Higher Education

, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 69–83

Judging plagiarism: a problem of morality and convention



DOI: 10.1007/s10734-009-9234-9

Cite this article as:
East, J. High Educ (2010) 59: 69. doi:10.1007/s10734-009-9234-9


This paper considers the problem of plagiarism as an issue of morality. Outrage about student plagiarism in universities positions it as dishonesty and a transgression of standards. Despite this, there has been little work analysing the implications of positioning plagiarism as a moral matter in the making of judgments about plagiarism and academic dishonesty. This paper sets the scene by reviewing research about the characteristics of students who cheat and analysing student and lecturer differences. It then discusses perspectives from moral behaviour, moral philosophy and moral reasoning. The paper concludes that emotion and reason are brought to moral judgments, and so makes a case for those who are making judgments about plagiarism to reflect on whether they are faced with a matter of morality or convention. Greater awareness of the domains of convention and morality, the issues of justice and care, the roles of emotion and reason and what is involved in making judgments, will open ways of understanding reactions to plagiarism so that better ways to deal with accusations and make judgments can be developed.


Convention and moralityJustice and careMoral judgmentsLecturer interestsPlagiarism


In 2006 in an Australian university, a lecturer perceived his entire class as having plagiarised and been dishonest, so following university policy all the students were charged with academic misconduct. He was making a stand against dishonesty. Another staff member was outraged and claimed that these students had been made to suffer because they had not known how to copy according to university standards. Despite their different reactions, both staff claimed they were concerned about justice, care and maintaining standards of academic integrity.

Much of current rhetoric indicates that plagiarism is seen as an issue of academic dishonesty and morality. The following definition is a florid example positioning plagiarism as immoral.

Plagiarus means kidnapper or plunderer, in Latin, because in antiquity plagiarii were pirates who sometimes stole children. As plagiarism is considered intellectual theft some commentators have likened it to stealing the brain child of another (Oregon State University 2007).

Organisations such as the Centre for Academic Integrity (http://www.academicintegrity.org/cai_research.asp) claim the terrible state of student behaviour with evidence from large-scale enquiries across Northern America showing that over 70% of students admit to some form of cheating. Of course there are other approaches to the problem of plagiarism, and much has been written on the teaching and learning of conventions of acknowledgment. Nevertheless, preventing plagiarism, promoting standards of academic integrity, and policing and surveillance prevail as concerns of universities. Furthermore, concerns about the problem of plagiarism do not seem to be abating, despite all the discussion and reasonable advice. Perhaps all this discussion has led to greater awareness of the complexities and hitherto unnoticed problems and inequities. This paper analyses the problem of plagiarism as an issue of morality, out of concern for the need to be fair and equitable in dealing with and judging claims of plagiarism and academic dishonesty.

The attitudes brought to the judgments of student plagiarism are likely to influence the ways that faculty deal with accusations of plagiarism. These attitudes could be based on perceptions that plagiarism is evidence of ignorance of norms, or poor competence in handling conventions, or a transgression of standards, or low levels of morality. Judging instances of plagiarism as if they were breakdowns of cultural conventions could reduce anxiety and avoid the denigration inherent in accusations of academic dishonesty. Plagiarism, however, is not always a breakdown in cultural conventions; sometimes accusations of cheating are justified. In such cases, judgments of right and wrong behaviour take on a moral flavour. Acknowledging that moral judgments are brought to decisions about plagiarism deals with reality and so provides opportunities to develop a frame to analyse current practice and approaches to decision making. This moves the discussion about plagiarism beyond turgid definitions and categorisation. While there might not be resolution there will be opportunities to better deal with the problem of plagiarism and direct teaching and learning advice. Anecdotal evidence indicates that unfair treatment and judgments exist, despite the work put into teaching and policy and despite the availability of information about cultural differences in acknowledgment. Judgments about plagiarism and academic dishonesty involve a number of considerations, and those who make judgments bring different interests and personal characteristics to their decisions.

This paper, in order to make clear the particular context of universities, discusses the positioning of plagiarism as an ethical concern in universities and reviews the literature on student characteristics. The paper uses perspectives from moral behaviour theory to discuss concepts of universal moral development and cultural attitudes to morality. The making of moral judgments and perspectives from moral philosophy are considered and applied to problems of plagiarism. The last section, which covers morality and neural mechanisms, looks at the role of cognition and emotion in moral decision making. It is hoped that taking the discussion into the realm of moral thinking will open ways of understanding the reactions to accusations of plagiarism and so develop better ways to make judgments.

