Why Students Plagiarize: 5 Reasons You Probably Ignored

Last updated: October 2020

Academic plagiarism is the Achilles’ heel of most educators.

You try hard to develop your students’ critical thinking and writing skills, but they continue to attempt to copy texts and ideas from others, claiming them as own. It’s like a slap in your face or a kick in your… well, any part of your body, isn’t it?

Despite the devastating consequences of academic dishonesty and strong policies against it in most institutions, students don’t realize the problem. 

Numbers speak volumes:

  • 86% of students cheat in college.
  • 54% believe it’s okay and even necessary to cheat to stay competitive.
  • 76% copy others’ assignments word for word.
  • 42% purchase papers from custom writing services.

Sounds unpromising, huh?

Sure enough, educators have already mastered the art of plagiarism detection. (Oh, if only students knew how easy it is to spot duplications in their writings… Who knows, the entire practice might disappear then!New-generation plagiarism checker PlagiarismCheck.org updates its algorithms to find the trickiest manipulations with texts, so it takes few seconds to check for plagiarising with your eyes closed.


The only matter easier than plagiarizing is finding the evidence for it, indeed.

But still…

That ugly feeling of unappreciation and betrayal nibbles when you check mentees’ works and disclose their plagiarism, doesn’t it?

Why students plagiarize:

Are they lazy to spend time on assignments? Are they poor writers or time managers? Or, maybe they don’t know the topic you assign?

Reasons vary, and they may depend on the types of plagiarism (whether it’s self-plagiarism, accidental plagiarism, or intentional plagiarism). Anyway, most of them are psychological rather than material. Unveil them now to understand how to work with students so they wouldn’t even think of academic dishonesty.

1) Fear of Failure

A core reason for procrastination, fear of failure is what affects student motivation and learning strategies. It appears when students dread to disappoint expectations or aren’t sure of their writing skills and topic knowledge.

“Their words are better,” they think.

“To get high grades, I need someone to write an essay for me,” they suppose.

“I can’t lose my status,” they tremble and go online to plagiarize from available publications there.

Scientists have examined the issue to see how this fear influences student behavior. Published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, the results raise eyebrows: Fear of failure determines the methods your mentees choose to reach their learning goals. In particular, they adopt learning as a way to stroke own egos.

So, they don’t study to master the material but prove their superiority to others. With such motivation, it’s clear these students are more likely to cheat.

Effects of this type of fear are far from pleasant, either:


2) Lack of Interest

For some teachers, it’s hard to suspect students of disinterest in their subjects.

But let’s face it:

While educational technology helps students improve the learning process today, some of them simply don’t care about the topic you assign. They don’t think it’s worth their time and energy. So they choose academic dishonesty to complete it fast and get back to what they do like.

3) Pressure

Enormous pressure from teachers and parents to complete assignments, compete for scholarships, and eventually place in the job market turns education process into the turf battle with a focus on results rather than acquired knowledge and skills.

And here goes a paradox:

The more intelligent your student is, the more pressure they feel upon them.

High expectations and unreasonable demands from the public lead students to the impostor syndrome* and desire to be the best in everything they do. Feeling like they are stuck trying to handle that pressure, students plagiarize struggling to manage it in all possible ways.

* the impostor syndrome explained by The School of Life:

And plagiarism appears one way to complete all tasks on time, prove competence, and win some time for a recharge.

The stress your students experience because of that continuous pressure may lead to unintentional plagiarism or even self-plagiarism, as well: They confuse citations, forget about references, fail to paraphrase their sources right, or decide to use ideas and statements from their already-published works, ignoring the fact of self-plagiarism.

4) Hubris

Here’s something you can agree on:

The ego of some students is so high that they think no one will catch them red-handed and they are above any consequences. Cynical about grades, they see nothing wrong with plagiarism.

This story is as old as Adam:

Back in 2002, CNN Online revealed some students’ view on cheating where they argued that they were “almost completely judged on grades” and “a person who had an entirely honest life couldn’t succeed.”

Hubris itself is not a reason why students plagiarize, but it explains why they continue doing it over and over again. Influenced by a false sense of security, such students don’t understand the shattering impact of plagiarism on their well-being.

5) Thrill

Do you know that we all have a subconscious desire to steal from others? The mirror neuron system of a human brain makes us copy mimics, gestures, and deeds because… we feel happy when doing that.

And yes, the fear of penalty can’t help to stop it.

“Everyone is doing that,” a student exclaims and goes to copy peers’ writings.

