Violations of academic norms and standards can be a cause of “moral panic” among those working in academia (Venera-Mihaela and Mares, 2021), and such acts have the potential to cause great societal damage. Students who reported committing such acts also expressed likelihood to be dishonest in other areas of life (Guerrero-Dib et al., 2020). Lynch et al. (2021) found that in nursing education, dishonest behaviors may continue into clinical practice, potentially causing grave consequences. There is also a widespread understanding outside of academia that such behaviors are socially intolerable. As an example, in 2021 three German ministers were pushed to leave their office as the result of plagiarism in their respective Ph.D theses (Oltermann, 2021).

This article describes the current state of the research base in relation to these concepts, before seeking to reinterpret the root causes of transgressions against the norms of academia through application of Honneth’s (1995) Theory of Recognition. Prior to doing so, the difference between academic integrity (AI) and academic dishonesty (AD) needs to be clarified. As the “moral code” of academia, AI is built on the dedication to values of honesty, fairness, trust, respect, and responsibility (Lynch et al., 2021). AD on the other hand, refers to behaviors which seek to violate the code of AI. The International Center for Academic Integrity (2022) includes plagiarism, cheating, lying, and deception under the umbrella of AD. A distinction must be made when considering cases in which students have unintentionally violated principles of AI, for example using patchwriting or misquotation. As AI is reliant on an understanding of explicit and implicit norms (Venera-Mihaela and Mares, 2021) many students may inadvertently violate such norms while engaged in the learning process. In this article I seek to focus not on such cases, but on intentional cases of AD, in which the student aims to deliberately violate rules in order to gain an advantage by deception, defrauding, or misleading the assessor(s).

Many of those working in higher education will have encountered AD. DiPaulo (2022) found that 80% of preservice teachers surveyed undertook AD behaviors while engaged in their course of study, including sharing information among peer groups, and 68% engaged in more formalized “cheating”. Large-scale follow up studies over ten years have found that over 60% of students have cheated in some form in their academic study (International Center for Academic Integrity, 2022). Some authors have reported figures as high as 95% (N = 1127) of students engaging in forms of cheating (Ives et al., 2017). In the USA, the figure of 68% was reported for students who had cheated in the past, rising to 75% when asked if they would cheat in the future (Chapman et al., 2004). In short, AD is firmly embedded in higher education, and although studies on AI and AD have been published since the 1940s, for example Drake (1941), the disruptive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in an increased focus on this topic. It has been reported that AI violations have increased directly due to online learning instituted as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and empirical research has demonstrated that students may also believe this to be the case, with 81% of STEM students surveyed (N = 299) believing that online learning caused an increase in cheating (Walsh et al., 2021). In the mainstream media, it has been claimed that occurrences of cheating are “soaring” during the online era of the pandemic (Dey, 2021).

How educators and institutions are dealing with these increases in AI violations and AD varies. High-technology methods include the expanded use of new software for online proctoring and “lockdown” browsers to limit students’ access to external sources on a personal computer, and over 20 different forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are now available to detect cheating, including those using advanced techniques to maintain integrity such as biometric systems of identification, multi-factor authentication, and blockchain applications (Slusky, 2020). Walsh et al. (2021) point out that this is not the only solution to perceived increases in AI and AD violations, as low-technology methods, such as altering summative assessments and using open-book examinations are also in use. These tools tend to focus on attacking the symptoms of AD, rather than the cause. Consequently, focus needs to be redirected away from locating and combating AD, and towards understanding the social and moral reasoning that underpins these behaviors. Following this, I will analyze the current understanding of AD, and then seek to reinterpret AD through the moral philosophy and social Theory of Recognition developed by Axel Honneth (1995).

Why students commit AD: current theories and understanding

In the context of COVID-19, Walsh et al. (2021) found that students surveyed attributed a perceived increase in AD behaviors to four social and psychological theories: Game Theory, Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development, Neutralization Theory, and the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) (Ajzen, 1991). Each of these theories posits a philosophy that explains why the student commits AD, for example through playing a “game” of cat and mouse between student and teacher (Game Theory), developing a stronger set of moral beliefs over time (Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development), rationalization of the violations (Neutralization Theory), and the combination of the intention to commit AD combined with a perceived opportunity (TPB) (Walsh et al., 2021)

The theories above may then explain some factors or motivations for engaging in AD, but do not tell the entire story. Taking TPB as an example, this theory may explain why cheating occurs when it occurs (for example, when the opportunity arises coupled with the intention), but does not explain how the positive attitude towards AD was formed initially. To this end, research has aimed to identify relationships between certain factors and the likelihood of committing AD. These can be described as belonging to four overarching categories: attitudes, traits, language and culture, and student experience.

