An Empirical Investigation of Digital Cheating and Plagiarism among Middle School Students

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What are middle school students' attitudes toward digital cheating and plagiarism? To answer the question, an empirical study was conducted in three middle schools using multiple focus groups and interviews. Students participated in the focus groups, and teachers, and parents participated in interviews. The study found that peer culture contributed to the deterioration of ethics among the students. The findings also indicated that activities that are engaging and relevant to students' own interests can help reduce plagiarism. Building a social community online and offline to help students understand the concept of plagiarism is particularly important at the middle school level.


Cheating is not a new phenomenon, yet the ways that students cheat and their attitudes toward cheating have changed. The Internet Age has brought tremendous opportunities for students and teachers to improve teaching and learning, but it also has brought challenges to academic integrity. A review of the literature revealed a relationship between the digital age and the deterioration of ethical values among young people in terms of plagiarism and cheating. For example, when Who's Who (1998) conducted their 29th annual survey among high school students nationwide, they found that 80% of the students admitted that they had cheated on school work in general with or without the help of the Internet, a fourpoint jump from the figure reported in the 1997 survey.

Josephson Institute of Ethics (1998, 2002, 2004) has conducted several surveys of young people's ethics. The 1998 survey of over 20,000 American middle school and high school students showed that 70% of the high school students reported that they had cheated on an exam in the past year. For middle school students, the percentage of cheating was 54%. The 2002 survey confirmed that the situation had been getting worse each year. From 1992 to 2002, the number of high school students who admitted that they cheated on an exam in the past 12 months had increased significantly from 61% to 74%. The percentage of those who admitted having cheated two or more times also increased, although at a very slow rate: from 46% in 1992 to 48% in 2002.

Curiously, the 2002 Josephson survey showed that gender, student leadership, and personal religious convictions had no substantial impact on cheating. Roughly equal percentages of boys and girls cheated. The survey found that although girls cheated and lied as much as boys, they were significantly less likely to engage in theft or other dishonest practices (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2002). In the 2004 survey of 24,763 high school students, the Institute found that two-thirds (about 62%) of the students cheated on exams. Inconsistency between words and actions was found among the students. Though about 98% of students reported that they regarded honesty and trust to be very important, more than half of the students believed that the "real world" creates justification for dishonest conduct (Josephson Institute of Ethics, 2004).

Not only are young people cheating more, but they are also developing a more lax attitude toward cheating. Who's Who (1998) found that 53% of the students said that it was no big deal that more students were cheating. The 1998 Josephson Institute survey showed inconsistency between what students believed and how they acted. 91% of the students reported that they were satisfied with their character and ethics even though the majority of them admitted that they had cheated at least once in the past year.

The deterioration of ethics among young people seems to be closely related to the Internet. The Pew Internet and American Life Project (2005) conducted interviews among 1,100 parent-child pairs and reported that 57% of the teens were content creators online. The teens are creating Web pages, blogging, and sharing digital content with other teens. The Pew study on teens' Internet use (Walter, 2001) found that most students (71%) preferred the Internet to the library as the source for their most recent school project. …


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