Plagiarism as an ethical issue in universities

The university context

A search of university sites in the US and Australia quickly reveals statements which define plagiarism as an issue of ethics. Such sites can also warn students about penalties and advise students that they should uphold standards. For example from Australia:

Academic honesty is a core value of the The University of Sydney (2007). The University is committed to the basic academic right that students receive due credit for work submitted for assessment. Integral to this is the notion that it is clearly unfair for students to submit work for assessment that dishonestly represents the work of others as their own. Such activity represents a form of fraud.

The most common form of academic dishonesty is plagiarism with intent to deceive the examiner (The University of Sydney 2007).

…Students will be taught why plagiarism is an unethical practice. The rationale for the severity of penalties applied to serious cases will be made clear to them… (La Trobe University 2007).

Statements that are moralistic and use the language of policing are not unusual in the US, for example, from an Academic Dishonesty Flyer, University of Central Florida:

Plagiarism, whereby another’s work is deliberately used or appropriated without any indication of the source, thereby attempting to convey the impression that such work is the student’s own, is prohibited. Any student failing to properly credit ideas or materials taken from another has plagiarized.

A student who has assisted another in any of the aforementioned breach of standards shall be considered equally culpable (Kiehl 2006).

While the degree of righteous drama and use of the discourse of policing varies, typically universities position plagiarism as dishonesty. O’Regan (2006) in her analysis of university policy, pointed out that policies also try to define plagiarism and usually acknowledge that students need to be taught it.

The need to define plagiarism and explain its impropriety indicates that while some experience it as a transgression this is not universal. In contrast, cheating is not defined for new university students, because cheating is assumed to be universally understood. Students will declare that cheating is immoral, but they do not always perceive plagiarism as a serious misdemeanour (Park 2003; East 2005).

Students and lecturers can have different understandings of plagiarism. Evans (2006) positions lecturers on the moral high ground and claims that lecturers understand plagiarism as a breach of trust undermining academic traditions, while students prioritise success as more important than avoiding plagiarism. This might be so, but if we step back and take a reflective approach to explaining lecturer and student roles, we could understand lecturers and students as operating under different interests. Lecturers who have acquiesced to standards and worked hard to achieve their positions, have an interest in ensuring those standards are not undermined. Foucault (1991) argued that acquiescing to standards is not perceived as imposition by those who benefit. On the other hand, those who do not have an interest in staying within an organisation are unlikely to take its standards to heart and are more likely to perceive those standards as impositions. Most students see their benefits as being beyond the university and generally want to graduate from university and move on. Unsurprisingly, plagiarism, which is a breach of academic standards, is more affronting to lecturers than it is to their students.

Nevertheless, dishonesty and breaches of academic integrity are not limited to students. Some lecturers and researchers will subordinate allegiance to academic tradition and academic integrity for personal interests. Park (2003) points out that university staff cheat, and a US study found that 15.5% of researchers had changed ‘the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressure from a funding source’ (Martinson et al. cited in Hall 2006, p. 3 of 11). The roles of lecturer, researcher and student bring different pressures, which could lead to different manifestations of academic dishonesty. Many lecturers, researchers and postgraduate students are under pressure to design, execute and publish original research, while undergraduate students are under pressure to meet the assessment expectations of their lecturers. This paper is only focussing on student plagiarism and academic dishonesty, but acknowledges that other parties in a university could plagiarise, be dishonest and lack integrity. There is a need for further research in this area.

Standards of academic integrity are an issue for those who judge transgressions. Some judgments about plagiarism demonstrate a shortfall in academic integrity (Symposium on Promoting Academic Integrity 2004). A public example of this is The University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia which was called to account in the press for its poor handling of alleged plagiarism and soft marking. In this case, rather than penalise some full-fee paying students when they plagiarised, the lecturer who noted the plagiarism was over-ruled and the students were passed. According to Atkins and Herfel (2005) this was not just chance. They argue that in Australia, the current focus on reforms to save money on public funding of universities prioritises the interests of the market and in turn undermines academic integrity and the sense of community. Judgments about deliberate plagiarism may not be just about ethical reasoning. Rather than being steadfast about academic integrity as is claimed in policy statements, sometimes universities are more concerned about the market. This implies that university committees cannot always be relied on to make disinterested decisions.

Academic dishonesty in students

Given that universities are inclined to define plagiarism as a problem of academic dishonesty in students more knowledge about the type of student who is likely to cheat could be insightful. Media attention indicates that international students are connected with a rise in plagiarism, but there is little quantifiable evidence demonstrating that they are more likely to cheat. Park (2003) points out that they are perceived to be more likely to plagiarise and cites language difficulties and cultural difference as the reason for this.

