Academic Misconduct 101

What It Is (And How To Avoid It)

Exhaustion can make you do crazy things. No one can deny that completing a degree can be a stress- and anxiety-inducing experience. At least one time in our lives, we have pulled a caffeine-fueled all-nighter and yearned for just a simpler way to finish that assignment, study for that exam, or complete that dissertation draft. We’ve also felt incredibly wiped out during the whole experience.

The temptation to cut corners can quickly weasel its way into our minds when we are mentally and physically exhausted. “No one will find out”, a small voice will whisper to you. “No one will know that you hired a ghostwriter”, it might say. But we wary; that devil on your shoulder is asking you to risk your integrity for a short-term gain. Before you know it, you may have committed one of the many forms of academic misconduct.

The temptation to engage in academic misconduct is understandable.

It would never happen to me…

Don’t be so sure. Like it or not, academic misconduct comes in many forms. Most are recognisable, some are not so recognisable – meaning you might cross a line without even knowing it. Thankfully, all are avoidable. In this post, I will explain:

  1. What constitutes academic misconduct.
  2. The severe consequences thereof.
  3. How you can avoid committing misconduct.

The many forms of academic misconduct.

As the saying goes, there is “more than one way to skin a cat”. There are many forms of academic misconduct, and what constitutes misconduct can vary between institutions (always consult your university’s code of conduct). In the interest of comprehensiveness, I will include the most obvious and overt: bribery and cheating.


Straightforward, but important to mention, given that academic staff are all too often overworked and underpaid.  Bribery includes any undertaking, offer, or even suggestion of exchange of money, goods or services for an academic advantage. The suggestion of bribery is a dangerous one, as its highly subjective and subject to the interpretation of the recipient. Therefore, be careful in your interactions with academic staff not to say anything that could be misconstrued as an offer.


Another obvious one, but essential to mention in an increasingly digital-based education environment, where the lines can easily become blurred. You are cheating if you:

  • Work with classmates on an assignment or take-home test which explicitly prohibits collaboration.
  • Purchase, sell or use a copy of a test or assignment brief before it is provided by your institution.
  • Use unauthorized notes or copy off of a classmate’s assignment or exam.

With those out the way, let’s look at some of the more prickly forms of misconduct:


Fabrication means the falsification or misrepresentation of information. For example, a doctoral student altered data in order for his research to have better results. While fabrication may occur more frequently in the sciences, it is not unique to the sciences. Whenever there is a need for primary data, it can become very tempting to either tinker with the numbers – or simply make them up!

Fabrication includes:

  • Manipulating/editing data to present more attractive or significant results.
  • Making up information (such as market research findings for an MBA assignment).
  • Submitting invented references in your bibliography (yes, this does happen!).
  • Including sources in your bibliography that you did not actually use in your research.


Plagiarism is a beast in terms of misconduct because there are so many ways one can claim credit for someone else’s work or ideas, whether intentional or not.

Below are the common forms of plagiarism that you need to watch out for:

Direct plagiarism. More commonly known as “copy and pasting,” direct plagiarism is taking the exact wording from a source without using quotation marks or citing the source. Intentional or not, direct plagiarism is a serious act of misconduct.

Self-plagiarism. Yes, self-plagiarism exists (a classmate of mine from university was not allowed to walk at graduation because of self-plagiarism). Self-plagiarism occurs if you submit a section of a previous assignment for credit in different classes without prior approval from both professors and/or suitable referencing (rules vary between schools).

Blended plagiarism. Blended plagiarism is fancier wording for paraphrasing. You may think you are covered by citing and rewording a quote, but you are only partially covered; you are still plagiarizing by taking someone’s ideas and general thought structure. To be safe, add your own analytical spin.

Not sure whether you’ve plagiarised? Check out the flowchart below for a good “sniff test” to see if you are on the path towards plagiarism.

General misconduct.

There are so many examples (unfortunately) of academic misconduct that they fall under a “general” heading. These include:

  • Having someone else complete an assignment (or thesis/dissertation) for you (this is fraud – despite what the “dissertation writing services” websites might tell you).
  • Similarly, taking a test or completing an assignment for someone else (again, straight-up fraud).
  • Lying to a faculty member about reasons for missing a deadline (or when applying for an extension).
  • Encouraging classmates to participate, or colluding with classmates in any form of misconduct outlined above.

Still not sure if you’re about to commit academic misconduct? Review your university’s code of conduct as well as these examples from St. Petersburg College.

The harsh consequences of misconduct.

“But I know people who bought assignments/cheated/fabricated and got away with it”, I hear you say.

