If it’s on the internet, it must be true: Part II

Patrick M. Scanlon

While scouting around the internet for data on academic dishonesty in universities last week, I kept landing on the claim that 75 to 98 percent of college students have cheated. Often a link would take me to the same page: Cheating is a Personal Foul, which was part of a campaign by the Education Testing Service and the Ad Council to discourage cheating among middle school students.

Cheating is a Personal Foul appears to have gotten off the ground in the late 1990s and come back to earth soon afterward. All the links are broken, and when I dialed the phone number, 1-888-88CHEAT, a recording asked me to take a survey on a Caribbean vacation. However, you can still view some of the television spots produced for the campaign.

In a previous post, I mentioned finding a newspaper article including this:

In 1940, just 20 percent of college students admitted to cheating during their academic careers. Today, that number ranges from 75-98 percent, according to Michael Hartnett, an English professor at Long Island University whose research led to his writing the book, “The Great SAT Swindle.”

I contacted Mr. Harnett, who in fact is a high school English teacher who has done some adjunct teaching. In an email, he wrote that he had lost his notes for that book—which is a novel—but he did send me a couple links. These went to the same lists I began with.

One of those lists by Cheating is a Personal Foul included something interesting:

According to Stephen Davis, a psychology professor at Emporia State University in Kansas: “about 20% of college students from across the nation admitted to cheating in high school during the 1940’s. That percentage has since soared, with no fewer than 75% and as many as 98% of 8,000 college students surveyed each year now reporting cheating in high school – and the majority admitting doing it on several occasions.”

Davis is a credible source whose work I know. He’s retired, but I’m in the process of getting his contact information from Emporia State. I hope he can clear some of this up.

But in the meantime I pulled up one of Davis’s publications: Davis, S. F. & Ludvigson, H. W. (1995). Additional data on academic dishonesty and a proposal for remediation. Teaching of Psychology, 22, 119-121. The authors report that in a survey of college students, 71% to 79% of each sample reported cheating in high school. Also, “Virtually all (98.64%) students who reported cheating on several occasions in college had also cheated on several occasions in high school.”

These numbers (I can imagine someone splitting the difference on the range to come up with 75 percent) seem too close to be a coincidence. So, my theory so far: Davis has been rather badly misquoted.

The hunt continues.

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