We predicted (H1) that negative affect would predict plagiarism intentions mediated by positive attitudes toward plagiarism, subjective plagiarism norms, and, in Study 2, self-control. In both Studies 1 and 2, negative affect predicted subjective plagiarism norms, which predicted plagiarism intentions. Furthermore, when self-control was measured in Study 2, it also mediated the relationship between negative affect and plagiarism intentions. In addition to these findings, as predicted (H2), plagiarism intentions predicted plagiarism behaviour in both studies. Interestingly, however, in both studies, there was no indirect effect of negative affect on plagiarism behaviour through positive plagiarism attitudes and intentions. Moreover, in both studies, negative affect directly predicted plagiarism behaviour in addition to its prediction of the mediators.
The results of the present studies are an incremental advance on previous findings, which indicated that negative affect predicts plagiarism attitudes and subjective norms (Fu and Tremayne 2021; Ives 2020; Tindall and Curtis 2020). In particular, the present studies demonstrated that negative affect predicts plagiarism intentions and plagiarism behaviour; partly mediated by self-control and perceived norms. Previous studies, such as Fu and Tremayne’s (2021) and Tindall and Curtis’s (2020), had not examined plagiarism behaviour, and it thus remained an open question whether students’ negative emotions were related to academic integrity breaches. Although Karim et al. (2009) had linked trait neuroticism with plagiarism behaviour, they did not assess whether there was a relationship between current emotional states and academic misconduct, or whether the neuroticism-plagiarism relationship was mediated by attitudes, norms, self-control, or intentions.
The questions examined in the present studies were also interesting theoretically, given that the connection between attitudes and behaviour can be tenuous (Kraus 1995). Moreover, authors have argued that affect should be considered in predicting unethical behaviours (van Gelder 2013) and components of the TPB (Schwarz 1997). In addition, the research was interesting practically, because if negative affect was unrelated to plagiarism behaviour, there would be little pragmatic impact on academic integrity of ameliorating these emotions among students. However, the relationship between negative emotionality and plagiarism behaviour suggests potential interventions. Therefore, the findings of the current studies are valuable on two fronts, theoretical and practical.
In Studies 1 and 2, subjective norms both directly and indirectly predicted plagiarism behaviours via intentions. The relationship between intentions and plagiarism behaviour supports the growing body of research (e.g. Alleyne and Phillips 2011; Curtis et al. 2018) utilising the TPB (Ajzen 1991) when explaining engagement in academic misconduct. The involvement of intentions in predicting plagiarism behaviour indicates that plagiarism can occur consciously, as intentions are, by definition, conscious plans (Curtis et al. 2018). However, the direct pathways found between negative affect and plagiarism behaviours, and between subjective norms and plagiarism behaviours – both bypassing intentions, also suggests that plagiarism may be influenced by factors that reside outside of students’ conscious awareness (Curtis et al. 2018).
In criminological theories, it is often argued that conscious reasons people hold to justify behaviours are critical for explaining unethical conduct (e.g. Rundle et al. 2019). However, van Gelder (2013) argued that emotions, in addition to cognitions, may account for unethical decision-making. The impact of emotions on unethical decisions (i.e. plagiarism intentions and behaviour) observed in our studies lend further support to this perspective. Similarly, Schwarz (1997) contended that emotions may directly predict behaviour, bypassing attitudes and intentions in a TPB-based analysis, as observed in our study. Indeed, the capacity of emotions to directly predict academic misconduct behaviour may account for the surprising lack of an indirect effect of negative emotions on academic misconduct behaviour mediated by attitudes in our studies.
The finding of Study 2, that self-control predicted plagiarism intentions, which then predicted plagiarism behaviour, is also important theoretically. It was argued by Curtis et al. (2018) that self-control; specific to an individual’s ability to stop themselves from engaging in plagiarism, can replace perceived behavioural control within the TPB. The findings of Study 2 adds support to this perspective and are also consistent with the General Theory of Crime (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990), which states that unethical behaviours occur via an interplay between the opportunity to act unethically and deficits in self-control. Although our studies examined self-control, they did not examine opportunities to engage in academic misconduct. Nonetheless, from the General Theory of Crime, it can be suggested that self-control deficits attributable to negative emotions may not necessarily lead to academic misconduct if opportunities to engage in academic misconduct are limited, such as by assessment design.