There is little agreement in the research about the student types who are likely to plagiarise and cheat. According to Lambert et al. (2003), in the United States, estimates of the number of students who admit to some form of cheating vary from 49% to over 70%. Similarly, studies considering gender, age and level of education vary in findings (Lambert et al. 2003; Lester and Diekhoff 2003). While McCabe and Drinan (1999) speculated that students who had high grades could decide to cheat because of pressure to maintain grades, others associated low grade point averages with the propensity to cheat (Lambert et al. 2003) and Sheard et al. (2003) posited that postgraduate students were less likely to cheat because they were motivated to learn. In an interesting connection of factors, Kerkvliet and Sigmund (cited in Magnus et al. 2002) found that, along with an association with low grade point averages, students who consumed large amounts of alcohol were more likely to cheat. Perhaps these students are also the party goers who are claimed to have a propensity to cheat (see Park 2003, p. 480).

Determining student characteristics has not provided definite indicators of the sort of student who is likely to cheat. Research into the situational circumstances surrounding cheating might be more revelatory and more useful for those trying to reduce levels of cheating and plagiarism. Lambert et al.’s (2003, p. 8) review of the literature suggests that social pressure can lead to academic dishonesty, but they also suggest that ‘students try to justify engaging in different forms of academic honesty for a variety of reasons, such as competitiveness of their major, course difficulty, the need for professional success, cynicism, and that other students cheat’. Terms such as ‘students try to justify’ imply that there is no legitimate justification, and further the students are at fault so no more analysis of the problem is needed. Perhaps relabelling these ‘justifications’ as reasons could increase awareness of the situations and circumstances that are conducive to plagiarism and cheating. Circumstances such as increased class size, lack of personal contact and increased financial pressure are cited by Le Heron (2001). Surprisingly, she does not argue for changes in these conditions; rather she focuses on ways to reduce chances for students to get away with cheating. In contrast, in their review of the factors in student decision making about cheating, Dick et al. (2005) used Passow’s 2002 model which takes into account external contexts such as the institutional and the societal. Nadelson (2007), in the US, also argues that environment plays an important role in student decision making about ethical behaviour.

While the wide variation in the research findings indicates that personal characteristics seem to have little relationship to whether or not students cheat, Lambert et al. (2003, p. 7) claim that a person’s moral beliefs are linked to whether they will be academically dishonest. This could also be a matter of environment; for example, in some US colleges, exams are unsupervised because students maintain Honour Codes. This indicates that the individual’s moral beliefs can develop to meet the standards of the group, and the group’s standards have developed from its society. Of course as Rest et al. (1999) research shows, some individuals are more morally developed and so more able to make moral decisions. They also argue that the higher the education the higher the advance in moral development, which indicates that focussing on the personal characteristics of students is less useful than enquiring about their learning experiences and the contexts in which cheating takes place.

Moral development as universal concept

Developing morality

The concept of moral decision making being a matter of development is based on the notion that there are universal principles, which some people and some groups of people are able to apply in more or less sophisticated ways, no matter their culture or nationality. Based on this notion, Kohlberg (1981) developed the Defining Issues Test, which set moral dilemmas and rated respondents’ levels of morality according to how they arrived at decisions. At the lowest level, decisions are made according to selfish feelings; at the next level they conform with prohibitions; and at the highest level, they are based on principles of justice. The universality of this schema and the test was part of its appeal, but it has also been criticised for its generalisations and limited definitions of what constitutes sophisticated moral decision making (Shweder et al. 1987). In a response to some of the criticisms of Kohlberg’s work, Rest et al. (1999, p. 171) refined some of the stages in Kohlberg’s levels of morality. They also defended Kohlberg’s approach and explained that it shows that individuals can achieve developmental shifts in moral thinking, and so with education people can change (no matter what their culture). Accordingly, universities could be places where higher order moral thinking is learnt in the promotion of a culture of academic integrity.

Although Kohlberg’s levels of morality are claimed to be universally applicable, complications arise if they are used to explain student cheating behaviours in a multicultural university. The claim that cultures differ in attitudes to cheating could be taken to indicate that some nationalities are less morally developed than others. Furthermore, the unfortunate findings of Lambert et al.’s research (2003, p. 14) that student dishonesty increased with academic level suggests that university education undermines moral development. Perhaps differences in moral judgments might not always be a matter of development; maybe some behaviours pertain to cultural difference, some to environment, and maybe some behaviours are wrongly classified as cheating.

