Academic Honesty: Definition and Importance

Educational institutions are the places where students are taught to build their values, moral integrity, and strength of character. As such it is very important that academic honesty is inculcated in them through rules, regulations, and guidelines. Academic honesty has become the focus of discussion among educators in recent times due to increased possibilities of cheating, making use of new technology such as the Internet and wireless.

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Academic honesty is ensuring a moral code of behavior in the educational context. Academic dishonesty is a widely prevalent problem. According to a study by McCabe and Trevino (1993), based on 6,096 undergraduate students from 31 colleges in the United States, almost 75% of the students admitted to engaging in some form of academically dishonest activity during their college days; about 50% confessed to cheating in examinations or indulging in plagiarism, and slightly more than 50% admitted to cheating on homework assignments. Such prevalence of dishonesty within the academic circle can only be seen as a sign of declining ethical standards or a sign of a faulty educational system.

Thesis: Academic dishonesty is widely prevalent today and it can be tackled only through integrated efforts of students, faculty, the administrative board, and the society at large.


Pavela’s (1978) definition of academic dishonesty has been widely accepted. According to Pavela, academic dishonesty consists of cheating, fabrication, plagiarism, and facilitating academic dishonesty. Cheating refers to the acts of using crib notes, copying during the test, and indulging in unauthorized collaboration on homework assignments. Fabrications refer to inventing false information such as making up sources for the bibliography or reporting fictitious results for a lab experiment.

Plagiarism refers to using paper written by another student and passing it off as one’s own, buying a paper from some source, or using the work of other people within one’s paper without properly referencing it. Facilitating academic dishonesty involves knowingly helping a fellow student through some form of academic dishonesty. More activities might be added to the list proposed by Pavela (Whitley Jr. and Spiegel, 2002). Academic dishonesty can include misrepresentation by telling lies to an instructor, failure to contribute to a group project, and hindering others from completing their work.

Importance of Academic Honesty

It is important to have an academically honest environment because all students who come to college or school deserve to have an unpolluted learning environment where they will be independently judged on their performance. Educational institutions have the obligation to model and uphold integrity for future generations. Good scholarship and learning can happen only when they are based on a clear sense of academic honesty and responsibility.

When high standards of honesty are not maintained within the campus, faculty members are defrauded, students are subjected to unfair treatment, and society becomes deprived of its moral strength. Babson College brochure says that “academic dishonesty violates the most fundamental values of an intellectual community and depreciates the achievements of the entire college community”. Rutgers University points out the importance of academic honesty by saying that “Academic freedom is a fundamental right in any institution of higher learning. Honesty and integrity are necessary preconditions of this freedom”.

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Viewpoints of Students and Faculty

Students are often unaware of what constitutes academic honesty. They generally believe that it is acceptable to use: old test papers as long as they are not stolen, shortcuts such as reading an abbreviated version of the assigned work, and help from others. They also believe that some minor forms of plagiarism and conning teachers are acceptable. It is a significant finding that many students believe that facilitating academic dishonesty is justified when the intent is to help a friend.

McCabe (1992) found that 26% percent of the students, who confessed to helping a friend cheat, had never cheated themselves. Faculty members sometimes excuse some seemingly dishonest activities if they are done accidentally, or due to ignorance of proper behavior or uncertainty over what is allowed or when it approximates proper behavior (Whitley Jr. and Spiegel, 2002).

Students thus tend to take a more tolerant view of academic dishonesty than faculty members. However, both the students and the faculty feel that intentional dishonesty is a more severe ethical violation than opportunistic dishonesty (Whitley Jr. and Spiegel, 2002). Intentional dishonesty is when a student conspires with another student to copy during a test. Opportunistic dishonesty is when the chance to copy comes up when a student leaves his paper or notebook exposed (Whitley Jr. and Spiegel, 2002). However, there are always differences in the way people perceive what is cheating and what is not.

Causes of Academic Dishonesty

College students cite several reasons as to why they indulge in academic dishonesty. Cochran, Wood, Sellers, Wilkerson, and Chamlin (1998) have found that low self-control is one of the major causes of academic dishonesty, based on a study at the University of Oklahoma. Students have also confessed that alienation is another triggering factor. Due to alienation, college students often appeal to higher loyalties to groups such as campus secret cults, fraternities, etc. (Lambert et al, 2003). Sometimes students cheat for the simple reason to get good grades (Coston and Jenks, 1998). It has been the reason cited by students most frequently (Kibler et al, 1988).

Studies show that factors that cause students to engage in academic dishonesty are of three groups: personal traits of the students who cheat, the situation and the reasons students give for cheating (Kibler, 1993). Specifically, among several reasons which students give for academic dishonesty, concern about grades has been mentioned most frequently (Aluede et al, 2006). That is, pressure to get good grades makes most students engage in acts of academic dishonesty

Researchers have found that the following factors encourage academic dishonesty: competition, pressure to get good grades, excessively demanding environment, inefficient faculty, the leniency of the faculty, peer pressure, and a diminishing sense of morality and values among students (Aluede et al, 2006).

