Plagiarism: A Behavioral Perspective

By Harla B. Frank, M.S., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

And, after all, what is originality?  It is merely undetected plagiarism . . . . Herbert Paul

Herbert Paul may have made the point that there is “nothing new under the sun,” in his view of originality, but as editors and professors know, plagiarism is a serious behavior in which one steals the intellectual property of another and passes it off as one’s own.   Donald McCabe, Rutgers University, conducted a 12-year study, 2002-2015, in which he utilized anonymous surveys to solicit information regarding the cheating behavior of 71,300 undergraduate and 17,000 graduate students (International Center for Academic Integrity [ICAI], n.d.).  What McCabe’s study found was alarming.  Thirty-nine percent of undergraduate, and seventeen percent of graduate, students admitted to cheating on tests (ICAI, n.d.).  Sixty-two percent of undergraduate, and forty percent of graduate, students admitted to cheating on written assignments (ICAI, n.d.).  There have been many researchers who have recommended strategies to curb, if not extinguish, academic dishonesty, such as, utilizing essay questions rather than multiple choice; randomizing seating on exam days; and spreading out desks so there is less proximity between students (Schiming, n.d.).  These antecedent modifications are good starting points in the effort to reduce academic dishonesty; however, it is important to work to identify the variables that may contribute to academic dishonesty, which is occurring in such large numbers.

No discussion of behavior is complete without an understanding of the function a target behavior serves for the individual.  In order to determine probable function, we must examine the variables surrounding the behavior, i.e., the antecedents and consequences – as well as the motivating operations. Due to the vast number of individuals committing plagiarism, it would be quite difficult to conduct a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) on each; but, by looking at the common antecedents and consequences of academic dishonesty, we can hypothesize the function.

Let us examine a hypothetical scenario in an online degree program.  The student is married, has three children, and is employed full time.  Indeed, one of the reasons she chose online higher education is because of her busy schedule.  She squeezes in her college work before she awakens the family in the morning and after the children are tucked in bed at night.  She is exhausted!  It is now the third week of the new semester and she has managed to keep up with the weekly reading assignments and the course discussions, but the third week presents another challenge, i.e., a major assignment, written in APA Style, that must be 3-6 pages in length.  She considers dropping the course because she does not know where she will find the time or energy to tackle it.

As she begins her Internet research to prepare to write the paper, she discovers that there are multiple sites advertising homework for a fee.  At that point, the baby wakes up with a high fever, and the student rushes the baby to an urgent care facility.  As she arrives home at 3:00 a.m., having been up since 5:00 a.m. to do homework, she considers her options . . . . hmmm, “homework for hire.”

The motivating operations for plagiarism/academic dishonesty are apparent, i.e., time is at a premium and so is energy.  So, does this deprivation of time and energy make the student more inclined to consider paying for a paper?  You bet it does!  But, motivating operations are not the only variables at work – so too are negative and positive reinforcement; response effort; and delayed consequences.

The hypothetical scenario presented above is more realistic than one might think.  Many nontraditional students are working to earn their degrees online due to family and employment obligations.  According to U.S. News and World Report, the “need to play multiple roles at once” has contributed to the “growth of online education” (Bidwell, 2014, para. 10).  Quite often, these students find themselves struggling to keep up about halfway into the term as the demands of the classroom become more intense.   The motivating operations may vary slightly from student-to-student, but there are commonalities with regard to the discriminative stimuli (Sᴰ) that trigger academic dishonesty.  First, the Sᴰ is the demand to complete the assignment; then, the student pays someone else to complete the assignment; finally, the student’s behavior is negatively reinforced by having escaped the aversive stimulus (assignment).  But, there also exists, in this scenario, positive reinforcement in the form of gained time to sleep, be with family, or catch up on work from another course. Embedded in this three-term contingency is another variable, i.e., response effort.

In Friman and Poling’s 1995 study of response effort, they point out that basic research reveals that as response effort increases, the behavior decreases.  Referring back to our hypothetical scenario, we see that as the demands of family and job increased simultaneously with the increase in class work, the student’s behavior of independently completing assignments decreased.  Abellon and Wilder (2014) conducted a study on the reduction of response effort to increase workers’ use of safety glasses in specific areas of a manufacturing facility.  They found that by reducing the distance employees had to walk to obtain their safety glasses, there was an average increase in their use by 86% over a baseline low average of 5.4% (Abellon & Wilder, 2014).  It is obvious that response effort plays a role in human behavior, as does the issue of delayed consequences.