Cultural difference is accepted as a way of explaining varieties of understandings of prohibitions. In some societies religious blasphemy is evidence of a person of low character, one who deserves ultimate punishment, but in western societies blasphemy hardly offends. In their analysis of cheating across countries, Magnus et al. (2002) found that opinions and attitudes toward cheating in the United States, the Netherlands, Israel and Russia ‘differed considerably’ (p. 126). Shweder et al. (1987) in their comparison of acts that transgressed social norms, reported that Americans and Indians differed in what they perceived to be ‘universally binding prohibitions’ (p. 69). They concluded that cultural difference accounted more for variance in moral thinking than did level of maturity, and that ranking moral judgments as developing from a rules based approach to an approach based on principles is not universally applicable.

Domains of morality and convention

Perhaps the differences in judgments about morality by different cultures can be explained away because some issues are incorrectly labelled or inconsistently categorised. Turiel et al. (1991) argued that certain activities, for example abortion and pornography, are hard to conclusively define as always being issues of morality. They called these ‘nonprototypical’ issues as opposed to ‘prototypical’ issues such as killing, rape and stealing. ‘Nonprototypical’ issues, according to Turiel et al. (p. 1), do not conveniently fit into the ‘moral’ domain, nor do they fit into ‘social conventional and personal domains’. The moral domain is about unconditional and generalizable perspectives on welfare justice and rights; social convention refers to socially constructed meanings, and the personal domain pertains to matters of personal choice which although individual still relate to shared understandings. (see Turiel 1983 and Turiel et al. 1991 for a full description of these domains). So ‘nonprototypical’ issues would, by definition, be excluded from the moral domain, but some literature discusses pornography and abortion as moral problems, just as plagiarism is so discussed. Discourse labels pornography a moral problem when it is bracketed with rape; abortion is labelled immoral when it is called murder, and plagiarism becomes a moral problem when it is defined as stealing. Thus, the differentiation and categorisation of ‘moral’ issues depends on circumstance as well as individual and cultural experiences.

On the surface Turiel et al.’s separation of domains gives us a way of dealing with instances of plagiarism and breakdowns in academic integrity. Some instances such as cheating could be judged as moral; others such as inadequate acknowledgement could be judged to be social conventional; while instances of choosing the wrong referencing style could be in the personal domain. Of course, not all instances are that easily categorised, and in turn, not all are judged so consistently. Turiel et al. (1991, p. 4) argue that in societies which value individual choice, issues of morality include perspectives of personal choice; in contrast, ‘in cultures structured by social hierarchy and concomitant duties, all social practices are treated as morally fixed and obligatory’. This undermines the generalizability and unconditionality of Turiel et al.’s concept that in the moral domain, moral issues are as natural laws and not relative to societal context.

Whether or not we can determine if a rule is a universal principle of morality, we could conceptualise the separation of morality and convention in order to understand that some of the rules about plagiarism do not seem natural and reasoned to newcomers. Students from a range of backgrounds and unfamiliar with university conventions could hold that cheating is dishonest, and that some forms of plagiarism are cheating, while viewing some of the rules about plagiarism to be arbitrary (Buckingham and Nevile 1997; East 2005). While students can be initially confused or even cynical about the conventions of plagiarism, they can also learn that some of these seeming arbitrary rules are, in fact, reasoned conventions.

As hierarchical cultures with rules about assessment and rank, universities tend to treat social practices, such as acknowledgment of sources, as ‘morally fixed or obligatory’ (Turiel et al. 1991, p. 4). Universities not only penalise students, who rank low in the hierarchy, for ignorance of norms, they can also brand them as lacking moral standards. Some writers have referred to the discourse around plagiarism as a form of exclusion (Howard 2000). The problem becomes even more complicated if ignorance of prevailing practice is understood as being poor moral development. Thus, categorising some cultural groups of students as having different attitudes to acknowledgment can be tantamount to classifying them as moral failures. Le Phan Ha (2006) takes this up when she declares that some claims about overseas students’ attitudes to copying (which position these students as the other) actually stereotype and denigrate. Going even further, Heckman (1995, p. 113) postulates that ‘we do not recognise someone as a subject unless she/he possesses a moral voice’. Thus, perceiving a student as a moral failure denigrates their human value. Furthermore, while in reality there are many moral voices, to claim there is one true voice silences the other voices (Heckman 1995, p. 115).

