Contract cheating — when students pay or otherwise use a third party to complete their assignments for them — is on the rise in the digital age.
“Before the internet, you used to have to know somebody” who could do your assignments for you, said Tricia Bertram Gallant, Ph.D., director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California, San Diego. “The internet has democratised cheating.”
Contract cheating differs from plagiarism, which occurs when students copy others’ work and present it as their own. When it comes to contract cheating, students can pay for work completed to their specifications, and it can appear original, often making it harder to detect than plagiarism.
The extent of the problem is hard to quantify, especially because students usually purchase assignments anonymously. However, a 2018 meta-analysis by a professor from Swansea University in the United Kingdom found that, in studies published since 2014, an average of 15.7% of students, translating to about 31 million around the globe, admitted to paying someone else to do their work.
The result is that millions of students aren’t “getting the learning they should have from completing assessments”, said Thomas Lancaster, Ph.D., the academic integrity expert who is credited with helping coin the phrase “contract cheating” more than a decade ago. “They’re also getting an advantage that other students don’t have.”
Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and more than a dozen US states are working to curb the issue. However, students have always found workarounds, and that won’t likely stop in an era of connected devices. Contract cheating sites can be found with a quick internet search, and they even contact students directly advertising their services, Bertram Gallant said.
And tackling the problem isn’t as easy as shutting down essay mills. “We’re not going to win the technological arms race,” Bertram Gallant said.
Banning specific providers is only a short-term solution, as they typically reform with a different name. Blocking the sites on campus won’t prevent students from using them elsewhere, though, as Bertram Gallant noted, it does send students the message that administrators don’t approve of them.
Instead, here is how professors can help prevent contract cheating and deal with the issue if it occurs:
- Discuss it early. At the start of each semester, define and explain contract cheating — which students may not be aware of — and consider detailing your expectations on the syllabus. “I like to discuss ethics and integrity with students and try and convince them of the benefits of doing their own work,” said Lancaster, a senior teaching fellow in computing at Imperial College, London.
More broadly, help students develop a mission and vision. “Keep them oriented to learning and their professional goals rather than just focusing on grades and immediate outcomes,” said Sanjeev Bansal, Ph.D., dean of the faculty of management studies and director of the business school at Amity University in Noida, India.
- Revamp assignments. Try to make assignments meaningful and original to reduce the temptation to use an essay mill, Bertram Gallant suggested.
Instead, create assignments that someone else can’t replicate. Try asking each student to get a code of ethics or a ledger from a potential employer and spend time analysing it. Consider assigning work that can “be authentic and local and require them to use locally gathered information”, said Bansal.
- Know what your students can do. Take time to get to know your students and their capabilities. Assigning in-class writing can provide you with a sound baseline for gauging their abilities and thought patterns. If a student struggles with writing or concepts yet manages to turn in a flawless paper, that’s a red flag. “Think about whether the work the student has handed in matches that student’s ability in class,” Lancaster said.
Be on the lookout for warning signs, such as rare sources, odd word choices in writing, or the use of a sophisticated formula or accounting concept that you wouldn’t expect students to have learned yet.
- Get more information. If you suspect contract cheating, talk to the student privately. Ask about how he or she found the sources, why he or she used them, and his or her writing process. “If they can’t answer any of those questions, they probably didn’t write the paper,” Bertram Gallant said.
If you can, take a look at the document’s properties to see when it was created and by whom, Bertram Gallant said.
Services like Turnitin scan work submitted by students and compare it with other work published by students and researchers, and in other journals. This helps “identify how much of the work submitted is unoriginal”, Bansal said.
- Escalate the matter if necessary. If you strongly suspect a student has engaged in contract cheating, follow your institution’s academic integrity process. While it might seem easier to just issue a warning, doing so can undermine the education process. “Creating an ethical climate which does not permit the entry of such things is vital,” Bansal said. “As academics, we need to be extremely strict.”
— Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor on the Association’s Magazines and Newsletters team, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.