Category 1: attitudes towards AD among students, peers, and instructors

One of the most clearly established factors which predict AD is the student’s attitude towards cheating in general (which under TPB, may form part of the “intention” to cheat). A large body of research supports this point (Eriksson and McGee, 2015; Ives et al., 2017; Hendy and Montargot, 2019; Peled et al., 2019; Zhang et al., 2021; DiPaulo, 2022). Whitley et al. (1999) equally found through a review of 107 studies that viewing cheating positively was a causative factor for AD, along with expectations of the outcome of cheating, prior history of cheating, and perceived rewards. More recently Zhang et al. (2018) studied 2009 students across eastern China, finding that those who viewed AD as less serious or unimportant were more likely to engage in it.

Teachers’ and peers’ personal attitudes towards AD have also been shown to have an effect on the likelihood of engaging in acts of AD (McCabe et al., 2001, 2012; Maloshonok and Shmeleva, 2019). McCabe et al. (2001) found that when AD behaviors are tolerated by instructors, cheating can increase, and Anderman et al. (2009) and Yu et al. (2018) equally found that the students’ opinion of the teacher, and the teacher’s view of AD inversely correlated with its occurrence, while Robinson-Zanartu et al. (2005) surveyed 270 faculty members, finding that how severely the faculty viewed the violation strongly influenced the severity of the consequences they would seek to impose on the violator.

The effect of peer influence is also clearly established as a causative factor, and as a result AD is more likely to increase when students perceive that others are acting similarly (McCabe, 2016). This finding is also important in demonstrating a principle of social solidarity among peers. For example, in a survey assessing student behavior at a small liberal arts university, Papp and Wertz (2009) found that over 75% of students would not report a witnessed occurrence of cheating, and over 80% would not report a friend.

Category 2: personality traits, gender, and age

Other factors have equally been attributed to the likelihood of engaging in AD. Students who are highly achieving may be less likely to commit acts of AD (McCabe and Trevino, 1997; McCabe and Pavela, 2004; McCabe et al., 2012). How students view themselves (Ng, 2020) plays a role, as does students’ self-efficacy (Marsden et al., 2005). Students who are excitement-seeking may engage in AD more often (de Bruin and Rudnick, 2007) and students who demonstrate personality traits of deviance and low self-restraint may similarly be more inclined to cheat (Jensen and Jetten, 2018).

Some studies have focused on gender and age (McCabe and Trevino, 1997). Males have been more commonly identified as likely to engage in AD. Szabo and Underwood (2004) found that 68% of males cheated in assessments compared to just 39% of females, and those in their third year of study were less inclined to cheat in assessment than those in their second or initial year, while (Yang, 2012) found that female graduate students were more likely to hold critical views of AD than males, and that doctoral students were less likely to commit AD than master’s students. However, this is by no means certain, as other studies, for example Ives et al. (2017) found no association between academic achievement, field of study, or year of study.

Finally, the relationship between the learning space and the student may play a role in causes of AD, particularly as technology disrupts the traditional classroom experience (Venera-Mihaela and Mares, 2021). In terms of the impact of COVID-19, although the move to online learning has resulted in perceived increases in AD among students (Walsh et al., 2021). In sum, there is little clear evidence of a definite pattern concerning these variables.

Category 3: international students: language, culture, or none of the above?

