Recent studies of student behavior and attitudes show that a majority of students violate standards of academic integrity to some degree, and that high achievers are just as likely to do it as others.
Experts say the reasons are relatively simple: Cheating has become easier and more widely tolerated, and both schools and parents have failed to give students strong, repetitive messages about what is allowed and what is prohibited.
“I don’t think there’s any question that students have become more competitive, under more pressure, and, as a result, tend to excuse more from themselves and other students, and that’s abetted by the adults around them,” said Donald L. McCabe, a professor at the Rutgers University Business School, and a leading researcher on cheating. “There have always been struggling students who cheat to survive,” he said. “But more and more, there are students at the top who cheat to thrive.”
Internet access has made cheating easier, enabling students to connect instantly with answers, friends to consult and works to plagiarize. And generations of research has shown that a major factor in unethical behavior is simply how easy or hard it is.
A recent study by Jeffrey A. Roberts and David M. Wasieleski at Duquesne University found that the more online tools college students were allowed to use to complete an assignment, the more likely they were to copy the work of others.
The Internet has changed attitudes, as a world of instant downloading, searching, cutting and pasting has loosened some ideas of ownership and authorship. An increased emphasis on having students work in teams may also have played a role.
“Students are surprisingly unclear about what constitutes plagiarism or cheating,” said Mr. Wasieleski, an associate professor of management.
Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said that over the 20 years he has studied professional and academic integrity, “the ethical muscles have atrophied,” in part because of a culture that exalts success, however it is attained.