Causes of Academic Dishonesty


Literature on academic dishonesty cites a number of factors that contribute to dishonest academic practices (Whitley and 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 course instructors 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 may or may not do regarding collaboration, or when an instructor is not careful in enforcing academic integrity standards, some students may use the situation to commit acts of academic dishonesty. For example, if the penalties for violating academic integrity standards are too 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

Other self-talk justifications include students telling themselves that:

  • "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

What is another common cause for academic dishonesty?

Course policies listed in the syllabus not clarifying what students can and cannot do in the course with respect to completing assignments and collaboration.

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.

Lack of understanding about consequences

Students who are guilty of academic dishonesty may not be aware of its possible consequences and may be thinking only of completing an immediate academic assignment. Consequences can include failing assignments or entire courses, loss of scholarships, and loss of future professional recommendations from their instructors. For international students, prosecution for academic dishonesty can eventually result in the revocation of their student visas.


It is the instructor's responsibility to clarify to students what constitutes academic dishonesty in their course and the possible consequences, and the students' responsibility to become familiar with such information.


Regardless of the causes of academic dishonesty, it cannot be justified under any circumstance. Furthermore, the consequences of being caught can be devastating for students. Instructors have the professional responsibility to increase students' awareness of academic dishonesty issues and help them avoid committing academic dishonesty.