Making moral judgments

Justice and care

Different perspectives can be brought to decision making about moral problems. In 1982, Gilligan considered responses to moral problems from gender perspectives which seriously challenged Kohlberg’s position that moral decisions based on justice were the most sophisticated. She argued that Kohlberg had classified women’s responses as lesser, because the standards denoted by principles of universal justice were a male reality (Gilligan 1982, p. 18). Gilligan argued that morality theories were not neutral and had been formed through men’s eyes, and further, not only was there a theoretical problem in the earlier constructions of moral development there was bias in the analyses of women’s approaches to moral problems. In her research, she aimed to present a new picture of attitudes to morality and identity. She concluded that sophisticated moral judgment is not just based on principles of justice, rights and rules, it can also be about the ethic of responsibility, relationship and care.

Gilligan’s position although contexted in a particular time and place when she saw the need for women’s voices to be heard, still has relevance for current concerns about how to make moral judgments. Gilligan was not just writing about gender differences, nor did she claim generalisations about how all women or all men make moral judgments. She defined the voice(s) she presented as ‘characterized not by gender but by theme’ and explained in her text that ‘the contrasts between male and female voices are presented here to highlight a distinction between two modes of thought and to focus a problem of interpretation rather than to present a generalization about either sex’ (p. 2). Nevertheless, Gilligan’s focus on the care aspect of making moral judgments is controversial because it polarises, and she can be criticised for narrowing the discussion to the aspects of justice and care in moral decision making at the expense of other factors.

In contrast, Rest et al. (1999) deal with a wider range of factors and end up taking a masculine stance. They delegate the care factor to a ‘micromoral’ category of concerns about courtesy and helpfulness and having integrity in relationships. They value ‘macromorality’: the moral concerns of rights, freedoms and equity of treatment. The language in the quote below demonstrates that Rest et al. clearly consider care, as represented by micromorality, to be a less admirable approach. Consider how their term ‘acting on principle’ sounds superior to acting according to ‘favoritism’.

In micromoral issues, what is praiseworthy is characterized in terms of unswerving loyalty, dedication, and partisan caring to special others. On the other hand, in macromorality, the praiseworthy response is characterized in terms of impartiality and acting on principle, instead of partisanship, favoritism, or tribalism. Both macro- and micromorality concern ways of constructing and enriching the web of relationships—one through the structures of society, and the other through personal, face-to-face relationships (Rest et al. 1999, p. 3).

While universities would be wise to concur with Rest et al. that impartiality is more praiseworthy than ‘favouritism or tribalism’, they also have a responsibility to care for their students. The University of Melbourne (2007a), for example, acknowledges the value of care in the statement, from one of its nine principles guiding teaching and learning, that there will be ‘Explicit concern and support for individual development’. It also lists as one of its graduate attributes: ‘profound respect for truth and intellectual integrity, and for the ethics of scholarship’ The University of Melbourne (2007b). The balancing act, with regard to making judgments about plagiarism, is to promote and deliver justice, incorporate the aspect of care and enable learning.

Moral reasoning

Much of what is written about plagiarism focuses on what students should or should not do and what and how they should be taught, but that is only part of the picture. Faculty also make judgments about what should be done to students. Policy directs the process of making such decisions, but individual cases will still demand much consideration if judgments are to be seen as appropriate, morally sophisticated and equitable.

Using a moral philosophy which analyses language by considering what is actually said or not said, and then what is actually done gives a way of approaching ethical judgments. Analysing the language of maxims of moral behaviour could reveal any inconsistencies in judgments and understandings of right and wrong. Using such an approach, Wittgenstein analyses communication for what we need to say and what we do not need to say (Thorne and Lantolf 2007). We do not need to explain cheating, but we do feel the need to say much about plagiarism. It is hard to imagine that a student who stole a wallet would defend the action by claiming he had not been told it was unacceptable to steal. On the other hand, a student who had plagiarised could defend the action by claiming he had not been told that such an action was a transgression. Analysing and recognising what does not need to be stated depends on cultural insight and indicates the cultural construction of ethics.

Wittgenstein further limits the analysis of ethics through language when he says that in the end ethics just comes down to what we do and cannot be clarified (Phillips 2001). In the Tractatus he explains that what exists has no intrinsic value—it just is. Humans impose values, and humans make absolute judgments about values. Wittgenstein even states that ethics are ‘nonsense’ (Phillips 2001, p. 357): there is no sense, just the meaning humans make.

