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Struggle for recognition: Why do students commit academic dishonesty?

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Fri, 22 Jul 2022
Struggle for recognition: Why do students commit academic dishonesty?

A study from James Cook University in Singapore investigates why students engage in academically dishonest practices by examining the student perspective and the issues they face.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers faced an increasingly common dilemma — preventing academic dishonesty. The disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in an increased focus on academic dishonesty, which can be directly linked to online learning measures implemented to curb the spread of the virus.

Academic dishonesty includes behaviours such as plagiarism, cheating, lying, and deception. Students who reported committing such acts also expressed likelihood to be dishonest in other areas of life. For example, in nursing education, dishonest behaviours may continue into clinical practice, potentially causing grave consequences.

Mr Jasper Roe FHEA set out to interpret and understand academically dishonest behaviour as well as the position of the student in higher education.

There are a number of factors which may predict academic dishonesty:

  1. Attitudes
  2. Traits
  3. Language and culture
  4. Student experience

“One of the most clearly established factors which predict academic dishonesty is the student’s attitude towards cheating in general,” shares Mr Roe. In fact, recent research has agreed that those who viewed academic dishonesty as less serious or unimportant were more likely to engage in it. In addition, when academic dishonesty is tolerated by teachers, cheating can increase. Academically dishonest behaviours are also more likely to increase when students perceive that others are acting similarly.

A review of past research revealed that males are more likely to engage in academic dishonesty. Students who are excitement-seeking, or demonstrate low self-restraint, may also be more inclined to cheat. On the other hand, high-achieving students may be less likely to commit acts of academic dishonesty.

With regards to students who speak English as a foreign or second language, along with the cultural background of these groups, there is conflicting research on the impact that this factor has on the likelihood of a student cheating. Some researchers have suggested that cultural differences may explain the causes behind academic dishonesty. However, it is important to note and consider the other factors at play instead of solely explaining complex behaviours in a simplistic manner.

Finally, a more universal factor for engagement in academic dishonesty lies in the pressures, stresses, and struggles of participating in higher education, and the societal pressure to complete education as quickly as possible, with as high a mark as possible.

“It is well established that participating in higher education can be a challenging experience. Past research points out that higher education students demonstrate above-average levels of mental illness and nervous disorders, and this may link to the likelihood of cheating or other academically dishonest acts,” Mr Roe explains. “Other research has similarly found a link between mental health and likelihood to engage in academic dishonesty, with a focus on the pressurised, high-stress student experience as a causative factor.”

It is also commonly recognised that today’s higher education students are called to focus on obtaining a qualification and be recognised in the labour market, rather than to focus on their education. Mr Roe adds, “This interpretation could also help to explain why there is a perceived increase in academic dishonesty among international students, as it has also been argued that cases among this group could stem from dealing with a broader range of issues resulting from cultural adjustment, living abroad, and other social and financial issues, which lead to ‘out of character’ decision making as a result of emotional distress.”

Among these contributing factors, Mr Roe argues that the overarching cause of academically dishonest behaviours is driven by the stressors placed on students to view education as instrumental in achieving recognition, and that this emphasis on completion of higher education study at the fastest rate possible, with the highest grades possible, is itself a social pathology which “significantly impairs the ability to take part rationally in important forms of social cooperation” — in this case, formal education.

The perception that success in higher education is key to having a “good life” is part of this struggle for recognition. If students have doubts in their ability to tackle the assessment themselves, they are faced with two choices: risk the disrespect if caught engaging in academic dishonesty, or risk the disrespect of being a failure.

This points to the pressures of the student experience, and the stressors of higher education as a struggle for societal recognition, as a cause for academically dishonest behaviour. With these concerns in mind, we need to do more to better understand the student perspective, explore how to develop practices that will enable universities to be more nurturing while protecting the pursuit of learning.


Roe, J. Reconceptualizing academic dishonesty as a struggle for intersubjective recognition: a new theoretical model. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 157 (2022).

Check out Mr Jasper Roe FHEA’s staff and research profiles.

Discover further information on areas of research and research strength at James Cook University in Singapore.


Mr Jasper Roe
Media: Mr Edwin Teo