Online Program

Health Professional Students' Perceptions of Cheating and Plagiarism

Monday, November 2, 2015

Audrey June Burnett, PhD, CHES, Department of Health Sciences, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
Theresa M. Enyeart Smith, PhD, CHES, Department of Health Sciences, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
Maria T. Wessel, EdD, CHES, Department of Health Sciences, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA


The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine undergraduate health students’ perceptions related to ethics and cheating, compared to trends reported in the literature. 


Four focus groups totaling 39 students were organized around nine scripted questions (IRB protocol no. 14-0440). Transcripts and audiotapes were analyzed with QSR NVivo 10© to code the data, connect codes to relevant text, organize code assortments, and present findings in an illustrative format.   


Three main themes emerged: reasons for cheating, misperceptions of the Honor Code, and viewpoints of campus ethics, including why students may choose not to follow the Honor Code. Perspectives of plagiarism were regularly discussed and contradictory views were identified on the frequency and justification of academic cheating. Results indicated participants felt tremendous pressure to achieve high grades for graduate or professional preparation for health careers.  Cheating was justified by students due to pressure to achieve in highly competitive health fields. Students felt pressure from parents, peers, and professors.  It was felt that cheating occurs because everyone around them is smarter and it is necessary to keep up with their peers, which is termed “social competition”. Regarding responsibilities of following the Honor Code, multiple students mentioned they did not feel the need to report a cheating peer, because “karma” would eventually take its course, whether in the workplace or graduate school. There was a range of views regarding the ethical nature of the campus. An overwhelming response was that “…everyone cheats everywhere,” and that “…every school has cheaters,” indicating the view that cheating is universal across campuses and justified as a social norm. Results point to early and regular reinforcement of ethical principles for health professional students.  Therefore, the greater the likelihood ethical behaviors will translate to their future professional lives.


A strong ethical base is crucial to transfer such qualities and skills to the workplace. Determining students’ perceptions of academically ethical behavior is important to future success.  Furthermore, it is reported that health agencies and corporations place emphasis on new hires’ ethical decision-making as a highly desirable quality that translates directly from classroom to real-world behavior.

Learning Areas:

Ethics, professional and legal requirements
Public health or related education
Public health or related organizational policy, standards, or other guidelines

Learning Objectives:
Identify health professional students’ perceptions of behaviors related to cheating by gender, major, type of class and class level. Assess what is considered cheating and the techniques used. Assess the results compared to trends and data reported in the literature for other universities.

Keyword(s): Ethics, College Students

Presenting author's disclosure statement:

Qualified on the content I am responsible for because: researched, published and presented on a variety of health topics including community health needs assessments, health risk behaviors, and gerontological health for the past ten years.
Any relevant financial relationships? No

I agree to comply with the American Public Health Association Conflict of Interest and Commercial Support Guidelines, and to disclose to the participants any off-label or experimental uses of a commercial product or service discussed in my presentation.