Causes of Academic Dishonesty

Literature on academic dishonesty cites a number of factors that contribute to dishonest academic practices (Whitley & Keith-Spiegel, 2002). Contributing factors include:

  • Peer pressure
  • Performance anxiety
  • Excuse making
  • Inability to manage the demands of student life
  • Situations that encourage academic dishonesty
  • Self-justification habits
  • Unfamiliarity with what constitutes academic dishonesty
  • Lack of understanding about consequences

Check Your Understanding

What is one common cause for academic dishonesty?

A lack of familiarity with what constitutes academic dishonesty is one common cause.

Peer pressure

Students can pressure other students to commit acts of academic dishonesty in many ways: pressuring others to work together or split assignments when course policies prohibit collaboration, seeing other students cheat and then joining them, engaging in academic dishonesty as a group and helping friends on assignments or exams when the professor has prohibited collaboration.

Performance anxiety

Anxiety about academic performance can cause some students to cheat in academic activities. Students may cheat to avoid failing a course or receiving a bad grade. Some students may use cheating as a way to cope with poor test-taking skills.

Excuse making

Some students blame their professors for their cheating, complaining that the professors expect too much or are too difficult to understand. Students also may use the excuse that the exams were unfair or a course was not in their major. Occasionally, students reason that other students are cheating, so they have no alternative but to cheat as well.

Inability to manage demands of student life

One of the most common reasons for academic dishonesty is students' inability to manage the pressures of their social and academic lives. Students who cannot plan and manage their workload and other activities and are usually behind in meeting their deadlines and can at times resort to cheating or plagiarism as an easy solution.

Situations that encourage academic dishonesty

When course policies do not spell out clearly what students can and cannot do, or when an instructor is not careful in enforcing academic integrity standards, some students may use the situation to commit acts of academic dishonesty. If the penalties for violating academic integrity standards are minimal, some students may consider cheating to be worth the risk of being caught.

Self-justification habits

Some students engage in self-talk in order to justify their actions to themselves, even though those actions may not be appropriate. For example, they justify cheating by telling themselves that they were cheating:

  • Only once
  • Only in one academic activity
  • Because they were sick and couldn't catch up
  • "This particular assignment is not very important"
  • "I do not need this particular course for graduation, so it's okay"
  • "No one will get hurt by this"
  • "I had to help a friend in need"
  • "The instructor doesn't really care"
  • "Everyone cheats in this class"

Check Your Understanding

When a course policy is not clear, what can I do to ensure my academic integrity?

Request from the instructor clarification on that course policy.

Unfamiliarity with what constitutes academic dishonesty

Some students genuinely may not know what constitutes cheating or plagiarism and may not ask the course instructor for clarification. Some instructors may assume students understand the guidelines already. As a result, students can unintentionally commit acts of academic dishonesty. Further, uncertainty about technological issues and, particularly, international students' unfamiliarity with American standards of academic integrity, can also lead to problems involving questions of academic integrity.

It is also important to mention that many students resist committing acts of academic dishonesty for a variety of reasons. These reasons include the recognition of the fact that it is wrong, desire to earn their grades, genuine interest in learning, concern about how they would feel in the long run if they cheat, fear of getting caught and the associated embarrassment and penalties, respect for course instructor and classmates, ability to manage their workload well, and religious beliefs.


Academic dishonesty can not be justified under any circumstances. A damaged academic reputation may take many years of ethical behavior to repair.