Evolutionary psychologists call this behavior “a social glue” facilitating connections and interpersonal bonding. When copying others, we feel social participation and trigger happy chemicals in the brain to satisfy our need for excitement.

  • Dopamine rules when a person expects a reward. (Read: high grades)
  • Serotonin makes us feel significant. (Read: recognition from a teacher and peers)
  • Oxytocin takes the stage when we feel trust. (Read: escaping accusations of plagiarism)
  • Endorphin gives a moment of euphoria as a survival mechanism. (Read: completing the assignment successfully)

For some students, plagiarism is a kind of thrill. It’s a challenge to cheat a professor, escape punishment, and, therefore, feed their happy chemicals.

How to Minimize Plagiarism in Your Institution

Is there anything teachers can do to prevent academic dishonesty?

  • Teach interpretation and analysis to students. Please explain how to process the information they find in sources.
  • Discuss and ensure your students understand why they need to cite sources.
  • To make them feel comfortable with writing, tell about the importance of personal writing style and tone of voice. Explain that you want to see how well they understand the topic rather than gobbledygook of sources they used for research.
  • Teach them to state a thesis before they begin researching. Encourage to outline essays and insist that they include citations in the drafts.
  • Debunk the myth on grades’ high importance for future success. Explain that A’s don’t matter if a student doesn’t have the skills to show for them.
  • Divide assignments into parts: Have students submit outlines or bibliographies before final drafts for better planning and time management. It will help to make tasks less overwhelming for your mentees.
  • Teach them how to cite sources properly to avoid unintentional plagiarism.
  • Allow students to choose topics and use real-life anecdotes in their essays to enhance their interest in writing.
  • Explain the difference between plagiarism and paraphrase. Teach the necessary components of paraphrasing and explain how to use them right. At the same time, teach them to summarize rather than paraphrase.
  • Unveil all, including the most unobvious, consequences of plagiarism for your students to realize the problem.

Motives behind plagiarism are many, and yet none of them makes this issue acceptable. Students copypaste, see nothing wrong with plagiarism, believe they are untouchable and uncatchable, and even try to come up with tricks to delude plagiarism checkers.

The good news is, you can handle it!

In 2020, teachers are skilled and tech-savvy enough to understand why students plagiarize and enhance the quality of education in their institutions. Up-dated instruments, more study time spent on building productive relationships with your mentees, emotional intelligence as a must-develop skill in college – and a plagiarism-free academic world won’t look like a never-never land anymore.

7 thoughts on “Why Students Plagiarize: 5 Reasons You Probably Ignored

  1. I like your blog and how you discuss about the reasons of students why they cheat especially plagiarize. Your explanation is very clear and informative. I did not know that a large percent of students do cheating. And I agree with the reasons that you wrote about why do students cheat. I say that if this information will be known by many, some of them probably will now understand the reasons why not to cheat. That it is good to paraphrase, but not plagiarize. I hope the teachers nowadays will find new strategies to help the students not to do plagiarizing.

  2. Plagiarism is a very recurrent thing in the schools all over the world. Plagiarism removal is very important in the achievement of high grades in school. Thanks for sharing this info, for teachers to understand their mentees better!

  3. Dear Mike Hanski,

    I would like to thank you for the article you wrote titled “Want To Be a Better Writer? Read More.” I work in an elementary school library and I try so hard to engage these wonderful minds into reading. Can I make a copy of your article and hang it in our library for everyone to read? It needs to be somewhere where children can see it too? There are those kids that just don’t like to read. They would rather play video games. Your article is so important and needed to be read by teachers so they don’t ever give up on those kids that just don’t want to read. You article was so important to me. I loved the research part, too. I had to read this article in my Creative Writing class for Southern New Hampshire University. I am so glad I did. It really made me realize how important it is to read every day. Thank you so much.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Bianca!

      Sure, feel free to copy and use in your library 🙂
      We are going to publish the updated version soon, with the bookshelves of other heroes — writers, musicians, movie stars, politicians, psychologists, and more. It will also cover tips for better reading, checklists for readers, and more 🙂
      I hope the audience will find it as interesting and useful to check as the previous one, mentioned by you.


  4. What is the source for these numbers?
    86% of students cheat in college.
    54% believe it’s okay and even necessary to cheat to stay competitive.
    76% copy others’ assignments word for word.
    42% purchase papers from custom writing services.

    1. There’s a link to the survey in this post. The source is Cleveland, based on the info from Kessler, Pew Research Center, and others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.