Another area that has commanded attention in the literature is that of international students and students who speak English as a foreign or second language, along with the cultural background of these groups, presented here as two closely related subjects. Language proficiency has been implicated in AD and correlations have been identified between ability, training, and occurrences of AD (Bretag, 2007; Perkins et al., 2018; 2020), although further research is needed in this area. Bertram Gallant et al. (2014) posit that in regards to AD, the international student population may display greater vulnerability due to a lack of knowledge on behavioral standards in Western universities, or may not have the same fear of consequences, whereas Hendy et al. (2021) found that the wide variance between AD behaviors among French students, U.S. students and Greek students could be explained by cultural differences, and McCabe et al. (2008) found that Lebanese university students are influenced by collectivist societal norms in comparison the individual-centric society in the USA. International students or students from non-North American cultural backgrounds may also demonstrate a higher rate of AD (Park, 2003). Among doctoral students Cutri et al. (2021) identify that both feelings of inadequacy (“imposter syndrome”) and cultural differences explain the causes of AD. As with other affecting factors, the research is conflicting. Marshall et al. (2022) for example found that among Vietnamese students studying abroad and local PG students in New Zealand, both groups held significant understanding of plagiarism and held negative attitudes towards plagiarism, suggesting that culture is not an acceptable explanation for plagiarism behaviors and results in a simplistic approach and potential bias. Equally scholars such as Phan (2004) have posited that such cultural notions for how students behave in university are often based on inaccurate stereotypes. In such a case “culture” as a category can be seen as misrecognition itself, categorizing the individual and explaining complex behaviors in a simplistic manner.

Category 4: stress and the student experience

A wide range of research describing the causes and variables predicting student engagement in AD is available, but with no single thread of agreement and little large-scale replication of results. There is however, a more universal factor posited for engagement in AD, and it is in this factor that I ground the use of the Theory of Recognition. This is 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. Tindall et al. (2021) point out that HE students demonstrate above-average levels of mental illness and nervous disorders as evidence of this. The authors identify that this may link to the likelihood of cheating or other academically dishonest acts, as “negative emotionality” in this sense may drive AD (Tindall et al., 2021). Other research has similarly found a link between mental health and likelihood to engage in AD, with a focus on the pressurized, high-stress student experience as a causative factor (Devlin and Gray, 2007). In the media this is also commonly recognized. Lodhia (2018) writes in The Guardian that today’s HE students must focus on obtaining a qualification and their subsequent recognition in the labor market, rather than focusing on their education. This is fundamentally the driving force in which recognition theory can be applied in understanding the motivation for AD. This interpretation could also help to explain why there is a perceived increase in AD 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 (Lynch et al., 2021).

In summarizing the research based so far, there are no firm answers as to why students commit AD, although some factors may point to circumstances in which the opportunity for AD is more likely to be taken. I argue in the following section that all of the factors discussed, and the theories posited, may be contributory—but that the overarching cause of AD behaviors is driven by the stressors placed on students to view education as instrumental in achieving recognition, and that this emphasis on completion of HE study at the fastest rate possible, with the highest grades possible, is itself a social pathology, as it fits Honneth’s (2014) definition, as a social development, which “significantly impairs the ability to take part rationally in important forms of social cooperation”—in this case, formal education.

Recognition theory and education

The Theory of Recognition described in Honneth’s (1995) work focuses on the role of recognition and disrespect as aspects of common moral experience between individuals. Honneth (1995) postulates that to attain freedom, humans must develop stable self-relation by achieving intersubjective recognition. If the individual is unable to achieve such recognition despite it being deserved, the result is that of suffering disrespect, which can impact upon and even lead to the destruction of the self. Further to this, recognition is not given freely; subjects must participate in a struggle, which can take various forms, ranging from verbal discussion all the way to entering into violent conflict, or fighting in a war (Huttunen and Murphy, 2012). In the context of academia, students may struggle for recognition through the achievement of grades, through discussion, criticism, or even through subtle movements and motions; a nod of agreement or look of disdain can similarly function as an action, which defines an attempt to gain intersubjective recognition or protest against disrespect.

To date, despite its importance and application in sociology and philosophy, recognition theory has received limited attention in education. Sandberg (2016) envisioned adult learners re-entering the workforce through adult education as engaged in a struggle for recognition, stuck between the isolation and disconnection from society that results from being excluded from the workforce, and the struggle of engaging in further learning to rejoin and experience stability and participation in the labor market. Sandberg and Kubiak (2013) also argue that in higher education, Honneth’s theory can be used to develop transformative learning, through the identification that teachers must develop respect for themselves primarily, as this is a condition of the ability to recognize rights in others, in order to imbue self-confidence in students. The results of this, it is argued, would produce democracy in classrooms and then in society as a result (Sandberg and Kubiak, 2013).