Well, there’s no question that this happens – but the rewards really aren’t worth the risk (cliché, yet true). Yes, some people do it and get away with it, but as you will see, academic misconduct can have serious consequences. Attending university is a privilege and one that is increasingly hard to pay for. Why risk losing your cherished position, and reputation, for just one assignment?

You lose everything you (legitimately) worked for.

The first consequence is the most obvious. If found guilty of academic misconduct, your university can expel you and nullify the coursework you’ve (legitimately) completed. This was the case for numerous Indiana University students, who thought they had beaten the system. After a professor discovered cheating, 9 students were expelled and 16 were suspended. The consequences are clear – if caught, all your effort is flushed away and you walk out with no degree. Additionally, you can’t expect another university to be sympathetic to your course if you’re thinking about picking up your studies again elsewhere. But that’s not all…

Higher institutions (and government) often believe in public shaming.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a career dependent upon funding (such as science), you’re going to need to think twice before fabricating data or committing other forms of misconduct. Thanks to technology, governments and institutions host public shaming sites. Not only will you be prohibited from participating in your field of study for a number of years, but potential financiers will also find that out when they Google you. Your reputation, and pride, can take a big hit.

The actions of few can affect many.

Did you ever have a coach give you that cheesy, “There is no ‘I’ in team” pep-talk? Well, it’s actually true when it comes to university athletics and academic misconduct. 10 teams from a Division 1 University faced pretty harsh punishments because 61 students received unauthorized help and participated in test fraud: the university paid steep fines, athletic scholarships were limited, athletes were suspended from games, and teams had to retroactively vacate wins.

Your degree isn’t actually permanent.

Think that you only need to fool the school until graduation day? Thing again. There is actually no statute of limitations when it comes to academic misconduct. If you are found guilty of misconduct, even decades after graduating, academic institutions have the right to revoke your degree. You then have an ornate piece of paper with your name on it, not a degree.

Think you can still use that revoked degree certificate? Lying about your degree is like living in a house of cards. Not only can you lose your job, as many high-level executives have, but you can also be charged with fraud. Moreover, you can say goodbye to your reputation – that reputational damage is far more permanent than your degree ever was.

fake degree certificate

How to avoid academic misconduct traps.

Now that you understand both what constitutes academic misconduct and the consequences thereof, here are some tips to help you avoid committing academic misconduct. Unfortunately, there’s no magic recipe or silver bullet. All of these recommendations involve good old-fashioned hard work…

Plan (surprise, surprise).

Avoid the temptation to cheat by avoiding the need to cheat. Your school should list important due dates in your syllabi. Use this information to your advantage: work backwards and set personal deadlines for you to complete your work in phases.

Here are some good resources to help you plan:

Most importantly, however, stick to your schedule and deadlines.

Know your school’s specific rules.

While I’ve discussed the most common types of academic misconduct, each institution is different and will have a slightly different code of conduct. Read this thoroughly and ask questions if anything is unclear. You do not want to risk losing your degree over some technicality.

Get organised and have a system.

Summarize as you go, and keep all your notes and resources in one folder. I may not be the most organized person in terms of my home, but I love electronic organization. When I start an assignment, I create a new folder and save all of my downloaded sources there. I also create a Word document with notes and links to my sources. If I copy and paste a direct passage, I use a different colour font in addition to quotation marks. This saves me a lot of time from tracking down sources, especially when I have to write my bibliography.

The point is simple – develop (and stick to) an organisation system that works for you. The easier you make it to find the resources you need, the less likely you are to feel the temptation to cut corners. You can also download the Grad Coach literature review tracker for free here.

Backup all your data, all the time.

The only thing worse than falsifying your data is losing your legitimate data, and then being accused of falsifying it! Yes, this happens. Your university can request copies of the raw data you used in your assignments and dissertation/thesis at any point. Be sure to keep backups of your raw data (ideally, on a cloud-based drive like Dropbox or Google Drive) until such a time that your school can no longer reasonably request them (typically graduation).

Check for plagiarism before you submit.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s so easy to plagiarise even when it’s not your intention. Many institutions will provide free access to Turnitin – be sure to use this. If your school does not provide access, there are other options online. For example, take a look at Grammarly or QueText.

Ask for help.

If you’re confused about an assignment or research project, go straight to the source. Talk to your professor, lecturer or tutor; he/she can be a great help in terms of reviewing work, going over an idea you have, or identifying where/how you can enhance your work. Additionally, our team at Grad Coach is available to offer you personalized support – just get in touch.

Wrapping up.

Hopefully, after reading this post, the academic misconduct lines are no longer blurry for you, and you’ve learned that the consequences of misconduct are harsh, long-lasting, and simply not worth it. If you have any lingering questions or want to share your own experiences or feedback, please leave a comment below.

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