeal to a student’s sense of the moral repugnance of cheating alone, professors and administrators might either supplement or replace this argument with an appeal to the pragmatic notion that cheating is detrimental to a student’s learning. Framing it in this way, an educator might invite students to consider the pragmatic repugnance of cheating as it “cheats” them, as it were, out of the very purpose for which they came to university in the first place. Such an approach could appeal more directly to those students who might already have used similar pragmatic reasoning to weigh the risk of cheating.
Students in the first case study justified their sharing of answers with the pragmatic arguments that they could not afford to spend time and effort on “busy work,” especially if they were to do so only to fail. We propose, however, that professors and university administrators might meet such arguments with an equally pragmatic reframing of the purpose of university education. Inasmuch as the broader purpose of taking a class is to learn, choosing to cheat on assignments in those classes rather than putting in the effort to learn material and complete assignments might be seen as antithetical to that purpose. Similarly, as in the second case, while a student might argue for the need to perform well in the spotlight, a more holistic reframing of the situation suggests that the purpose of delivering a commencement speech is not only the benefit of notoriety but to demonstrate learning, share personal experiences which might encourage and inspire others to learn, and to further extend learning to a new, challenging experience. The plagiarism of a speech could limit one’s ability to achieve these additional purposes. Seen in this light, cheating in this or similar circumstances becomes less pragmatically defensible.
Finally, in response to the pragmatic arguments in the third case for manipulating university metrics in order to achieve a higher ranking, we propose a reframing of the purpose of university decisions regarding thematic focus, faculty and staff hiring, and financial expenditures. Far from being primarily focused on a positive ranking in comparison to other universities on a report, the purpose of these decisions might, instead, be to focus on providing an environment that supports student growth and learning. Focusing on building this kind of environment seems more likely to result in its development than focusing on altering statistics in order to give an external reporting agency the appearance or impression of this result. In each of these cases, a more holistic understanding of learning and higher education provides pragmatic arguments against cheating and plagiarism, which university administrators might use to address students’ pragmatic arguments in favor of such academic dishonesty. It is our hope that, in offering this alternative approach to advocate for academic honesty, students might be convinced that the possibility of leaving university without having substantively learned anything is itself too great a risk to take in the pursuit of cheating and plagiarism.

6. Conclusions

Learning requires productive struggle [9]. However, the current economic climate in the United States may lead some students to feel that an education that involves trial and error puts their academic and financial future at risk. This feeling may lead them to consider cheating behaviors like plagiarism to reduce that risk. Many large universities use education on the definition of plagiarism as their primary mechanism to enforce academic honesty. However, available literature suggests that knowledge about the definition of plagiarism does not weigh heavily in students’ calculus of whether or not to copy the work of someone else. Instead, studies suggest that students may consider plagiarism or other forms of cheating when they are under pressure. Some see a university degree as a ticket to the middle class, but as the relative cost of university increases and income inequality in the United States grows, students feel more financial and psychological pressure to succeed. If universities want to reduce cheating behaviors, then they must address this pressure.
Understanding issues of plagiarism and academic dishonesty in the context of this pressure is crucial if solutions are to be found. Together with others in this literature, we assert that students experiencing this type of pressure often weigh the decision of whether to engage in academically dishonest activities as a pragmatic choice between the risks associated with either outcome. Attempts to correct this behavior by pushing a narrative of the moral repugnance of plagiarism largely ignore the way in which those who participate in such practices are framing the issue. We propose that another way of engaging in this conversation is to begin on the common ground of understanding plagiarism and cheating in pragmatic terms. With this as a starting point, one might make the argument that plagiarism is practically detrimental to the learning process, itself among the most basic utilitarian purposes of having enrolled in formal education. Seen in this light, then, drawing upon a pragmatist narrative as justification for undertaking academically dishonest practices becomes an untenable approach.
While we advocate for this philosophical reframing of the issue of academic dishonesty and plagiarism, we recognize that such an approach must be taken within the broader context of the complex factors that contribute to it. While no individual university may be able to affect issues like nationwide income inequality, they may be able to lessen the gamified aspects of university policy that contribute to the feelings that influence someone to cheat. Proposed policies to lessen the pressure to succeed include a lottery of the qualified for admission and scholarships, the use of grading contracts instead of the traditional point system, and smaller class sizes. These proposals may be a significant departure from current university policy, but they have the potential to address the pressure that contributes to cheating behaviors where current education-based efforts fall short.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, A.M., I.C. and J.A.; Methodology, I.C.; Investigation, J.A.; Writing—original draft, A.M., I.C. and J.A.; Writing—review & editing, I.C. and J.A.; Supervision, I.C. All authors contributed equally to this work. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

No new data were created or analyzed in this study. Data sharing is not applicable to this article.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


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Figure 1. One of many similar passages between the two commencement addresses [101].
Figure 1. One of many similar passages between the two commencement addresses [101].
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Figure 2. A comparison of Columbia’s finances as reported to the U.S. Department of Education and as noted in its consolidated financial statements [119].
Figure 2. A comparison of Columbia’s finances as reported to the U.S. Department of Education and as noted in its consolidated financial statements [119].
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McIntire, A.; Calvert, I.; Ashcraft, J. Pressure to Plagiarize and the Choice to Cheat: Toward a Pragmatic Reframing of the Ethics of Academic Integrity. Educ. Sci. 2024, 14, 244.

AMA Style

McIntire A, Calvert I, Ashcraft J. Pressure to Plagiarize and the Choice to Cheat: Toward a Pragmatic Reframing of the Ethics of Academic Integrity. Education Sciences. 2024; 14(3):244.

Chicago/Turabian Style

McIntire, Alicia, Isaac Calvert, and Jessica Ashcraft. 2024. "Pressure to Plagiarize and the Choice to Cheat: Toward a Pragmatic Reframing of the Ethics of Academic Integrity" Education Sciences 14, no. 3: 244.

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