Is Cheating Our New Normal?

It doesn't stop in school; adults admit to doing it in unprecedented numbers.

Posted May 21, 2015

Lucky Business/Shutterstock
Source: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

Recently, my writing was plagiarized, which isn’t that unusual; my posts occasionally get appropriated by others without credit. But it was startling because the person usurping my ideas was a therapist and a Ph.D. in Psychology, ironic since I lack these credentials, and disturbing, because given this person's training and experience, she could be expected to have opinions and ideas of her own. Instead, she took mine, without a whisper of credit, until I was tipped off by a reader and confronted her via email. She insisted she’d simply been careless and forgotten a citation. But how can one swipe whole sentences, a topic list, and original ideas and then “forget” that they’ve done so?

This incident got me thinking about plagiarism. Filching words and ideas isn’t new—art has been forged and copied, and ideas stolen, for centuries—but the Internet makes it so easy. One needs only a search engine and the ability to download, cut. and paste.

But what motivates people to plagiarize? 

  1. Since formulating and writing ideas takes time and effort, one motive must be expedience. Copying delivers a fast and easy—though dishonest—means to a desired end. 
  2. The need for attention, combined with the competition among writers and bloggers for a piece of the audience pie, also factors in.
  3. The need to look and sound good may override every other consideration. 

But what about getting caught? Isn’t the downside of plagiarism enough of a deterrent to outweigh the ease of it? (Just Google "Jonah Lehrer.") Apparently it's not, especially considering the data available from plagiarism.org, which state that plagiarism and cheating have become endemic in the culture. Consider:

  • In a survey of 43,000 high-school students, one out of three admitted using the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.
  • Donald McCabe of Rutgers found that a whopping 58% of high-school students admitted to plagiarism in a survey of 24,000. That makes this kind of cheating the norm, not the exception.
  • 36% of undergraduates, and 24% of graduate students, admitted to copying or paraphrasing from the Internet without attribution, according to another McCabe study. Is it much of a leap to doctoring results in the sciences?
  • The fact that students in business school actually cheat more than their non-B school counterparts has been shown in various studies and confirmed by research done by McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Klebe Travino. See any relationship to insider trading or rigging the markets?

Cheating and plagiarism have simply become commonplace in modern culture. In her study of academic dishonesty, Dorothy L.R. Jones noted the findings of a 2010 study that discovered that 100% of students in a management class in 2008 admitted to some form of cheating, compared with 49% in marketing classes in 1988. In her own research on cheating among college students, Jones found that 92% of cheaters said they were motivated by getting a good grade, 83% attributed it to procrastination, and 75% excused it on the basis of not having enough time. I assume these findings echo the real-world rationalizations of adult plagiarizers, swapping out good grades for a larger and more admiring audience, enviable phrasing or a snappy concept, or a busy schedule.

Young people—like my adult plagiarist—don’t seem to recognize copying when they see it. While 100% of them were cognizant that submitting a paper written by someone else as their own isn’t kosher, only 67% thought that changing words around in a quotation and then skipping attribution was cheating. Roughly a third of remaining students felt it was OK. Similarly, only 58% of students thought stealing ideas was cheating, and fully half of students thought that paraphrasing someone else’s ideas without credit wasn’t cheating. Ditto on lifting words and sentences.

Perhaps those who wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to cheat start to notice that "everyone else is doing it” and follow suit. (Think hedge fund managers getting an edge.) The statistics indicate that we live in a culture where the means—cheating or plagiarizing—are justified by the end, whether that end is a good grade, an audience of admiring strangers, a larger platform, or a bigger Christmas bonus.

Plagiarism differs from carelessly omitting a reference to a minor point; it is parading a false self around in public, pretending to be real. I may be wrong, but the rise in plagiarism seems to be related to the disconnection of the digital age, along with 24/7 connection to everyone. What happens to personal integrity? What does it mean when your name sits atop someone else’s words and ideas, and what have you lost? 

Plagiarism is enabled by other trends, as the written word is sometimes seen as more like YouTube than not, and to get attention your writing needs to be cutting-edge, entertaining, outrageous, authoritative, combative, or some combination of all these qualities. The lines blur as people who rise to fame on YouTube (without ever writing a word) get big book contracts. Without a platform, the zeitgeist whispers, how well you write doesn’t matter.

The need to be noticed appears to have infiltrated academia as well, as seen in the cautionary tale of the attention-grabbing—and now retracted—study published in Science by Mike LaCour, a graduate student, and Donald Green, a Columbia professor. Their study on political canvassing was a stunner with real-world applications and got tons of media attention, making LaCour a rising star. There was only one problem: Unbeknownst to Green, the data (among other elements) had been faked. And two other graduate students ferreted out the truth. The rapid rise of this star was more than matched by the velocity of his fall.

Keeping it “lite” (140 characters, anyone?) is a factor, too. Most commercial editors hate footnotes (too unsexy and academic) which offer precise attribution; they need convincing that endnotes are required. Last year, I ran across a nonfiction book, which lacked both endnotes (even though the writing relied on sources) and a bibliography. Were we to believe that the author had never read a book, article, or blog post that influenced her thinking, or even seen a movie that addressed the themes of her work? The implication was that every idea expressed in those pages was sui generis.

It’s all worth consideration. Not just integrity is at stake, but something larger called the self. Not even the blandishments of the digital age should rob you of that.

Wikimedia Commons/Durova
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Durova

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Copyright © Peg Streep 2015