In antiquity, the notion of intellectual property did not exist. Ideas were the common property of the literate elite. Books were published by hand-copying them. Scholars freely made digests or commentaries on other works, which could contain as much or as little original material as the author desired. There was no standard system of citation at this time. Scholars were an elite and small group who knew and generally trusted each other. This system continued through the European Middle Ages. Education was in Latin and occasionally Greek. Some scholars were monks, who used much of their time copying manuscripts. Other scholars were in urban universities connected to the Roman Catholic Church.

Academic dishonesty dates back to the first tests. Scholars note that cheating was prevalent on the Chinese civil service exams thousands of years ago, even when cheating carried the penalty of death for both examinee and examiner. Before the founding of the MLA and the APA at the end of the 19th century, there were no set rules on how to properly cite quotations from others' writings, which may have caused many cases of plagiarism out of ignorance."

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cheating was widespread at college campuses in the United States, and was not considered dishonorable among students. It has been estimated that as many as two-thirds of students cheated at some point of their college careers at the turn of the 20th century. Fraternities often operated so-called essay mills, where term papers were kept on file and could be resubmitted over and over again by different students, often with the only change being the name on the paper. As higher education in the U.S. trended towards meritocracy, however, a greater emphasis was put on anti-cheating policies, and the newly diverse student bodies tended to arrive with a more negative view of academic dishonesty.

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