Skip to content

Academic Dishonesty Case Study

Academic Integrity Case Studies


Read each of the following scenarios. While reading the scenarios, think about what the problem is and what the best solution would be based on Penn State's principles and policies.


Case Study #1: Extra Credit

David is a senior and only has three more classes this semester before he graduates. He feels the pressure to uphold his 3.65 GPA, as well as just wanting to finish and get the classes out of the way.

In one of his classes, an extra credit assignment is to read through a set of given texts from certain articles and books that have been given by the instructor throughout the semester, and then to compile personal thoughts based on the principles covered. To David, it seemed like basically doing something he already had done in the class—read the same information again. He figured the instructor just wanted to make sure the students really did read the articles, so David wrote his paper using direct quotes and verbatim phrases from the reading without correct citation. It was just extra credit, after all, so if it was not as good as his other work, it couldn't really hurt his grade.



Is what David did wrong? Why or why not? Do you think David is right in thinking that this assignment really doesn't matter and can't really hurt his grade because it is only for extra credit?

Response 1: This is an example of sloppy work that qualifies as plagiarism and could have serious consequences for David, including the possibility of a lower grade. It doesn't matter that the assignment is only for extra credit. If David is going to take time to do the assignment, he needs to do his best work.

Response 2: As an instructor, I believe I would make him resubmit the assignment before giving extra credit. First, if the assignment is to reflect on the readings, proper citation is needed in order for a reader to separate the content of the original article from the author's reaction to it. Second, it is good practice to track citations during the research and paper writing process; famous historians have had their careers ruined with plagiarism scandals because "they forgot to put in quotes." I believe, a student can genuinely forget to put in the quotes in a paper. I know of one case where a student did not use proper citations, but had the correct entry in the bibliography. It is not necessarily conscious plagiarism, but it is bad paper writing form and should be addressed.

Response 3: My take on this is that David is wrong because he has had the opportunity to learn to do things the right way during his college career, and when he chooses not to use the skills he has built he is taking a step backwards (not to mention that what he is doing by using quotes without citing properly is illegal). Going to college is not supposed to be about the grades as much as it is about the education itself. Having a good education only counts if you use it, and the more you use it the greater the rewards. If you just do the work to get by, then when you get out in the workforce and have greater responsibilities, life will be much harder for you because you have not learned the proper skills. Instead, you spent more time getting out of using them than actually accomplishing good work that will bring you rewards and greater responsibility.



Case Study #2: Copying

Janie has just moved to the Twin Cities from a non-English speaking country. It is hard to fit in, understand the language, and make friends. She misses her family and it is sometimes difficult for her to concentrate on all her classes.

She is taking a biology class this semester, which turns out to be much harder than she thought it would be. In one of the tests, the answers are to be marked by blackening out lettered circles on a separate answer sheet. Janie studied as hard as she could, but it seemed she did not read the topics that most of the questions on the test covered. Near tears, she hands in her test answers and sits down at her desk to await the end of class. To her right, Mark is working on his test. He seems to have no trouble with the class and is carefully marking his own answers. Glancing at his answer sheet, Janie sees that he has marked several answers differently than hers.

Janie goes up to the proctor and asks for her test answer sheet back, saying that she just remembered she did not correctly put in her student ID number. She quickly erases and changes some answers to reflect what she saw on Mark's paper and hands it back in again.

Some time later, the instructor informs Janie that the proctor saw her change her answers. She is going to be given an "F" for the test.


Janie thinks her actions do not constitute plagiarism or academic dishonesty, and that the sanction is too harsh, especially after she describes what she feels are extenuating circumstances. Is she right? Do you have any ideas about better ways for Janie to handle this problem in the future?


Response 1: The fact that Janie has trouble with English isn't justification for copying answers from another student's paper. The instructor didn't really have any choice in the matter -- the rules are very clear. The student got caught cheating so the "F" grade on the test is appropriate in this instance. Since Janie disagrees, she doesn't have to accept the sanction. She can appeal to the College is academic integrity committee. Obviously, Janie realized that she was having trouble with comprehension well before the exam. There are many resources available to students who are having trouble that Janie could have used in addition to asking the instructor for additional help.

Response 2: It's hard to admit you may be having difficulty with a class, but copying answers and risking an F is not a good solution. If you sense early in the semester that you are feeling lost, you may want to approach another student, talk with your instructor, or go to the University Learning Centers and schedule extra tutoring. Oddly, this could become a good chance for you to meet other people at the University. This IS a clear case of cheating because Janie copied answers from another student. Unfortunately, "stress" is not usually considered an extenuating circumstance. Failure may be embarrassing, but not as embarrassing as failure because of academic dishonesty.

Response 3: Janie's actions clearly constitute deceitful behavior and academic dishonesty. The sanction is justified for her action. If Janie learns to use deceit to "get by" in challenging situations during her academic years, she will probably continue the behavior out in the workforce. I would not want her working for or with me. These sanctions are in place to reinforce important information. They should not be waived for challenging circumstances. She could have talked with the professor and asked for extra time to study for her test, or she could have asked more questions about what subject items were going to be on the test so she could better focus her studies. Communication between student and instructor throughout the duration of the course is important and it is incumbent on the student to be proactive about it.


 [top of page]


Case Study #3: Group Tests?

Chris, Todd, and Mike are assigned to work on several group assignments together in a history class this semester. One of their projects includes each of them researching different events on a given time line, and then combining the information together.

On a test that covers some of the information gathered by Todd, Mike cannot remember what the answers are. He reasons that because the three of them had worked on the project together as a collaboration and got a good grade, it shouldn't be a problem to ask Todd what the answers are. Since they sit not far from each other in class, Mike asks Todd to tell him the answers. Todd does not want to offend his friend, so he moves his arm so Mike can see his paper. Chris also sits nearby and sees this.


Is this plagiarism/academic dishonesty? Are all three of them at fault? Is Mike more so than Todd? Is Chris obligated to tell the instructor what he saw?

Response 1: This is cheating. When completing a group assignment, it is the responsibility of each member to know all of the content, not just the content of their particular piece. Chris might need to talk to the instructor, but first he needs to talk to his friends and try to persuade them to go to the instructor themselves. If that fails, then Chris is obliged to tell the instructor what he knows.

Response 2: Although the instructor may not say this, you should assume that you are responsible for knowing ALL the content of a group project, not just the part you worked on individually. In a test-taking situation, it is generally safe to assume that no collaboration will be allowed UNLESS the instructor says otherwise. Todd and Chris may want to help their friend Mike, but if Mike were caught, both of them could be implicated and have their grades affected also.

Response 3: This is academic dishonesty. Though several people might work on a project together, they all should take responsibility for understanding the whole project. Communication is important here so that all participants on the project are well informed during its creation and at its completion. I wouldn't want these people working for or with me since I couldn't trust their accountability for their own work or for the project as a whole. I can imagine if one of them ended up leading a team project out in the workforce they might turn out to be the kind of person who would blame other team members for delays or obstacles, rather than the kind of person who would take responsibility and go the extra mile to get successful project results. I don't know that Chris is obligated to tell the instructor. It is the instructor's job to monitor security during a test. It would be a hard decision for Chris--I do know that if it were me in that position I would avoid the others in the future.


 [top of page]


Case Study #4: Other's Thoughts

Jennifer really enjoys the art history class she is taking this semester. She spends a lot of time on her final project - a portfolio of works of art that she selects, writes a brief background about the artist, and then describes what she feels about the piece. She is careful to make sure all her information about the artists is correct, and reads several essays on the artists she has chosen. She agrees with most of what the essayists have to say regarding the pieces. She represents some of their thoughts in her project as her own, reasoning that since it is not fact, and instead intangible opinion, and because she agrees with them, then she is not plagiarizing.


Is she right or wrong? Why?

Response 1: Yes, she is wrong. This is plagiarism. Jennifer is taking someone else's work and presenting it as her own. Even though she is of the same opinion as the authors of the essays, she still needs to give them credit for their work.

Response 2: An author's analysis is a piece of "intellectual property" and does need to be cited and acknowledged. An instructor is not necessarily interested in a new analysis, but rather what the opinion of the student is. If Jennifer does agree with the essays she reads, she should cite them and explain WHY she agrees. This shows the instructor how carefully she did think about her projects.

Response 3: Thoughts cannot be copyrighted, so there seems to be no direct infringement in this case. However, there is a fine line between having and writing thoughts that are similar to something you have read and using direct quotes. If it were me, I would use a direct quote, cite it properly, then elaborate on it using my own words. I would do this for each thought or idea that paralleled what I had read. Writing this way works in her favor, because using direct quotes, cited properly, lends credibility to her writing and strength to her ideas.


 [top of page]

Case Study #5: Sources

Lee has to write a paper on some of the causes and symptoms of drug abuse for a public health class. He accesses the Web and finds several chat rooms that feature posted questions which are answered by doctors. He uses their answers in his paper, citing just "Internet" as the source. He also finds a site that is put together by the mother of a recovering addict which contains information that she has compiled as a resource for other families in similar circumstances. Steve also uses this information, and since the author of the site does not indicate which books she got the information from, he cites "Internet" again as the source.


Is this sufficient? Is this a form of plagiarism/academic dishonesty? Why or why not?

Response 1: This is an example of sloppy work that could result in serious consequences. It is important to CORRECTLY cite all sources of information. "Internet" is not a correct citation. It is also dangerous to include information in a research paper that was found on the Web but that can't be verified.

Response 2: It is not plagiarism because he provides a citation, but he does need more information. Most scholars recommend an Internet citation include the specific URL, and the author of the site, and when the site was created. If no dates can be found, then putting down when the site was viewed is sufficient.

Response 3: This is a form of plagiarism. There are several correct ways to cite Internet sources. Students can find information at online sites, such as:, or If Lee finds it necessary to use the material compiled by the woman who did not cite her resources, at the very least he should quote her directly and cite her as the primary source. I would avoid using her material, however, no matter how good it is. If she obtained it from different resources, chances are he could also search out the original resources she used and cite properly any material directly quoted.


 [top of page]



Case Study #6: Sharing Thoughts

Jack and Diane are both in business class. Toward the end of the semester, the assignment is to do an analysis of a business plan. The paper is due in a couple of days and due to a family emergency, followed by being in bed all weekend with the flu, Jack hasn't had a chance to work on the paper and is very stressed out. Diane feels badly for Jack and since she has finished her analysis, she offers to loan Jack a copy of her paper so he can look it over to get a sense of how she broke down the assignment and then structured her response, figuring that should help Jack not feel so overwhelmed and make the project manageable. Jack gratefully accepts the offer. Diane sends him her analysis in an e-mail attachment.


At this point, is this academic dishonesty? If so, what kind (plagiarism, cheating, etc.) and why?

Response 1: At this point I would say this behavior shows poor judgment on Diane's part, but is not academic dishonesty. It would have been better for Jack to go to the instructor, explain his circumstances, and see if it would be possible to get an extension.

Response 2: I think not, because Diane is showing an example of what she did. In the business world, looking at other examples is called "benchmarking", but it can lead to plagiarism if the author is not careful.

Response 3: No, at this point this is only collaboration. The work of other students, shared by consent, is not plagiarism. What Jack does with this information is what will constitute plagiarism, or not. He can read her material to see how she structured things, but when he applies himself to doing the assignment he must make sure his own work is original within the specifications of the assignment (she may have used formulas or guidelines preset by the instructor, which are fine to reproduce, but the content itself should reflect Jack's own analysis). Here I would recommend that Jack communicate with the professor to see if he can get an extension so he can do a proper job on the analysis. I would also recommend that Jack not use her paper as a reference while he is completing his assignment. It's okay to read it once or twice, but it's better used as a form of research, not a firm guideline to follow. If he were to follow her structure very closely, even though he might choose different words, this would constitute a form of plagiarism in that the work would not be completely his own.


As Jack reads over Diane's paper, he agrees with the majority of Diane's analysis, but there are a few things that he would word a bit differently. Jack reasons that since he agrees with Diana's concepts, it would make more sense to make a full copy of Diane's paper and go through it line by line, changing the sentences to sound like him. Occasionally he adds a couple of sentences to expand on a thought. He then creates a cover sheet with only his name on it and turns it in.


At this point, is this academic dishonesty? If so, what kind and why?

Response 1: Yes, this is academic dishonesty. Jack is using Diane's work and presenting it as his own.

Response 2: This is done in the business world sometimes, but should be avoided in courses. Because Jack is using Diane's paper as a reference, he has not done his own analysis from scratch. In copyright terms, he is creating a "derivative product" and would need Diane's permission to do so. In academic terms, it will likely cause him problems because he has NOT done the analysis from scratch. In addition, since this will be based on Diane's writing style and organization, the document will more than likely resemble Diane's.

Response 3: Yes, this is academic dishonesty. Jack is bypassing most of the procedures involved in creating an original work and is simply rephrasing parts of Diane's work. This is clearly not his own work and constitutes plagiarism.


As Prof. Mellencamp reads through the analysis, he is struck by the similarity between Jack and Diane's papers. In fact, when he compares them, he realizes that they are outlined identically, and in parts, they are worded identically. Even where the wording varies, the concepts are the same.


If you were Diane, how could you explain your role in what transpired?

Response 1: By now Diane probably recognized that she put her own academic integrity at risk when she gave her paper to Jack as a reference, even though she didn't intend for him to copy her work. Diane needs to be honest about what she did even though it makes her look like an accomplice.

Response 2: Diane is in a very tough situation. She probably had the best of intentions when sharing her paper, but look at the trouble Jack caused. If this is a first time incident, and she has the e-mails saved, it will help Prof. Mellencamp understand what her intentions were. In the future, Diane might think about sharing general research hints with her friends rather than a finished document.

Response 3: Diane should not necessarily be blamed for sharing her work. Very often, in the workforce, people review material that covers similar subject matter so that they can create original work without "reinventing the wheel" or covering material that has already been detailed. They can get good ideas about what works and what does not work in the final presentation of material. However, it is important with each new project or assignment (whether academic or real-world) to start fresh and customize material each time. Customizing material takes a lot more work than just changing a few words. It takes additional research, as well as rethinking the material and presenting it so that original thoughts, ideas, facts, etc. are conveyed properly. If I were Diane and wanted to show my work to another student I would probably meet them for a little while and let them look over a hardcopy, then take it with me when I left. This way a person can get help, maybe ask some questions, talk over their ideas, but not actually sit down and copy someone else's work. There is value in collaboration, but it is important for people sharing their own work to take some protective measures.


 [top of page]



Case Study #7: Sharing in Class

Susan and Lucy are both international students from Narnia and in the same science class. Lucy has a strong grasp of the English language and is doing well in her classes. Susan's grasp of the English language is not nearly as strong as Lucy's. With Lucy's help, she's working hard to expand her standard English vocabulary, plus learn all of the science vocabulary. But Susan is having a hard time retaining the information, most likely because she isn't eating or sleeping well. One day, there is an exam in their science lab. Susan is having a hard time understanding what is being asked in the questions and therefore doesn't know what to put down for the answers. She starts to panic that she'll fail the lab and the class. The TA notices that Susan and Lucy are talking to each other in Narnian and he asks them what they are talking about. Lucy explains that she is only translating the questions for Susan. The TA asks them not to talk and if Susan has questions about the test, then she should bring them to him (the TA). Susan asks him about one of the questions, but the TA can't explain it without giving away the answer, so Susan goes back to her seat, uncertain what to do. Twice more during the exam, he catches Susan and Lucy talking in Narnian. Again, he tells them to stop talking. The TA knows Lucy is a solid student and thinks it is very possible that Lucy is only translating the question and is not providing Susan with the answers, but he isn't sure. He decides to report the situation to the professor who teaches this section.


Is this a case of academic dishonesty? What would you have done if you were in Lucy's place? How could the problem have been solved differently?

Response 1: Lucy put her own grade at risk by not doing as the TA said. Now both she and Susan could receive failing grades on the exam. It would have been better if Lucy and Susan had talked to the professor about Lucy's problems with English well before the exam. The professor might have been able to accommodate Lucy's needs better if he had know there was a problem.

Response 2: This is a very tough situation. I do not believe it was academic dishonesty, but it is a situation that should be avoided because it is so ambiguous. If Susan had a hearing or learning disability, she would be able to ask the Office of Disability services to arrange for extra accommodation. Although lack of English proficiency is not "recognized" as a disability, Susan might still want to speak with her advisor about her problems with English in the class. If this were early in the semester, it might make sense to receive extra tutoring in scientific English.

If I were an instructor, I would re-test Susan, possibly with a Narnian translator present. I would also speak with Lucy, but it would have to be a judgment call as to whether I thought she was being truthful.

Response 3: This is a situation where Lucy has allowed herself to be put into a compromising position. Her reputation is in jeopardy whether or not she is only translating the questions. Susan should have been tested (TOEFL) before being allowed to register for the class to see if she could handle the vocabulary. She also should communicate with the professor early in the duration of the course to make him or her aware of her challenges with the English language and science vocabulary. Early measures can be agreed upon between Susan and the professor so that she can be helped to study and pass the tests. If she cannot qualify properly due to her language problems, she should be directed to take some English language courses.



 [top of page]


Case Study #8: Using Old Papers


Last semester Ben took an ecology class and one of the papers he wrote was about the effects of DDT on bald eagles. This semester he is taking a wildlife biology class and realizes that his paper from last semester would work for one of the assignments for this semester, too.


Is it academic dishonesty for Ben to turn the same paper in twice? What is the best thing for Ben to do in this situation?

Response 1: Yes, it is dishonest for Ben to just turn in the same paper twice. It would be better if he talked to the professor about the assignment, explained that he has already written a paper, and perhaps propose ideas for further developing the paper that might also satisfy the requirements for the current assignment.

Response 2: Penn State policy says approval from an instructor should be gotten first. It is counter intuitive that you would be cheating with your own work, but the point is to make sure you put in a certain level of effort for each course. As an instructor, I would ask to see Ben's paper, and would more than likely require him to do further research to expand on the paper. This would be a great chance for Ben to follow-up more on a topic he was interested in previously.

Response 3: It is common practice for published writers to spend several weeks or months researching a subject and then write several articles on the same subject for publication in a variety of periodicals, using the same base of research material. It is NOT legal to sell the exact same article to more than one publisher unless the party holding the copyright (author) has sold particular rights specifying that the publisher can only publish the article once (reprint rights) and the original copyright holder retains the right to sell the work in its original form to another publisher. Very often a contract will specify a period of time that must pass before the copyright holder can resell the work in this manner.

In this case it is fine for Ben to use the research material he covered in a previous class to complete this assignment. But after completion, the assignment must be unrecognizable from the original paper. It is not okay to hand in the same paper for two different classes, even though the work is original. The purpose of education is to build and use skills, so if a student learns a skill and does not actually use it, but depends on work previously done, the full benefit of the knowledge goes untapped. So a student is really only hurting him- or herself in making this choice. At the very least, Ben can use the research material he used for the original paper again, and perhaps the bibliography, but he should rethink the content, structure, and presentation of concepts completely. It might be safest to choose a completely new subject and start from scratch.



 [top of page]


Case Study #9: Using Other's Writings

Shawn and Mimi are in the same program with about 40 other students. It is Mimi's first year in the program and Shawn's second year. This year Mimi has an assistantship in the same office where Shawn was an assistant last year. At some point, Mimi finds several papers that Shawn wrote last year on the hard drive of the office computer. She sees that one of the papers matches an assignment coming up soon; an assignment that Mimi sees as being a lot of detail work that she'll never use in the real world. Shawn's paper is well written and so Mimi lifts large sections of it and uses them in her paper. She turns it into the same faculty member who taught the class last year when Shawn took the course.


If you were Shawn and the faculty member called you in about the similarity in the papers, what would you say? What would your reaction be to Mimi?

Response 1: The best policy is honesty. Shawn should explain that he didn't give the paper to Mimi and doesn't know where she got it. As Shawn, I would be very angry with Mimi for taking my work and causing problems for me. I would ask her to go to the professor and tell the truth about where she got my paper.

Response 2: If I were Shawn, I would be angry for several reasons. One is Mimi was snooping around in my file space without my permission. Another is that she risked my being accused of academic dishonesty with a project I no doubt put in a lot of time and effort on.

Response 3: If I were Shawn and were called by the faculty member, I would explain that I had not been proactive in securing my files when I left the position Mimi took over. I might also add that I was unaware that she could access these files. If I spoke to Mimi about it, I would let her know that she had compromised my reputation and integrity by using my work without my permission, and suggest that she talk with the professor about it. I would also warn her that this behavior puts her own reputation and integrity in jeopardy.


What if the faculty member did not notice the text was plagiarized, but one night when you (if you were Shawn), Mimi, and some other people from your program are out socializing, Mimi told you what she had done. How would you react?

Response 1: I would be angry that Mimi had put me in such an awkward position and risked my academic standing by plagiarizing my paper. I would encourage her to go to the professor and confess. If she refused to do so, I would have to in order to stay out of trouble myself.

Response 2: If I found out after the fact, I might not turn Mimi in, but I probably would not trust her in the same way again.

Response 3: I would let Mimi know that this behavior not only compromises her own reputation and integrity, but also whoever might be the original creator of the work (in this case, Shawn). In some cases much more serious consequences can result, such as expulsion from the University. Out in the workforce, the consequences can cost the individual or the corporation the individual works for thousands of dollars in fines and royalty fees and many setbacks. In addition, it jeopardizes the company's status in the marketplace and the integrity of their reputation. In some cases, an individual can even be arrested and jailed.


 [top of page]

return to top | previous page | next page

We present here all seven cases of plagiarism and cheating discovered between the fourth (2011) and seventh (2014) classes of the Masters program, although other cases probably remained undetected because of limited surveillance, particularly before 2011. The information presented is based on the experiences of faculty directly handling the cases. All conversations with the students at fault took place in private settings, and class discussions about the events preserved their anonymity. All cases are described as male here to further support anonymity. Figure 1 summarizes key information of the cases and the response measures implemented by our program.

Plagiarism Case 5: Research Methods III Course, October 2013

One week after the class discussion of the previous case of plagiarism, the final assignment of a student (full thesis proposal) had several sections strongly suggestive of literal plagiarism. A Google® search evidenced that these paragraphs were identical to the content of several websites, including Wikipedia®. The program and course coordinator discussed the incident with the student, and after a long explanation of the definition of plagiarism, the student recognized having plagiarized inadvertently. Given the thorough discussion of plagiarism in the Research Integrity course, writing workshops, and the previous plagiarism case a week before, the student was failed in the course and separated from the program for the rest of the year. The event was reported to the university, and a misconduct report was filed in the student’s permanent academic record. When given the opportunity to address the class, the student described the case, accepted all responsibility for having plagiarized, and warned the class about the severity and importance of preventing plagiarism. The class recognized the severity of the event, but unanimously asked for a more lenient sanction, arguing that the student may have missed prior warnings. Despite accepting misconduct, the student argued the sanction was too harsh and presented a notarized letter requesting a formal decision. The student’s work supervisors contacted the program coordinator in coordination with the student, inquiring about the incident and the program’s response, and full details were provided. The university confirmed the sanction imposed by the program and the student recently contacted the program to try to finish the coursework. Prior to the event, the student had a low performance (ranked 24 of 26).

Most of the cases of plagiarism and cheating detected involved students with a record of suboptimal academic performance in the program. Indeed, 20 % of students in the lowest quartile of their class were involved in plagiarism and cheating compared to only 2 % of students in higher grade quartiles (risk ratio = 12.2; 95 % confidence interval: 2.5–60.2, Fisher’s exact p value = 0.008). Also, none of the four cases described above who actually completed their coursework later had successfully defended their dissertations. No cases were detected in the 2014 class, which suggests a very strong impact of the policy implemented, despite the fact that the reduction in the incidence of plagiarism and cheating is only marginally significant (Fisher’s exact p value = 0.187).

Discussion In three consecutive annual classes of our Epidemiology Masters in Peru, we detected five cases of plagiarism and two cases of cheating, including literal plagiarism, self-plagiarism, inappropriate sharing of work, and appropriation of other students’ work. We believe that these are not isolated events, but rather the manifestation of a widespread and frequent misconduct that has probably gone undetected beyond our program. This is consistent with the high rates of cheating and plagiarism reported worldwide among high school and undergraduate students (McCabe 2005; McCabe et al. 2001), including students of medical and allied health sciences (Rennie and Crosby 2001; Taradi et al. 2010). It is likely that plagiarism and cheating may originate in high school and undergraduate education, and continue to graduate education. Thus, the widespread occurrence of plagiarism at all levels of education suggests that prevention, detection and response to plagiarism should hold a much higher priority in academic institutions in contexts like Peru and Latin America.

Students committing plagiarism and cheating shared several predisposing characteristics, including poor awareness of research integrity and plagiarism, widespread deficiencies in writing and referencing skills, poor academic performance, and a high tolerance to plagiarism. However, a significant portion of the rest of the class also shared a limited awareness of research integrity and tolerance to plagiarism, and many students had difficulty in grasping research integrity concepts. This is consistent with previous reports evidencing insufficient knowledge of RCR and plagiarism in graduate students in the U.S., particularly among international graduates (Heitman et al. 2007; Ryan et al. 2009). These knowledge gaps may be particularly severe in Latin America, where shortcomings in higher education neglect the discussion of plagiarism and academic and research integrity. In addition, lack of development of analytic and writing skills may lead some students to use plagiarism as a maladaptive, compensatory writing strategy. The situation is further complicated by a widespread tolerance to plagiarism throughout the education system in Latin America (Vasconcelos et al. 2009; Heitman and Litewka 2011). In Peru, for example, the National Assembly of Rectors reduced the sanction of two undergraduate law students guilty of literal plagiarism from a semester suspension to a simple reprimand, arguing that “copying without indicating the source is a natural behavior in students” (Tantaleán Odar 2014), and that “teaching consists fundamentally in a constant repetition of external ideas, often omitting the sources for brevity” (Tantaleán Odar 2014). Furthermore, several authors have reported that a large proportion of undergraduate research and approved theses contain plagiarism (Saldana-Gastulo et al. 2010; Huamani et al. 2008). The synergic effect of limited awareness of plagiarism, RCR, and scientific writing, and the widespread tolerance to plagiarism highlights the need to couple intensive anti-plagiarism education with stronger response policies.

Any attempt to expunge plagiarism is unlikely to succeed without institutional commitment with scientific integrity (Whitley and Keith-Spiegel 2001; Park 2004). Institutions should have a transparent, comprehensive and uniformly applied policy that is embedded in a context of promotion of academic integrity. UPCH has an established institutional policy against academic misconduct, which is supplemented by the regulations of each school (Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia 2009). However, such a framework focuses almost exclusively on punitive aspects, neglecting preventive and detection strategies. Additionally, regulations have not been widely disseminated and/or discussed across the university’s academic programs, and their application seems inconsistent across programs. Nevertheless, our findings are probably not an isolated case, as lack of comprehensive policies against and widespread tolerance to plagiarism appear to be nearly universal in educational institutions in countries such as Peru. Thus, the institutions’ commitment and proactivity to address plagiarism is critical for the implementation of any effective and sustainable intervention against cases of plagiarism in the future. As a program, we are disappointed to see our students falling due to misconduct, but are not embarrassed to admit we had these issues. We believe many other programs face the same challenges and should come forward to admit it openly and therefore create greater awareness and response.

In this complex scenario, we adopted a “zero tolerance” policy against plagiarism (Titus et al. 2008), in which we actively searched for potential research misconduct and all suspected cases are reported, investigated and sanctioned as dictated by the severity of the case. Although there is no current consensus worldwide on the best way to respond to plagiarism findings, we believe that a zero tolerance approach is the most acceptable alternative, as it results in a clear, strong message that plagiarism and other forms of research misconduct are wrong and can never be justified. In low-resource settings, resource constraints and dependence on external funding may discourage investigating apparently “mild” cases to avoid the associated costs and potential damages in reputation. However, the long term adverse consequences of tolerating plagiarism and therefore graduating student with poor RCR knowledge, outweigh any of these short term apparent benefits. None of the students who committed/attempted plagiarism were known to engage in further events during the program and no additional misconduct events have been detected in the 2014 class.

Our “zero tolerance” policy was actively complemented by intensive education on research integrity and scientific writing. Also, policies were reinforced through discussion sessions, written statements describing the policy in all course syllabi, and a modified honor code in the form of a signed agreement to maintain research and academic integrity and report any observed cases. Honor codes constitute a simple, low-cost strategy that has been shown to prevent academic misconduct (McCabe et al. 2001). However, our experience collaborating with several Latin American educational institutions, has led us to believe that honor codes are not frequently used in Latin America. Furthermore, we feel that although many Latin American educational institutions may have codes of conduct, these are probably not discussed with students, faculty and researchers. We feel that signing a short but very clear and explicit honor code may be a more effective alternative for preventing misconduct by directly engaging students and all the academic and scientific community.

Education in the RCR is a critical pillar for maintaining research integrity and preventing plagiarism (Steneck and Bulger 2007; Kalichman 2007), and comprised the medullar aspect of our policy. Seminars on plagiarism and scientific writing were upgraded into an obligatory course on research integrity. Short online research integrity courses were used as additional activities, including both the required CITI basic RCR course for biomedical researchers (Braunschweiger and Goodman 2007; Litewka et al. 2008), as well as the optional, free, online RCR course recently created by UPCH and NAMRU-6 ( The definition, forms, implications and case studies of plagiarism were thoroughly discussed, and practical advice was given on preventing plagiarism (Roig 2009; Fischer and Zigmond 2011). Frequent maladaptive forms of writing, such as “patchwriting”, in which original and borrowed text are intermixed (Cameron et al. 2012), and “copy/paste” were thoroughly discussed, emphasizing their intimate relation to plagiarism. Students were advised to express ideas taken from external sources in their own words, always linking each idea to its original source, and never to copy and paste. Other educative interventions implemented included: (i) breaking down extensive written assignments into multiple, smaller assignments, to allow the incremental development of writing skills (Fischer and Zigmond 2011); (ii) provision of templates, so that students have a clear idea of what is expected for each assignment (Fischer and Zigmond 2011); (iii) review of progress in an increased number of writing workshops, to provide detailed and timely guidance, allow early detection and correction of maladaptive writing strategies (Fischer and Zigmond 2011); and, (iv) requirement of more student-advisor meetings, in order to increase the oversight of the students’ work, and promote mentoring, an important strategy for maintaining research integrity (Anderson et al. 2007).

As a complement to educative interventions, we now screen academic products for plagiarism (Barret et al. 2003; McKeever 2006) using widely-available search engines (e.g. Google®) (McKeever 2006). Searching actively for plagiarism allowed close monitoring the policy’s efficacy, and early identification and guidance of students with inadequate referencing skills (Barret et al. 2003; McKeever 2006). This measure closely parallels the routine screening of submissions that has been increasingly implemented by scientific journals (Butler 2010). In Peru, NAMRU-6 requires that the final version of all articles reporting research conducted at the institution is checked for plagiarism before being submitted using iThenticate® (Andres G. Lescano personal communication, April 2015). In our program, plagiarism is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, after investigation and discussion among all coordinators and the faculty involved in the case. Penalties were also defined individually, following the program and university’s policy, and were complemented with rehabilitative measures (Whitley and Keith-Spiegel 2001), such as intensive counseling by an experienced faculty and remedial educative activities.

The case study approach we adopted does not allow a formal evaluation of the efficacy of our program’s policy against plagiarism and cheating, but it may expand the extant literature in Latin America. Our experience delivered several important learning points. First, plagiarism seems to be widespread, likely involving all stages of the educative system. Second, it is possible to implement a “zero tolerance” plagiarism prevention policy with a strong educational component in postgraduate research programs. We implemented a promising, feasible, low-cost policy tailored for postgraduate research students in Latin America, with the aim to offer educators and researchers practical alternatives to prevent and address plagiarism that they could continue to evaluate in their practice. Third, key features associated with plagiarism in Latin America that should be considered when discussing plagiarism in the classroom include the unawareness of plagiarism and its implications, the pervasiveness of poorly-developed writing skills, and the extensive use of “patchwriting” and “copy/paste”. Fourth, students with low academic performance may be at higher risk of committing plagiarism, and implement personalized tutoring and close surveillance to prevent them from plagiarizing. Given that our experience pertains a taught Masters program that receives students from several Latin American countries, we believe that our findings are applicable to postgraduate research students in Latin America. However, we emphasize that our findings may also be useful for educators and postgraduate research programs in other resource-limited, non-English speaking settings after critical assessment and a context-sensitive adaptation. Finally, it is urgent that educative institutions at all levels recognize the frequent occurrence of academic and research misconduct and integrity as an active, institutional duty. Furthermore, as the methods for engaging in dishonesty have expanded in the Internet era, preventive approaches coupled with zero tolerance for plagiarism and cheating will have a major role for controlling academic and research misconduct, even in low resource settings (Grieger 2007).