There are three areas of self-relation that must be developed under this theory in order to achieve positive self-relation, including self-confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem, and these are developed at three different sites of struggle for recognition (Huttunen and Murphy, 2012). Self-confidence develops through the individual’s primary relationships. Self-respect is found in the acknowledgement of a person as having legal rights. Self-esteem on the other hand, is gained from understanding that work or actions are acknowledged, and this is the highest form of recognition (Huttunen and Murphy, 2012). In relation to higher education, the recognition of passing an assessment, gaining a degree, or succeeding in an element of study can provide this form of intersubjective recognition in the domain of self-esteem, in the form of approval from peers, instructors, or parents, mentors and guardians. An acknowledgement from a teacher that an examination is unfair, or the remediation of an unjust punishment can equally function in this manner.

The struggle for recognition can also be a struggle against ideologies that are present in education and society at large. Honneth (2014) states that education is a process of internalizing norms, including of the performance-orientation required in the labor market. One example of an ideology that supports this is the merit principle (Herzog, 2016), which leads to the subordination of enjoyment of learning to the obtaining of as high a “score” as possible in assessment and outcome. Lodhia (2018) equally identifies this ideology as leading to greater numbers of students engaging in AD, as results must be prioritized over the engagement and enjoyment of learning. Students who feel that this ideology is unjust, whether consciously or unconsciously, may then feel jaded at the imposition of this ideology by society-at-large and may suffer from disrespect (Herzog, 2016), or suffer from great psychological stress, which forces the actions of AD. In this sense, AD can be viewed as part of a social process described by Honneth (2014), in which a social group (students) develop moral doubts about an aspect or element of the social order—in this case comprising assessment, the institution, the program, the teacher, or instrumental ideology of education, i.e., the merit principle ideology. The committing of transgressions against established norms of academic integrity can then be viewed as a struggle against this - with the result of such behaviors being “for the right reasons” but in a way that unintentionally causes the potential for social harm.

Understanding academic dishonesty as a struggle for recognition

Recognition theory can help us to understand why it is that students know that AD carries severe consequences yet continue to engage in it. In relating this to a struggle for recognition, the argument is summarized by Daniel et al. (1994) who state that the role of education is to help students to self-actualize, and if that goal is impeded, then cheating or engaging in AD is the only way in which they can continue. This is especially relevant to the tendency to “privatize discontent” (Honneth, 2014, p. 248) in modern society, and explains why such actions are completed privately rather than in mass organized groups or through raising verbal discussions; this may also explain why when students perceive that their peers are also engaging in AD, they will be more inclined to join in (McCabe, 2016). Petrovskaya et al. (2011) highlight through an internal critique of nursing education that the ideals of academic life include thinking in a free, creative, and critical manner, yet these values do not correlate to some institutionalized practices of academia, which are influenced by the research industry and instrumental reason. This suggests that it is the reification of academia, which results in struggles for recognition including, under this approach, acts of academic dishonesty.

Students who engage in higher education seek the “good life” (Sandberg and Kubiak, 2013) by hoping to gain future employment, achieve personal growth, or to please others. The “good life” then, may entail personal or financial success, or in the case of students who are encouraged or pressured into higher education as a result of societal or familial norms it may entail freedom from such pressure on completion. To gain the recognition of completion of higher education requires success in formal assessment. Students are required to view their study as instrumental in obtaining the “good life” and passing their assessments quickly and effectively becomes part of this struggle for recognition. Those who do well may receive praise from peer group members, family members, or teaching faculty in the case of unblinded assessment, thus leading to higher recognition in the dimension of esteem. On the other hand, the consequences of failure to achieve the required standard may lead to the opposite.

This may be why students understand the risk yet still commit AD. In order to achieve their goals, to attain “the good life” (Sandberg and Kubiak, 2013) and to get past the impediments to their self-actualization (Daniel et al., 1994) they must achieve recognition of their successful participation in assessment by any means, with as high a grade as possible, and as quickly as possible, following the pattern Honneth (2014) defines as internalization of norms of performance orientation. If students have doubts in their ability and lack the positive self-relation to confidently attempt an assessment by themselves, are critical of the ideology of the assessment, or are convinced of their inability to pass, then they are faced with two choices: risk the suffering of disrespect if caught engaging in AD or risk the suffering of disrespect by failing the assessment. It is also possible to view more banal motivations such as finding the subject uninteresting or not related to the student’s self-identity (Venera-Mihaela and Mares, 2021) as part of a struggle for recognition. To this end, it is required to reframe the students’ motivations and path to the future good life. If the subject is uninteresting or not related to what the student defines as essential for themselves, then AD is a subtle act of resistance.

