A study, due to be presented at the Third International Plagiarism Conference this week, found that students claimed to be largely unaware of the investigations that took place and thought their lecturers would not have time to investigate all instances of copying.
Of 160 students surveyed, nearly 60 per cent thought students were rarely investigated for cheating, and almost 63 per cent of respondents believed that students were found guilty only rarely.
Helen Smith, principal lecturer in learning and teaching at Northumbria University, who conducted the research, said: "Students seem to be largely unaware of the investigations that do take place. They see students who get away with cheating and they don't necessarily see students who are investigated.
"Students indicated that students who were caught wouldn't admit to it, even to their peers - so it is up to lecturers to let students know that we are being quite careful, and we are looking."
The 12 academics interviewed for the study were split 50-50 on whether they would investigate cheating. Ms Smith said: "Their reasons for not investigating were the time it takes to go through university processes, linked to their sympathy for students, and finally the burden of proof. They must come up with the proof. It also puts them in the firing line because students will seek legal redress if they think the proof isn't strong enough."
She said that institutions needed to be clear that they would support academics who took investigations forward.
The research showed that students wanted clearer guidance on what was acceptable academic practice and for regulations to be both enforced and seen to be so.