Meaning making could be what is universal rather than any principles of morality and ethics. Does this mean that discussions about ethics should be dismissed; are they too difficult to pursue, or is the essence of ethics beyond human expression? Or are ethics a matter of individual integrity determined according to experience in time and place? Using Wittgenstein’s approach of finding understanding through language might not always clarify concepts of ethics, but it might provide insight into how we can make rules, such as the rules of acknowledgment, which we cannot always explain, and then follow these rules as if they were inherently sensible. These rules make up a sense of integrity which an individual can use as a guide, even though it is a construction of their meaning making. Integrity in this sense means the sense of being honest and true to one’s standards, an ‘all-embracing quality… [in which there is] the wholeness and completeness of the person’ (Nillsen 2005, p. 1).

Making sense with an ethical framework should not necessarily lead to universal principles of ethics, rather imposing the universal over the particular can reduce opportunities for a fair hearing (Heckman 1995; Phillips 2001). Furthermore, Wittgenstein argues that there is no certainty and advises against justifying certain actions from our own meaning making of what constitutes the ethical (see quote below). Those who are making judgments need to actually listen to the particular reasons of the perpetrator rather than to reconstruct what seem to be the reasons.

In considering a different system of ethics there may be a strong temptation to think that what seems to us to express the justification of an action must be what really justifies it there, whereas the real reasons are the reasons that are given. These are the reasons for or against the action. ‘Reason’ doesn’t always mean the same thing; and in ethics we have to keep from assuming that reasons must really be of a different sort from what they seem to be. (Rhees 1970 cited in Phillips 2001, p. 356).

This alert directs those who make ethical judgments to avoid assumptions and the imposition of meaning, but it only offers minimal guidance. Plagiarisers might claim their actions are based on standards different from the standards of those who judge such actions. Given that integrity can be individual, it is not hard to imagine that people could apply differing ethical principles. Does an individual’s conviction that their action is not morally wrong provide justification for plagiarism? An example of this would be a student who (mis)understood writing an essay for another student to be a helpful act, yet understood taking an exam for another student to be cheating. Judgments, which take into account individual experience, demand flexibility rather than adherence to a set of rules for judging morality. This flexibility requires decision makers to listen for what happened, listen for the given reasons for an action, and then distance their own values while being guided by their integrity. Perhaps this juggling act becomes more possible with practice. It certainly entails a preparedness to tolerate uncertainty, respect the people in each situation and deal with each as being unique.

Just as cases are individual, so are decision makers. Lim and Coalter’s (2006) descriptions of the progress of four incidents of academic dishonesty, indicate the unpredictable and unreliable nature of the decisions made by university committees, despite the members’ belief in the need to apply rules fairly (also see Bretag 2005; Sutherland-Smith 2004).

Some committee members are overly forgiving, believing that the process itself is a lesson and that the sanctions should not be too harsh. Others believe that even the slightest occurrence of dishonesty should result in expulsion from the institution, the academic equivalency of the death penalty (Lim and Coalter 2006, p. 157).

These judgments were based on personal dispositions and emotion rather than objective rules. It is not surprising that emotion is present when lecturers who value their role as teachers, are confronted with academic dishonesty and contraventions of academic norms. Lecturers can feel personally insulted by students’ work which seems to be plagiarised and even experienced lecturers can jump to incorrect conclusions (Murphy 1990).

Basing moral judgments on an overarching principle of reason has appeal, because making one rule for all seems fair and just. But then would making an exception to the rule and forgiving one plagiariser be unfair? Would forgiving plagiarisers result in assessment anarchy with students outsourcing assignments and receiving undeserved qualifications? Kant’s ‘Universalization Principle’ asks us to consider what would happen if everyone behaved in the same manner (Nelson 1991, p. 135). One student plagiarising and escaping a penalty perhaps could be insignificant, but what would the impact be if many students could plagiarise without fear of penalty? Further problems arise, if the implementation of penalties is inconsistent. Inequity and insecurity will prevail in universities which treat some people with less respect than others and treat plagiarism in ways that seem to be arbitrary. To prevent this, it seems appropriate to follow Kant’s imperative to judge all actions with respect and adherence to objective rules without the interference of emotion. In reality, making moral judgments on the basis of reason may just be an ideal.