The impact of a consequence on behavior varies based upon the immediacy of that consequence.  Typically, the greater the delay, the lesser the influence (Meindl & Casey, 2012).  The effect of delayed consequences can be seen in many behaviors that are considered risky, such as smoking.  Information on the dangers of smoking to one’s health has been trumpeted for at least four decades, yet individuals still choose to smoke.  What could these individuals possibly be thinking?  It seems that the immediate, reinforcing physical response to the nicotine exerts more power over the smoking behavior than do the possible punishing health risks that may or may not occur in the far distant future (Pierce & Cheney, 2008).  The effect of immediate reinforcement versus delayed possible punishment holds true for academic dishonesty as well.  The student chooses to buy a paper to turn into her psychology class and her behavior is immediately negatively reinforced by escaping the aversive process of researching and then writing the paper.  Her behavior is also positively reinforced by having the time that would have been devoted to the research and writing process for activities that she considers to be more pleasant.  The academic dishonesty is maintained by more than the stated negative and positive reinforcement, however; it is also maintained by the differences in response effort.  The student expends much less energy purchasing a paper than having to research and write one.  These three variables alone are enough to maintain the cheating behavior, but there is also the variable of delayed consequences.  The student knows that her academic dishonesty has never been discovered and, assuming the past predicts the future, is unconcerned with the possible punishing consequences of failing a course or being expelled from the university.  Just as the possible punishing consequences of smoking in the distant future have little control over the behavior, so too does the possible consequences of discovery of academic dishonesty have little effect on the behavior.

In the hypothetical case scenario presented, the perfect storm of motivating operations; negative and positive reinforcement; response effort; and delayed consequences come together to maintain academic dishonesty.  This same “scenario” is playing out in colleges and universities throughout the country.  If nothing is done to curtail this storm, graduates will begin their careers having none of the skills needed to succeed.  What can be done?  That question will be addressed in the next article.

Do you have any experiences with academic dishonesty at your institution?  Share them in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Abellon, O. E., & Wilder, D. A.  (2014). The effect of equipment proximity on safe performance in a manufacturing setting.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 47, 628-632.

Bidwell, A.  (2014). Older college students face challenges.  Retrieved from

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L.  (2007). Applied behavior analysis (2nd ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Friman, P. C., & Poling, A.  (1995). Making life easier with effort: Basic findings and applied research on response effort.  Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28, 583-590.

International Center for Academic Integrity.  (n.d.).  Statistics.  Retrieved from

Meindl, J. N. & Casey, L. B.  (2012). Increasing the suppressive effect of delayed punishers: A review of basic and applied literature.  Behavioral Interventions, 27, 129-150.

Paul, H.  (1896). The decay of classical quotation.  The Nineteenth Century, 39, 636-645.

Pierce, W. D., & Cheney, C. D.  (2008). Behavior analysis and learning (4th ed.).  New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Schiming, R. C.  (n.d.).  Academic dishonesty.  Retrieved from


Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA earned her Master’s degree in Psychology, with an emphasis in Applied Behavior Analysis, from Florida State University.  Since receiving her certification as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) in 2007, she has worked primarily with children and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, but has also worked with adults with a variety of diagnoses and needs. She has served as an expert witness for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) in the Colorado court system and has had the privilege of providing “ABA approaches” training to foster care staff and families.

Since 2010, Harla has taught ABA course sequences, as well as general psychology courses, for Kaplan University.  Currently, she also contracts with a pediatric home healthcare company in Denver to provide ABA therapy to children with a variety of diagnoses. You can contact her at

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  1. One issue I have found (at no particular institution – it appears to be a near-universal deficit) is in the definition of plagiarism. Most students can tact the punishing contingencies attached to photocopying someone else’s paper or peeking at a neighbor’s test, but many fewer are aware that taking 2-3 sentences directly from their textbook, without proper citation, constitutes plagiarism. If we are to truly combat this epidemic behaviorally, we need to start with a clear operational definition and ensure that our students know it.

    • Hi Michele,
      Thank you so much for your insightful comment! It actually gave me “food for thought” – perhaps the seed for a future follow-up article. 🙂 I completely agree that we need to “educate the masses” and formulating an operational definition of “plagiarism” is certainly the place to start. Even in academia, we have numerous synonyms that we use for “plagiarism” – “Academic dishonesty” is one of my personal favorites. We do need to compartmentalize the various transgressions and design tight operational definitions for each. It is really the only way we can get accurate data on the incidence. (P.S. If I write that follow-up article, I’ll be sure to cite your comment. 🙂

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