Strategies to ensure Academic Honesty

To protect the students from indulging in dishonest activities, colleges should enforce changes at the institutional level. They must provide environments that nurture the moral development of the students. Whenever students do indulge in such behavior, they must be forced to face the moral implications of their behavior and made to understand that “effective learning depends largely on honesty, respect, rigor and fairness” (Kibler, 1994).

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Colleges generally communicate about academic dishonesty through student handbooks, brochures, or orientation exercises. It would be more effective if higher education managers undertake an ethos of promoting academic integrity and thereby create a campus environment that promotes academic honesty (Kibler, 1994). Erica B. Stern and Larry Havlicek (1986:140) have suggested that smaller classes and closer monitoring of students discourage students from indulging in acts of academic dishonesty. However, neither students nor faculty involved in their study believed that an honor code or trust system would reduce cheating on examinations.

Pino and Smith (2003) suggest that one way of rebuilding academic integrity and reducing the incidences of academic dishonesty is to foster the development of an academic ethic among college students. The academic ethic refers to “learned behavior” that involves giving studies the highest priority over leisure activities, studying regularly and in an intense fashion (Rau and Durand 2000:23). Pino and Smith (2003) hold that procrastination from watching too much television can increase the likelihood of academic dishonesty in order to make up for a lost time. However, those with an academic ethic are much less likely to procrastinate and would therefore be less vulnerable to the temptation of engaging in academic dishonesty.


Academic honesty is the sum value of individual and collective honesty within the educational institution and has to be taught, role-modeled, and rewarded. Students generally desire to be honest. By creating an environment that does not facilitate cheating it is possible to ensure academic honesty at all levels. Students, administrators, and parents must be supportive of efforts to eliminate, discover, and sanction academic dishonesty. Ultimately, only by creating an academic ethic, academic dishonesty may be prevented.


Aluede, Oyaziwo; Omoregie, O. Eunice and Osa-Edoh, I. Gloria (2006). Academic Dishonesty as a Contemporary Problem in Higher Education: How Academic Advisers Can Help. Reading Improvement. Volume: 43. Issue: 2.

Cochran, J. K., Chamlin, M.B., Wood, P.B., & Sellers, C.S. (1999). Shame, embarrassment and formal sanction threats: Extending the deterrence/rational choice model to academic dishonesty. Sociological Inquiry. Volume 69. 91-105.

Coston, C. T. M., & Jenks, D. A. (1998). Exploring Academic Dishonesty among Undergraduate Criminal Justice Majors: A Research Note. American Journal of Criminal Justice. Volume 22. 235-248.

Kibler, W.C. (1993). Academic dishonesty: A student developmental dilemma. NAPSA Journal. Volume 30. 252-267.

Kibler, W.C. (1994). Addressing academic dishonesty: What are institutions of higher education doing and not doing? NAPSA Journal. Volume 31. 92-101.

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Kibler, W.C. (1994). Addressing academic dishonesty: What are institutions of higher education doing and not doing? NAPSA Journal. Volume 31. 92-101.

Kibler, W.C., Nuss, E.M., Paterson, B.G., & Pavela, G. (1988). Academic integrity and student development: Legal issues, policy perspectives. College Administrators Publications. Asheville, NC.

Lambert, E.G., Hogan, N.C., & Barton, S.M. (2003). Collegiate academic dishonesty revisited: What have they done, how often have they done it, who does it, and why did they do it. Electronic Journal of Sociology.

McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1997). Individual and Contextual Influences on Academic Dishonesty: A Multicampus Investigation. Research in Higher Education. Volume 38. 379-396.

McCabe, D.L. & Pavela, G. (1997). The principal pursuit of academic integrity. AAHE Bulletin. Volume 50. Issue 4. 11-12.

McCabe, D.L. (1992). The influence of situational ethics on cheating among college students. Sociological Inquiry. Volume 62. Issue 3. 356-374.

Pavela, G. (1978). Judicial review of academic decision- making after Horowitz. School Law Journal. Volume 55. Issue 8. 55-75.

Pino, W. Nathan and Smith, L. William (2003). College Students and Academic Dishonesty. College Student Journal. Volume: 37. Issue: 4. 490+.

Rau, W., & Durand, A. (2000). The Academic Ethic and College Grades: Does Hard Work Help Students to “Make the Grade”? Sociology of Education. Volume 73. 19-38.

Stern, E. B., & Havlicek, L. (1986). Academic Misconduct: Results of Faculty and Undergraduate Student Surveys. Journal of Allied Health. Volume 15. 129-142.

Whitley Jr., E. Bernard and Spiegel, K. Patricia (2002). Academic Dishonesty: An Educator’s Guide. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Mahwah, NJ.

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