Pupils are more likely to cheat in tests if they believe they are the victims of unsatisfactory teaching, the American Educational Research Association annual conference heard this week.
Students justify their actions by blaming the teacher. They feel they have to cheat because they do not believe they have been given a fair chance of success, Tamera Murdock of Missouri university said.
Lax teacher attitudes and "goal orientated" classrooms which encourage competition between pupils also increased the likelihood of cheating, her study found.
She said: "Just as teachers have expectations of good student behaviour, students also have clear expectations about what constitutes appropriate and fair behaviour... (by) the teacher.
"A teacher's failure to behave in ways that are consistent with these expectations appears to legitimise students' engaging in behaviour that would otherwise not be seen as appropriate."
She told delegates at the conference in Montreal, Canada, that schools had the difficult task of teaching morals not always observed by wider society.
"Think about it. How many people justify cheating on their tax return because they don't like the way government spends their money?" she said.
"It is pretty typical to ask schools to be the saviour for social ills."
Her latest studies looked at the attitudes to cheating of 224 undergraduate and 195 graduate college students in the Midwest. Its findings mirror a similar study last year of high-school students. Overall, students who admitted cheating believed it was more morally acceptable than those who did not.
But all students believed cheating was more morally acceptable where teaching was poor or where pupils felt they had little control over their grades.
Older students were less likely to view cheating as justifiable.
More than 12,000 academics from North America and around the world attended the five-day conference which ends today.
Key topics included the impact of accountability measures such as testing, racial and linguistic diversity among pupils, and debates about the role of education in a democratic society.
Presentations ranged from the esoteric, An application of chaos theory to the educational decision-making process to the unintelligible, Intersubjectivity and the grammar of the third space.
Dozens of British academics attended the conference to share ideas and findings on topics such as the effect of privatisation, theories of school leadership and how to overcome social disadvantage. But not all of them were expecting their ideas to have an impact across the Atlantic.
David Hill, from University college Northampton, joked that he was likely to find few listeners when he presented his paper. Its subject? Marxist teacher education.
For details of Tamera Murdock's research about cheating, email MurdockTumkc.edu