The Cheating Bug

If you don’t get caught, you did the job right” (1) – a statement by a senior high school student in one of the surveys mentioned  in the book “Cheating in college: Why students do it and what educators can do about it”  by McCabe, Butterfield and Treviño. It might as well illustrate the attitude with which can lead to a later scientific misconduct in the universities. As a lecturer or thesis supervisor you are trained to recognise what a scientific misconduct is and what you should  do when you spot it. A lot of time and energy is used on preventing this undesirable cheating behaviour. This behaviour is neither ethical nor moral and can have great consequences in the future. Without a doubt, the young people of today are our future leaders of tomorrow (1).

But have you ever wondered what brings the students to cheat? If we do not properly understand why the cheating happens and which motivation or culture lies behind this behaviour, the scientific misconduct cannot be efficiently prevented. There are many different opinions. The topic of scientific misconduct and cheating caught my eye after watching a TED talk by behavioral economist Dan Ariely “ Our buggy moral code” (2). It was interesting to realise which simple things brought the test subjects in the studies he mentions to cheat – and which genuinely simple tricks prevented it. His observations are in line with the findings by McCabe, Butterfield and Treviño. Their research is concentrated on the cheating and scientific misconduct in American Universities. It includes some country specific factors that might increase the tendency to cheat (e.g. membership in fraternities or sororities) and topics that could be discussed more (e.g. role of gender and of the type of subjects the students study). But there are also some useful findings that we might take from this book. As the authors state, it is very possible that the students´ cheating behaviour evolves long before they start to attend the university (1). High pressure to perform well during their studies might easily lead to cheating. The prospective profit in the form of good grades or better academic performance simply overrides the inner and outer barriers for cheating. What’s more, they might learn from their surroundings “that cheating is acceptable” (1) if it is the tool to future success. As a consequence, the students described in the study copy from another student during an exam, use unpermitted materials or cheat notes and “forget” to mention the original author of the text in their papers (1).

What might be done about this? The authors suggest that the condemnation of this behaviour by their peers, the leading by example of other students and especially the wide support of ethical behaviour – the “strong ethical environment”- might be the central keystones promoting the academic integrity (1). The “strong ethical environment” might be supported by the presence of the university’s honour code, but the existence of an honour code is not necessary (1). This statement is illustrated in a rather amusing way in the speech by Dan Ariely. He describes a situation where the study subjects (students) are reminded before the test to keep in mind the honour code of their university. The cheating rate in this group of students is then comparably lower than the cheating rate in the group where the honour code is not mentioned at all. Surprisingly, mentioning the honour code before the test worked even when there was never any honour code introduced at this university (2).

So would it be enough to remind the students before writing an exam or a paper of the ten commandments as Dan Ariely suggests (2)? Should we now sit down and start to work on and promote the honour code of Åbo Akademi? Or should we better try to cure this bug of cheating much earlier, before the students come to the university?


  1. MCCABE, D.L., BUTTERFIELD, K.D. and TREVINO, L.K. Cheating in College: Why Students do it and what Educators can do about It. JHU Press, 2012.
  2. TEDTalks: Dan Ariely—Dan Ariely on our Buggy Moral Code. TED Conferences LLC. , 2009. Available from: Films On Demand.


3 thoughts on “The Cheating Bug

  1. Very interesting topic, especially the question why students are tempted to cheat and how this intention to cheat might also be inspired by certain aspects of academia. I also think that it is important to point out for students that cheating – making it easier on yourself – will inflict the students capacity to learn, even in cases when they are not caught. To take the easy route, is also not to face up to the challenges that academic work entails.

  2. Thank you for a very interesting blog post! I am researching corruption, which involves many different forms of cheating, so this is a highly fascinating topic in my opinion. Many studies have shown the importance of your perceived surroundings, i.e. how you believe (from processes of socialization) that other people are likely to behave in a similar situation. There is for instance one study that showed that the tendency of UN diplomats to receive parking tickets was related to the level of corruption in their home countries. So it is highly probable that students from countries that have high levels of corruption (especially within the education system), tax evasion, etc., are more likely to cheat if we do not emphasize that this is not the way we (usually) behave in Finland. We must give them confidence in both our education system and its honesty/effectiveness/impartiality, and in the honesty of other fellow students. It is also very important that we create effective incentives not to cheat, by for intance increasing monitoring capacity and making the students aware of that we really are checking their work and punishing/following up on cheaters and free riders. I also like your idea of promoting a ÅA honor code, which could also function as a wake up call to students that are unsure of how we do things around here.

  3. Thank you for this very interesting article and topic. This is the topic that needs to be fix permanently both in academia and before the students come to the university as you mentioned. I know personally that when I warn my students to take this issue seriously, everyone come to me later personally to check if they did their assignment in a correct way. So definitely mentioning this during the class and stressing the importance of not to cheat works better in the class.

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