Making judgments according to set standards could be a guard against unfairness, favouritism, corruption, and prioritising some interests over what is ethical. Professional ethics codes, some of which are taught to university students, could be applied in cases of decision making about plagiarism. But such codes are not a guarantee of fairness. In a case which purported to show the effectiveness of ‘using an ethical decision-making model to determine consequences for student plagiarism’ (Kiehl 2006, p. 199), the principles underpinning the decisions were conveniently defined to fit with what felt right. For example, the principle of ‘benefits’, was interpreted to mean that the student being penalised would benefit from ‘a lesson learned regarding integrity and the pride he will feel when he has completed the terms of the consequences…’ (Kiehl 2006, p. 201). Furthermore, the ethical decision-making model was not helpful for determining if a breach of ethics had occurred. Rather, poor referencing was claimed as intentional plagiarism because the university could call on one of its ‘Golden Rules’: ‘Any student failing to properly credit ideas or materials taken from another has plagiarized’ (Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, University of Central Florida cited in Kiehl 2006). Publicising the university’s official statement of honesty was seen as evidence that this student had understood the concept of plagiarism. In Kiehl’s paper, the exact nature of the plagiarism is not clear, but it is clear that even with the best of intentions, applying standards is no protection against unfairness.

Applying standards can also be considered from the perspective of maintaining interests and benefits. Foucault argues a relationship between penalty and the maintenance of power in ‘Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison’ (1991). Here he puts the development of justice and punishments into a historical context and claims that the move, in eighteenth century Europe, away from hideous bodily torture as legitimate punishment was more than a call for humane treatment. The interest in reform of justice and punishment was about reducing inefficiencies in the judicial system, bringing in a different distribution of power and reducing ‘the arbitrariness of monarchical power’ (p. 81). Foucault also connected increases in wealth in eighteenth century England and France with demands for security, belief in rise in crime, increased ‘moral value placed on property relations’ and increased surveillance (p. 77). This resonates with the increase in access to education and information which has paralleled concerns about plagiarism and increased use of software for surveillance and detection of plagiarism. While those who are making policy, determining penalties, making judgments, and implementing penalties may see themselves as trying to be fair in making appropriate and equitable decisions, according to Foucault’s line of reasoning, they are actually involved in a normalization process which supports the power and the benefits of their rank in the governing body.

Morality and neural mechanisms

Moral judgments are made in historical and social contexts, and they involve reasoning based on maxims for how to live and behave properly, as well as concerns for justice and care. Such judgments, however, are not simply about applying the rules of right and wrong, they involve a lot of brain work, which we know from common sense and is demonstrated by recent work in neuroscience which shows how the brain works when people try to make moral decisions. Humans care a lot about justice and they are emotional about injustice, because as is argued below it is necessary for survival. Some research claims that brain imaging demonstrates that both reason and emotion are activated when people are confronted with moral dilemmas (Greene et al. 2004). Others argue that moral reasoning is simply reasoning and that neural activity is widespread and not local and so cannot be isolated (Casebeer and Churchland 2003). Speculations about the neural mechanisms of reason and emotion in moral cognition have led to interesting reviews of concepts raised in moral psychology and philosophy. While some are excited about the embrace of biology and morality and position it as ecology in which moral principles can be derived from empirical research (Casebeer and Churchland 2003), others are concerned that this ‘naturalization’ of ethics will lead to descriptions of what exists being interpreted to be what is (morally) right (Hume and Moore cited in Greene 2003).

Looking at what happens in the brain when we make decisions could tell us about the (neurological) processes involved. While it is early days for determining the specific parts of the brain involved in dealing with moral problems, evidence shows that both reasoning and emotion are involved. Greene et al. (2004) found that a difficult moral dilemma which has personal implications takes longer to process than an ‘impersonal’ dilemma and involves regions of the brain associated with cognition and reflection. They surmise, from their neuroimaging results of brain activity when judging a difficult personal moral dilemma, that there is a lot of cognitive control which overrides emotional responses. On the other hand, in more straightforward problems that could be decided by calling on maxims and well respected principles, such as ‘It’s wrong to kill someone’, there is not evidence of much reasoning, and people are more able to make quick decisions. To exemplify this, they presented a dilemma which requires little cognitive effort, arguing, for example, that the quick response to reject infanticide of a teenage mother’s unwanted newborn is a simple emotionally based decision about what is right or wrong. They argue that simply calling on rules to make judgments is less cognitively demanding, requires less thought and fits with emotional processing.

