It may be tempting to think that cheating in school isn’t a big deal. After all, doesn’t almost everyone do it? It’s true that surveys show most students say they’ve cheated. Still, you’re risking your future by joining them. The policies in your school or college generally determine the immediate consequences. But basic legal principles govern some aspects of the disciplinary process. And of course, the law determines what happens when students sue schools, claiming that they were unfairly accused or punished for cheating.
Cheating in All Its Guises
There are probably as many ways to cheat as there are students, but some basic types crop up again and again—even if the methods change over time from peering over a classmate’s shoulder to texting an answer under the desk. Examples include:
- copying another student’s answers or homework
- letting another student copy your answers or work
- using or distributing copies of test questions, answers, or answer keys
- secretly using “crib notes” or the Internet to help you answer test questions, whether you’ve printed a cheat sheet on your leg or looked up information on your phone
- having someone else do your homework or take a test for you, or doing the same for another student, and
- changing your answers on a test after it’s been graded and then asking for the grade to be changed.
Some kinds of cheating may not be as obvious. For instance, many colleges and universities have policies that require you to report cheating by other students when you know about it. If you don’t report it, you may be subject to discipline for cheating yourself.
Plagiarism—From Copy-and-Paste to Bespoke Research Papers
Plagiarism—basically passing off someone else’s work as your own—is another form of cheating that becomes more of an issue as students move from middle and high school to college and beyond. Some forms of plagiarism are obvious, like:
- copying text (or even an entire paper) from a website, book, or other source without putting the copied words in quotes and giving credit to the source
- buying, stealing, borrowing, or downloading a paper written by someone else, or
- hiring someone to write a custom paper for you.
But students may not always realize they’re plagiarizing, such as when they:
- paraphrase other people’s work without giving them credit
- borrow or build on someone else’s ideas without giving credit
- follow another author’s organizational structure without credit
- misquote source material
- use incorrect (or made up) information about sources, or
- “recycle” their own work for another class without permission from the teacher.
From Reprimand to Expulsion
Technology continues to give students new tools to cheat, from smartphones and reprogrammed calculators to hard-to-trace artificial intelligence programs. At the same time, it has given teachers and professors sophisticated tools to prevent and detect cheating, including webcams and video monitoring, biometric tools, and software (like Turnitin) that matches students’ work to huge databases of other documents and school papers. It may feel like a whack-a-mole game to schools, but the reality is that lots of cheaters get caught. What happens then?
The answer to that question depends on lots of factors, including:
- your education level (with more serious repercussions as you progress from middle and high school to college and beyond)
- your disciplinary history
- the policies in your school (and sometimes in your individual teacher’s class), and
- how bad the cheating was (such as involvement in a widespread cheating ring).
Your institution’s student handbook, code of conduct, or honesty code will spell out the rules and the consequences for breaking them. In general, those consequences may include:
- being sent to the principal or detention (in K-12 schools)
- a written reprimand on your record (in college)
- a failing grade or zero on the assignment or test
- a failing grade in the entire course
- loss of privileges like participation in school sports, and
Colleges and universities may also impose other punishments, including:
- dismissal from the course
- academic, disciplinary, or athletic probation
- loss of scholarships, and
- expulsion from the college or university.
Whenever cheating or plagiarism leads to formal disciplinary proceedings, the procedures will depend on the setting. In public K-12 schools, state laws and regulations set the basic rules, while local district policies fill in the details. But all schools must also meet federal standards that protect students’ constitutional rights, including the right to know the charges against them and to defend themselves in a fair hearing. (For more details, see our article on students’ right in disciplinary hearings.)
The vast majority of colleges use disciplinary information in their admissions decisions.
The Long Shadow of Cheating
Cheating in high school can seriously hurt your chances of getting into college. When you get an “F” for cheating, you may not be able to make up the test or assignment as you would if you received a low grade honestly. Beyond the impact of grades, studies have shown that nearly three-fourths of colleges and universities collect high school disciplinary information, and the vast majority use that information in their admissions decision. (And if admissions officers find plagiarism in your admissions essay, they’re likely to flat-out reject you.) At the college level, a record of cheating or plagiarism not only can hijack your academic career, but it could hurt your chances at getting future internships and jobs.
Questions for Your Lawyer
- My daughter was formally disciplined for cheating at school. How can we get the discipline removed from her permanent school record?
- My son was one of many students who passed on texts with answers to a math test, but he was the only one who was formally disciplined. The teacher says it was because he was the ringleader, but I think he was singled out because he’s gay and a vocal activist. Can we sue the teacher and the school for discrimination?
- Can my college discipline me for plagiarism in a research paper without ever identifying the supposed source of the plagiarized material?
- I was denied admission to a postgraduate program based on a false accusation of plagiarism in my research proposal. Can I sue the university and faculty members for defamation related to my profession? Even though I’m still a student, I’ve co-authored a peer-reviewed scientific article.
In brief, I claim that this should not be a question a student has to comtemplate... So, operationally, the answer is "no, it is not unethical, but it may be against the (unreasonable, indefensible) rules to an extent that will create fatal trouble for you..." So, no, it's not unethical, but probably often "seriously illegal", dangerously to you, though it should not be.
The points the other answers have made are "not unreasonable", but, I claim, essentially untenable. That is, if there are indeed very few tasks whose performance could be "tested", example executions will certainly exist "in the wild", whether or not a student in a specific class puts their own solution on-line. Although I'm thinking primarily about a mathematics environment, I'm well-enough acquainted with CS issues to not feel too out-of-it in thinking about such issues, as well. Indeed, the number of "stock" issues in both cases seems similar ... and small. That is, there is a greater underlying issue, that the number of reasonable, answerable questions (apart from trivial variations) is very small, and a conscientious person can merely collect "solutions", rather than think them through themself.
To my mind that is the "real issue", if it is an issue at all. That is, we might take the poverty-of-variation as a signal that pretending to keep some trivial idea secret so as to "test" on it is perverse!?!
There are two fundamentally conflicting issues: promoting understanding and scholarship, versus arranging convenient "testing" for various purposes. "Convenient testing" prefers as many secrets as possible, obviously. Promoting understanding would exactly want to explain to interested parties how to resolve issues raised... among other places ... in the "tests".
Some events that finally "got through to me" about this, some years ago, involved my colleagues firm admonishments that "approved solutions" for (graduate) Qualifying Exams should never be published, because otherwise the students would learn how to do those problems... uh... whah? :) Ok, even if we "buy" that for a moment, one can observe that then bad "solutions" are the only ones available, so people study from bad material... ?!?!
The meta-comment is that many "educational" institutions have not-at-all figured out how to cope with the fluidity and availability of information, and, instead, try to prohibit all the obvious "new" avenues, simply to avoid change. While it is arguably true that the motivations of some students may not be the most honorable, I am absolutely not in favor of sting operations that declare them guilty of serious malfeasance by "using the internet" or "telling people what they know", and so on. That'd be perverse. Instead, things need to be reconstituted so that "keeping secrets" is not an essential part of appraising competence.
Summary: it's not at all unethical, but it may be so illegal that you must ask your local authorities. (Yet, again, while it's good to ask, it is terrible that there is an issue here...)