The finding that negative affect was related to plagiarism behaviours, intentions, and plagiarism attitudes, and also self-control (in Study 2), is important practically to higher education teachers and policymakers. Interventions specific to individual-level treatment and organisational changes should be considered to reduce negative emotionality within these settings. Specifically, higher education providers should implement programs focusing on reducing mental health problems associated with negative affect, such as stress, anxiety, and depression (see Rith-Najarian et al. 2019). For instance, increasing access to counselling, stress management workshops, and educating students on coping skills might reduce negative emotionality (Rith-Najarian et al. 2019) and subsequently reduce plagiarism behaviours.
Broader organisational change should also be implemented to reduce negative emotionality. For example, heavily-weighted assessment items are associated with cheating (Bretag et al. 2019), and this may be because high-stakes assessments create negative emotionality such as stress. Thus, the impact of student stress on assessment design, weighting, and timing could be considered as a risk to academic integrity that may be mitigated via redesign. Similarly, students studying in their non-native language may be more likely to cheat (Bretag et al. 2019; Curtis et al. 2021), which may be partly attributable to the stresses of studying away from home and/or in another language. Thus, language support to non-native speakers may incidentally help with such stresses and consequentially mitigate some pressure to engage in academic misconduct.
Moreover, higher education institutions can also express support for academic integrity standards in words (e.g. honour codes) and actions (e.g. specific academic integrity education; e.g. Curtis et al. 2020), which will help set expected norms for students (Simola 2017). Such norms may also be reinforced by emphasising to students the potential impact of academic misconduct on the reputation of their qualifications. Additionally, considering the findings of Study 2, assessments and classroom activities should seek to foster students’ self-control (e.g., Oaten and Cheng 2006).
Limitations and future research
The methods used in this paper relied on self-reports of academic misconduct. Recent research suggests that self-reports may underestimate the prevalence of academic misconduct (Curtis et al. 2021). However, other studies, such as Curtis et al. (2018), suggest that underreporting may change the “level” of observed misconduct, but not the relationship among variables such as attitudes, norms, intentions, and behaviour. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the average level of academic misconduct reported by students in our studies may be below the true figure.
In Study 1, there was no check on whether socially-desirable responding patterns could have influenced the results (Van de Mortel 2008). In Study 2, however, the potential impact of social-desirability bias on responses was minimised through the inclusion of the Constructive Thinking Inventory’s Defensiveness Scale (Epstein 2001), which allowed for identification, and subsequent removal of people showing a socially-desirable responding pattern. It is likely, that the impact of any socially-desirable responding bias in Study 1 was therefore minimal, as findings of Study 1 and 2 were consistent. Nevertheless, further research should continue to apply methods to minimise social desirability biases.
This paper focused on statistically predicting past plagiarism behaviours, rather than identifying potential future plagiarism. Although examining predictors of past plagiarism behaviour can inform interventions, preemptively predicting behaviour allows for eliminating plagiarism before it occurs. Therefore, additional studies should seek to experimentally predict future plagiarism behaviour from negative emotionality. This could be tested via an intervention-based experimental design, where interventions are set in place to deliberately reduce negative emotionality among students where impacts on academic integrity breaches are observed.
Summary and conclusion
Studies 1 and 2 sought to examine whether negative emotionality could predict plagiarism intentions, and subsequently plagiarism behaviour, when incorporated into the TBP (Ajzen 2001). In both studies, negative emotionality predicted plagiarism behaviour and plagiarism intentions through subjective plagiarism norms, and in Study 2, via self-control. In addition, negative emotionality directly predicted plagiarism behaviour. The findings of this study, therefore, both complement and extend past research. Our findings reinforce the importance of targeting negative emotionality within educational settings through interventions to reduce mental health problems and stresses on students. Furthermore, these findings imply that wider societal issues that may generally increase negative emotional experiences in students may have a flow-on effect to academic misconduct. Finally, we would urge higher education practitioners to consider the potential impact of stresses caused by assessment design and deadlines on their students as a potential risk factor that may contribute to academic misconduct.