It is human nature to be more involved and pay more attention to moral cases which affect us personally. In Greene’s (2003) neuroscience perspective of human nature, concern for those who are close to us, as opposed to those with whom we have no contact, is survival sense. He extrapolates from the concept of evolution that altruism actually meant species’ survival in the case of our early ancestors, and he argues that with regard to morality ‘natural selection has outfitted us with mechanisms for making intuitive, emotion-based judgements’ (Greene 2003, p. 849). Hence, we can quickly know that certain actions are right or wrong and we care if someone close to us experiences injustice. Not only do we give more attention to moral cases which affect us personally, according to Greene, morality itself only exists as a matter of human survival and is not a matter of objective right or wrong.

A purely rational approach to moral problems is not a human reality, and overcoming immediate intuitive emotion-based responses requires a high level of cognitive control. Kant’s understanding that moral judgments can be assured to be fair by adhering to objective rules and removing emotion is unrealistic. Casebeer and Churchland (2003, p. 179) conclude that moral decision making and practical decision making are connected with emotions and feelings because people who have damage to the ventromedial prefrontal part of the brain make impaired judgments in all these areas. This fits with the evolution explanation that prohibition and emotional response developed together in the human brain for survival advantage (Greene 2003; Greene et al. 2004). However, there is more to the picture: Greene and Greene et al. also claim that neural imaging reveals that moral judgments which take into account consequences use the part of the brain where abstract reasoning and high level cognitive control take place. This supports Kohlberg’s levels of moral judgments (Kohlberg 1981; Rest et al. 1999), in which simply applying prohibitions to moral dilemmas is a low level response. It does not, however, resolve the arguments about whether applying justice should be ranked at a higher level than care. Taking into account consequences, whether they are about justice or care, is neurologically demanding.


For universities the growing concerns about originality and the demands for increased surveillance of student work are connected to incredible growth in access to knowledge and opportunities for information reproduction. Judging morality would hardly seem the primary role of a university, yet maintaining and supporting academic integrity is in a university’s interests. Universities also meet students’ interests when they reduce opportunities for plagiarism and make judgments and penalties about plagiarism and academic dishonesty which are fair and consistent.

The concept of domains of morality and convention provides a way of analysing plagiarism. Sometimes plagiarism is a matter of dishonesty, sometimes it can be contravention. This is reflected in university policies which emphasise plagiarism as a moral problem then define it in great detail. Clearly, there is not universal understanding about what plagiarism means. While some lecturers are outraged by plagiarism, because they value their teaching or their university’s standards, not everyone sees plagiarism as immoral, and not everyone who plagiarises has a low level of moral development.

Sometimes students knowingly plagiarise. In such cases applying (policy) rules is often the first step, and this would seem to be appropriate if the same treatment is to apply to all, and if decisions are not to be based on personal interests and emotional reactions. Rarely, however, do decisions easily match prescribed rules. Furthermore, research from neuroscience reveals that decision making about moral problems is cognitively demanding and necessarily involves both emotion and reason.

Humans are programmed to care about morality and justice—their survival depends on it. When we connect this understanding with Foucault’s notion that those inside an institution have powerful interests in maintaining allegiance to the institution standards, we can understand why plagiarism has provoked such outrage. When plagiarism is understood as a moral problem it will by definition provoke emotional reactions. Humans also have the capacity to reflect. Reflecting on the circumstances of plagiarism and asking why could lead to insights about what is a mistake or a misunderstanding of convention and what is a calculated instance of cheating.

Personal and emotional responses prevail in moral judgments so decisions about plagiarism should not be handled alone. Those who decide sanctions should not have had the personal involvement of teaching an accused student. Many universities have office holders and/or committees for this purpose. Their decisions should be seen to deliver justice and to be ethical; unfortunately, this is not always the case. Judgments and penalties made about claims of student plagiarism demonstrate great variation of standards. Decision makers bring their own dispositions to judgments, for example, their level of moral development, their understanding of morality and convention, whether they focus on justice or care, their capacity to listen and understand, and their cognitive ability.

With regard to plagiarism, the aim of this paper was not to argue for another metaphor, as in the morals metaphor, rather it was to deal with the reality that plagiarism is often defined this way but rarely is the impact discussed. If plagiarism is seen as a breach of convention, students who plagiarise are likely to be seen as in need of education; on the other hand, when plagiarism is positioned as a moral problem (see the rhetoric of some university texts), transgressors are vulnerable to being judged and penalised from an emotional reaction. This raises questions about the interests and approaches taken by those who are making judgments. Whose interests do they take into account? Do they assume their own convictions to be universal? Do they try to apply justice, or do they prioritise care? There is a need for further research to find out how universities actually judge instances of plagiarism and academic dishonesty and whether these judgments are consistent. Clearly, judging plagiarism as academic dishonesty has implications for students and their universities.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009