In my Monkey Cage essay on Melania Trump’s speech from last Wednesday, I noted that cheating and plagiarism were widespread in post-communist schools after 1989. Many media outlets shared their own anecdotes about the dramatic differences in norms about academic honesty behind the “rusting iron curtain.” Some colleagues also asked for the underlying scientific evidence, which I will offer below.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, faculty from Western countries began traveling to teach in what used to be communist Europe — and found very different standards for respecting intellectual property rights. That led to no fewer than 15 independent cross-country studies on attitudes and behaviors toward academic ownership, writing, and research. The evidence shows that college students in the U.S. cheat less than students from China, Japan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Israel, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Albania, Croatia — but more than students in the Britain and Australia. Here are some highlights from this research.
Eastern European students reported significantly more cheating than U.S. students did
In 2000, Robert A. Lupton, Kenneth J. Chapman, and John E. Weiss compared business school students in Poland and Colorado, after matching survey samples on gender, grade point average, and even type of college town. They found that 59 percent of Polish students said they were cheating in a class they were currently taking; only 2.9 percent of U.S. students reported the same. Nearly 82 percent of Polish students reported seeing a student cheating in a class they were currently taking; only 5.6 percent of the U.S. said the same. And 61 percent of Polish students believed their peers cheated on exams, while only 24 percent of U.S. students did.
In 2002, the authors repeated their study in Russia and found that 64 percent of Russian students admitted to cheating at one point in college, compared to 55 percent of U.S. students. As with the Polish study, 69 percent of Russian students reported knowing that others cheated, compared to 24 percent of U.S. students who did.
In 2010, Jason M. Stephens, Volodymyr Romakin, and Mariya Yukhymenko published a study comparing Ukrainian and U.S. undergraduate students, asking how often they cheated, on a scale from 1=Never to 5=Daily. The U.S. students reported less frequent cheating (1.3) than those in Ukraine (2.38). At the same time, the U.S. students were more likely to believe that cheating is wrong. On a scale from 1=Not at all wrong to 5=Very wrong, students in the U.S. answered 4.06 compared to 2.99 in Ukraine.
But these are self-reports, and so may slanted by different cultural beliefs. If U.S. students believe plagiarism and cheating to be worse than students in post-Communist Europe do, they might underreport having done so. Instead of revealing that cheating is more prevalent in Eastern Europe, these studies may simply be telling us only that it’s less embarrassing to admit.
That was examined by a study published in 2013 by Marek Preiss, Helen A. Klein, Nancy M. Levenburg, and Alena Nohavova. They asked college students in the Czech Republic and the U.S. to evaluate a series of cheating behaviors on a scale from 1=Cheating to 3=Not Cheating. They wanted to know which behaviors Czechs and Americans identified as most egregious.
Both the U.S. and Czech students ranked “obtaining a research paper from the web and handing it in as your own” as the most obviously wrong, ranking that at 1.04 in the Czech Republic and 1.12 in the U.S. Next came copying someone else’s test, which was rated 1.11 in both countries.
Then researchers compared how often students said they did these things. Fully 44.8 percent of Czech and only 14.1 percent of American students said they had looked at or copied someone else’s exam. More than six times as many Czech as U.S. students — 33 percent of Czechs and 5 percent of Americans — said they’d used an unauthorized cheat sheet on exams. And three times more Czechs (6.2 percent) than Americans (2.3 percent) reported handing in a paper downloaded from the web as their own.
Considering a behavior egregious was not enough to stop students from admitting they’d done it.
Nobody has yet published a study comparing Slovenian students to a Western cohort. But Vanja Pupovac, Lidija Bilic-Zulle and Mladen Petrovecki’s study compares nearby Croatian students to students in the U.K. The authors found that 76 percent of the Croatian respondents believed it was unacceptable to report on fellow students who plagiarized. Meanwhile, 20 percent of the Croatian students said cheating on exams was permissible, compared with only 7 percent of U.K. students.
For more such evidence, please see this article based on surveys in eight post-communist countries and the U.S., as well as this study based on a survey carried out in 13 countries. Although none of these studies is of Slovenia, together they show that this more relaxed attitude toward cheating is prevalent throughout Eastern Europe. Despite the differences among Eastern Europe countries, they appear to share a distinctive culture and similar norms about academic integrity.
Why? And what can be done about it?
Post-communist countries are suspicious of informers — and skeptical about official rules
Much academic cheating requires cooperation. Let’s think about why that cooperation might differ in the east and west.
Consider a survey by Jan R. Magnus, Victor Polterovich, Dmitry Danilov and Alexei Savvateev that asked students to evaluate the behavior of three students. Here’s the hypothetical scenario: Two of them cheated during an exam. Student A copied answers from Student B, with B’s consent. Student C reported this to the department.
Russian college students and American college students evaluated A, B, and C quite differently on a scale from -2=Strongly Negative to 2=Strongly Positive. The Russian students were pretty indifferent about student A, the cheater, rating that behavior as .02; they approved of student B, the “abettor” at .85; and they condemned student C, the “informer,” at -1.74. Contrast this with attitudes in the U.S., where students disapproved of the whole group, but in a different order — rating the cheater at -1.27, the “abettor” at -. 87, and the informer at -.34.
Why the Russian recoil from the “informer,” student C? The region’s experience in the communist era left behind a profound social condemnation of informers, or anyone who would collaborate with authorities. That sabotages any effort to detect and sanction academic dishonesty. Perhaps widespread academic cheating grew out of a culture in which survival required disdain for — and collectively circumventing — the official rules.
This is also visible in policies these countries have adopted to reckon with its communist past. Among a range of such transitional justice policies, spanning truth commissions, compensation and apologies to victims of communist persecutions, and trials against those who committed human rights violations, the most popular and widespread policy was lustration, uncovering and banning from holding public office clandestine informers to the notorious communist secret police.
The shifts from communism to capitalism and from authoritarianism to democracy have been gradual, requiring practice at new behaviors and norms. Plagiarism and cheating may respond to policies of deterrence, but that cultural change may be so gradual as to require years or even generations.
Monika Nalepa is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago.