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Preventing Cheating & Plagiarism as an Online Student

Learn how to recognize academic dishonesty in all its forms, get advice for avoiding unintentional cheating, and gather resources that can help you stay honest as an online student.

A smiling woman with glasses, wearing a striped shirt, seated in front of a laptop in a modern office setting, looking away from the screen.

You’ve always known that cheating in school can land you in hot water. In elementary school, getting caught cheating may have resulted in a call to your parents and in high school, you may have found yourself stuck in detention, but what about college? Students may be surprised to learn that cheating in college is often taken much more seriously. It can even result in expulsion in some cases. But in the online learning landscape where you’re offered the privilege of less supervision, how can you be sure to avoid academic dishonesty?

Cheating in college means cheating yourself out of the quality education you’re paying tuition for. It can mean putting yourself at risk of failing a course, losing your scholarship, or even getting kicked out of school for good. With so many forms of both intentional and unintentional cheating and plagiarism, learning how to recognize and avoid each of them is crucial. Learn how you can spot academic dishonesty in yourself and others and gather valuable resources that can help you stop cheating in its tracks.

Cheating Online: Forms of Academic Dishonesty

One of the best ways to avoid academic dishonesty is to understand its various forms. Many students don’t know they’re doing something wrong initially, making being able to recognize the signs all the more important. Ten common types of academic dishonesty are detailed below to help you identify online cheating.

Academic misconduct

Some of the most common forms of academic misconduct include obtaining a copy of an exam before taking it, changing your grade in a professor’s grade book, and working past the designated time limit on an exam. This shady behavior not only puts you at risk for academic discipline but also cheats you out of the opportunity to develop knowledge in your discipline.

The consequences of academic misconduct go beyond your specific academic pursuits too. You’ll also lose self-respect and fail to develop your critical thinking skills. Avoid these behaviors at all costs, and tell your professor if you see someone engaging in them.


While rare, students and professors should always stay alert to any instances of bribery in academic settings. This type of misconduct occurs when a student or professor tries to bribe another party in exchange for money, services, goods, a better grade, etc.

Students bribe professors by offering something they want in exchange for a passing score or the option to bypass a particular assignment. Professors can bribe students, too, by offering an academic advantage in exchange for something they want. Accepting bribes can lead to immediate dismissal for both students and faculty members.


Collusion occurs when two or more students work together on an assignment that calls for individual effort. If you’re taking a chemistry class and struggling with an assignment, for example, asking for help from your friend who is a chemistry major and would easily understand the topic is considered collusion.

Any independent projects must be the work of you and you alone, representing what you understand about the subject and giving professors the information needed to grade you on your efforts fairly. While you can certainly discuss ideas and materials with your classmates, you should not ask for their help on specific assignments.


Deception happens when you knowingly provide misleading information to a professor or other member of the school community. For instance, telling a professor you need an extension on an assignment because a family member is in the hospital when they aren’t qualifies as deception.

Further, online learning provides unique opportunities for deception. For example, perhaps you turned in an assignment late but the learning management system glitched and showed it was on time. This is deception if you fail to acknowledge the glitch even though you did not set out to deceive.

Double submission

Double submissions occur when students use any material they previously submitted in another class or a different institution for a new assignment. Even if you rewrite parts of the old submission, it is still considered a double submission and should be avoided.

The exception to the double submission rule is if you have similar assignments for different classes. In this case, go to both professors, explain the situation, and see if they will provide approval for submitting the same (or similar) papers for both classes. You must receive approval before using this option.


When students knowingly falsify or make up data, citations, or other supposed facts as part of an academic assignment, they are guilty of fabrication/falsification. For instance, suppose a student writing a history paper slightly changes a quote or fact to fit their thesis better. This is a falsification of data and can lead to harsh penalties. Another example is a science student changing the results of an experiment to get a better result. Professors study their academic subjects for decades, making it unlikely that a student could mislead them or use falsified information.


Impersonation happens when someone other than the student meant to complete a task, assignment, or exam does it on their behalf. It also includes attending a class on behalf of another learner.

While anti-cheating software makes it easier for schools to conduct digital proctoring through computer cameras used to observe students while taking exams, essay mills continue to exist. These allow students to pay others to write papers for them and turn in the work as their own.


If you intentionally or unintentionally use the words or ideas of others, fail to give proper credit, and try to pass them off as your own, you commit plagiarism. While it’s fine to use quotations or write about how someone else viewed a particular idea, failing to cite their contribution properly is considered plagiarism.

Many colleges and universities use anti-plagiarism software that scans papers against massive databases to see if any uncited work appears in the paper. That said, some information is considered common knowledge and does not require citation. For instance, if you read in a book that World War I started in 1914, you do not need to cite this as it’s considered common knowledge. If you’re unsure, cite the source to be on the safe side.

Using forbidden resources/tools

This type of misconduct includes using tools like improper calculators or computers, smartphones, or other technology not approved for exams. It also involves storing answers, formulas, or other information on approved computers or calculators and using them during an exam.

Using forbidden resources/tools is often easier for online students who can more easily alter the environment outside of a professor’s field of vision (i.e., the camera’s view). Examples of forbidden resources include using the internet or textbooks during exams prohibiting these types of aids. Obtaining test questions or answers from students who took the test earlier or accepting help from peers with knowledge of the exam are other examples.

Other types of cheating

Other types of academic misconduct include misrepresentation, sabotage, and disruptive behavior. Sabotage occurs when students attempt to prevent others from completing their work, either by tampering with books from the library or stealing their materials.

Misrepresentation occurs when you lie to professors, either about your work or when faced with charges of academic dishonesty. Disruptive behavior is any type of behavior that makes it more difficult for fellow students to learn, including disrespectful behavior or sharing inappropriate material on the learning management system.

How to Prevent Plagiarism: Avoiding Accidental Appropriation

Plagiarism is an ongoing problem in both campus-based and online learning settings, especially for students who don’t understand the types of plagiarism, both intentional and unintentional, they can commit. Familiarize yourself with the types of plagiarism to prepare yourself for avoiding accidental appropriation.

Types of Plagiarism

There are several types of plagiarism. Some are more explicit than others, but each is wrong and should be avoided. Below are descriptions of the various forms of plagiarism.

Complete plagiarism

Akin to stealing and/or intellectual property theft, complete plagiarism occurs when students take a complete work from someone else (e.g., manuscript, essay, or research study) and claim it as their own. The most severe forms of punishment usually come with complete plagiarism.

Source-based plagiarism

Engaging in source-based plagiarism means fabricating or otherwise being dishonest about the sources used in academic work. This involves knowingly mislabeling an actual source or creating a fictional source to serve your purposes. Similarly, failing to cite both primary and secondary sources falls under this category.

Direct plagiarism

When you transcribe another person’s exact words without giving them attribution and including quotation marks, this constitutes direct plagiarism. Using the words of others is perfectly acceptable, but you must properly cite them.


This type of plagiarism happens when a student uses a part or whole of previous work without receiving permission from all professors involved. If you wrote a paper in high school that could work for a college assignment, you can only use it if you get permission from your high school teacher and your current professor. Otherwise, it’s self-plagiarism.

Paraphrasing plagiarism

The most common type of plagiarism, paraphrasing plagiarism occurs when you slightly change the wording or structure of a phrase or sentence belonging to someone else but do not put it in quotations or provide a citation. As long as the original idea remains, you must give credit to the original author to avoid plagiarism.

Inaccurate authorship

Inaccurate authorship takes two forms: either failing to provide credit for contributions or providing credit for work that an individual didn’t actually write. You should acknowledge every contributor to a piece of work fairly and accordingly.

Mosaic plagiarism

Also known as patch-writing, mosaic plagiarism occurs when you use the same ideas and structure as someone else but rewrite it slightly using synonyms and other similar words. Whether borrowing a phrase or a whole passage, you still need to credit the idea to the original author.

Intentional vs. Accidental Plagiarism

Intentional and accidental plagiarism are both serious offenses, but professors typically have more grace for first-time offenses within accidental plagiarism. Make sure you understand the differences between the two and try to avoid both.

Accidental plagiarism

Accidental plagiarism occurs when you mistakenly don’t give proper credit to the original author of a book, research, or idea. Unintentional plagiarism takes many forms, making it easier to unknowingly make this mistake. Examples include:

  • Failing to cite your sources or citing them incorrectly
  • Forgetting to cite information you paraphrased from another author
  • Using a questionable online source that appears scholarly but lacks proper citations itself

Though unintentional, accidental plagiarism can still involve repercussions. It’s a student’s responsibility to check an assignment for plagiarism before submitting it.

Intentional plagiarism

Intentional plagiarism is knowingly and willfully using someone else’s work (or your own previous work) without giving proper credit. While accidental plagiarism may still have a penalty, it is a far less serious offense than intentionally misrepresenting another’s work as your own. Examples of intentional plagiarism include:

  • Buying a paper from an essay mill and passing it off as your own
  • Using someone else’s research, writing, or ideas in your assignment, intentionally not citing them, and trying to pass them off as your own
  • Reusing a paper you previously wrote and turned in for another assignment, whether from high school or college, without receiving the expressed approval of all teachers/professors involved

Strategies to Prevent Plagiarism

Following the plagiarism prevention strategies highlighted below can help you avoid a costly and embarrassing mistake.

  • Track sources
    Keeping both a “works consulted” and a “works cited” list while you conduct research ensures you don’t forget to include any resource when building a bibliography.
  • Use quotation marks
    It’s okay to cite others in your work, but get in the habit of writing direct quotes with the appropriate marks around them to signify they belong to someone else.
  • Follow all citation criteria
    In addition to creating a bibliography comprising all the sources you used, also provide the correct in-text citations based on the required citation style.
  • Read and re-read
    As you edit and proofread your assignment before turning it in, ask yourself if any uncited or unquoted parts of the project are not your original ideas.
  • Use a plagiarism checker
    Upload your paper to a plagiarism checker, like those reviewed below, to see if any hits come up on unsourced materials in the assignment. If they do, find the original source, and cite the material properly.

Tools to Detect Plagiarism

Some students are terrified of the idea they could accidentally plagiarize. The reality is, though, that sometimes you forget to include quotation marks or absentmindedly omit a citation from your bibliography. Fortunately, tools exist to detect plagiarism and help you correct the mistake before turning in your assignment.

Advertised specifically for colleges, you can get 20 scans each month for free without entering a credit card. Features include multiple language scanning, various file format usage, and accessibility through all types of devices.

Dupli allows you to check one document of up to 1,500 words each day for free and does not require registration. You can either copy and paste it into a text box or upload a document.

In addition to providing professional editing services, Grammarly Premium includes a plagiarism checker that compares your work to billions of online text and academic papers. The program costs $12 per month with no minimum contract.

Developed especially for university students, Turnitin offers a great and easy way to ensure you don’t plagiarize another’s work. The app provides a score based on how much overlap text is found in your document, and it is currently free for students.

This tool operates online via cloud computing, so you don’t need to download any special apps to use it. The program provides a plagiarism report after scanning the document and highlighting any unoriginal text. You get a 275-word free trial before having to pay $4.99/month for a subscription.

What Happens When You Cheat? 7 Potential Consequences of Academic Dishonesty

In addition to cheating yourself out of the opportunity to build important skills and knowledge, colleges have a spectrum of consequences to teach you that academic dishonesty never pays. Below are some of the most common repercussions.

  1. It can result in a failing grade for the assignment or the entire course

Professors are well within their rights to penalize you for cheating. Depending on the severity of the misconduct, you may receive a failing grade for the assignment or even the entire course. While something like accidental plagiarism may result in the former, intentional plagiarism can result in expulsion from the class.

  1. It can mean a mandatory anti-cheating course

Many colleges and universities require students caught being academically dishonest to participate in a mandatory anti-cheating course to stay at the institution. While this can potentially save you from failing a full course or being kicked out of the school, it will add to your course load. Still, it’s a small price to pay for a second chance.

  1. It can end in school suspension or even expulsion

Serious instances of cheating such as impersonating another student, intentionally plagiarizing, or falsifying data can lead to dire repercussions, including suspension or expulsion. If it’s your first offense, the school may bar you for a semester. If it’s a second or higher offense, the school may ask you to withdraw.

  1. It can damage your academic reputation

Even if you don’t get suspended or expelled, cheating leaves a permanent stain on your academic reputation. Professors talk, and they know that you previously cheated in a class. They will see you differently and may be unwilling to write you letters of recommendation for graduate school or a prospective job.

  1. It can affect your job search

If an employee asks to see your academic transcript, they have the potential to notice that you had an issue with academic dishonesty while in school. Even if they don’t learn the truth from your transcript, they may notice that you don’t possess the same skills and knowledge as candidates who earned their degrees through honest hard work, especially if cheating was a regular habit for you.

  1. It can cost you your scholarship

Because many scholarships are awarded based on merit, scholarship committees who discover a student didn’t earn the funding on their own merit are well within their rights to take away the award. Some could even require you to repay funding already received if demonstrable cheating happened during an earlier period of funding.

  1. It can have legal consequences

Stealing the intellectual property of others can result in legal consequences, as original authors seek damages in the form of money. If you’re working on an outside student-consultancy project with a real-world client, cheating and plagiarism can also result in formal action if your behavior damages that organization.

Resources for Steering Clear of Cheating in College

The Writing Cooperative provides this comprehensive page to help you think through the writing process and attribute all your sources correctly.

Luther College examines the many forms of academic dishonesty before offering actionable ideas on how to keep yourself on the right side of university rules.

The UCLA Library offers this extensive list of ways to ensure you properly cite all your sources according to set style guides.

The University of the People looks at the harm cheating causes both you and others.

The University of Sussex looks at this sometimes-confusing form of cheating and offers concrete steps to make sure you don’t accidentally collude with another student.

Grammarly provides this handy list of tips and tricks to make sure you don’t plagiarize the works of others.

California State University in San Marcos offers these tips tailored to learners who want to avoid both intentional and accidental cheating.

Northern Illinois University shares these ideas specifically for faculty members teaching online classes who want to limit opportunities to cheat on tests and homework.