To further explain why students may choose to risk the suffering of disrespect from being caught engaging in AD, versus failing an assessment, neutralization theory may play a role. In this sense, it is less threatening to self-relation to engage in rationalization of the cheating behavior, by for example blaming another party (the instructor makes the assessments too difficult) or referring to a different system of values (the assessment is not important, I do not care about it) (Walsh et al., 2021). This is comparatively less consequential for self-relation compared to the risk of gaining a failing grade despite trying to succeed. One additional aspect of this understanding of AD is that it results in a circular social pathology, as the act of committing AD itself entails disrespect. By deceiving the individual responsible for marking an assessment with a false promise of authenticity, the marker is disrespected. By disadvantaging others who do engage authentically in assessment, the other assessment-takers are disrespected. Committing an act of AD then is a final attempt to save the self by disrespecting others. To demonstrate the relation between AD and recognition further, the dimensions of the theory can be mapped to components of AD. Table 1 demonstrates the domains of the Theory of Disrespect, while Table 2 develops this to account for acts of AD.

Table 1 Honneth’s theory of recognition (Herzog, 2020).
Table 2 Application to acts of academic dishonesty.

In relation to Table 1, the applicable mode of recognition regarding AD is social esteem. In this case, in higher education, we require recognition of our traits and abilities through assessment in order to develop positive self-relation, which is magnified by our overall completion of a program (such as a degree), while enabling us to achieve a version of “the good life” (for example, a stable career). If we are unable to do so, or we risk losing this possibility, then AD may become a reaction to this potential suffering of misrecognition (disrespect). The application of this dimension is demonstrated in Table 2.

Through this application, a new understanding of intentional academic dishonesty can be formulated. A broader picture can be used to understand that when students engage in AD behaviors; it is not necessarily due to a single factor, an aspect of the individual’s personality, or their gender, field of study, age, or another characteristic. Rather, the universal and basic patterns of recognition that form social life drive students to find ways to achieve the recognition that is needed for positive relation-to-self. The social esteem mode of recognition is particularly applicable; the approval or recognition of the assessor, lecturer, community-of-practice, professional organization, and institution may hinge on the outcome of an assessment or set of assessments. Faced with this struggle, students who do not believe they are capable of achieving this themselves will seek AD behaviors to maintain a chance at recognition, rationalizing this choice if necessary. In other cases, students will seek to rebel against ideologies of assessment as a form of privatized resistance. Sandberg (2016) identifies that if a group suffers from disrespect or misrecognition, they will strive to regain it. It is in this way that we can reconceptualize AD as the struggle for recognition in the mode of self-esteem. Finally, it can be seen that certain forms of ideology in global society, for instance those based on the merit principle (Herzog, 2016) and internalization of performance orientation at all costs (Honneth, 2014) are social pathologies, in that they contribute to the instrumentality of education in society.

Implications for teaching, learning, and assessment

This paper has aimed to apply Honneth’s theory of recognition to the practice of AD among students in higher education, through the identification that the self-esteem mode of recognition is at the core of the struggle to succeed in HE to gain recognition and realize a vision of the good life (Sandberg and Kubiak, 2013). The stressors of being a student and the societal pressure of completing education as instrumental in achieving the good life, along with the reification of aspects of academia, are then the factors that force the student’s hand in committing AD, and such acts may also have been seen as a form of privatized resistance against perceived issues in a program of study. Current theories are not sufficient to fully explain why this happens, and research on individual and personal variables is conflicting. If AD is reexamined as the struggle for recognition, then there is a firm footing for understanding this phenomenon universally. Furthermore, following this interpretation there is no need for the “moral panic” noted among some faculty in academia (Venera-Mihaela and Mares, 2021). In fact, students may be behaving consciously or unconsciously in a rational manner to instinctively protect their self-relation and avoid the destruction of identity, and it is not the case that failing to follow principles of academic integrity is a correlate of a “moral deficit” (Venera-Mihaela and Mares, 2021), despite the fact that engaging in such acts entails an act of disrespect to others in itself. Under this interpretation, the causes of AD point to issues within the world of academia, including the reification of academia, the pressures of the student experience, and the stressors of higher education as a struggle for societal recognition. Armed with this understanding, faculty and institutions can do more to understand students’ motivations and work towards corrective action.