Contract Cheating

Several members of the LTT attended the 2017 Academic Integrity Summit last week – an event hosted by Turnitin. One of the “hot topics” was contract cheating (a term that also covers activities such as ghost-writing and the use of essay mills). This was very timely given the recent publication of advice from the QAA and the NUS.

The term “contract cheating” is used to cover a spectrum of activities – from swapping essays with friends, through to commissioning people to write an essay or computer practical for you – in fact any activity where the student benefits from it, even if actual money doesn’t change hands. The University takes a very dim view of such activity – penalties range from losing marks to failing the entire module – see the Learning & Teaching Handbook.

Phil Newton and Michael Draper have come up with this formal definition of contract cheating:

a basic relationship between three actors; a student, their university, and a third party who completes assessments for the former to be submitted to the latter, but whose input is not permitted. ‘Completes’ in this case means that the third party makes a contribution which results in reasonable doubt as to whose work the assessment represents.

In November 2014, reporters from the Sydney Herald managed to hack into a contract cheating site and obtain the names of thousands of students, their university and the essay title. This resulted in a huge scandal and Australian Universities were forced to confront the ugly truth that contract cheating was happening at their institution. This led to the development policies and procedures to respond to this threat.

contract cheating and assessment

In a subsequent study of over 14,000 HE students in Australia – contract cheating and assessment design – 6% of all students admitted some form of cheating activity. Suitably robust comparative figures for the UK are not available, but staff – try googling your module code and essay titles and see what turns up…

Worryingly the vast majority of students in the survey (“cheaters” and “non-cheaters” alike) expressed a low level of concern about this – seeing it as a “victimless crime”. This is very different to the view of staff, who are very concerned about this activity and the risk it poses to academic integrity – the foundation of all our teaching and research activities. The challenge is how to change the perception amongst students.

Can contract cheating be detected? Well, contract-cheating providers have no morals, and there are documented cases of them informing universities of usage of their site if students don’t pay the bill on time! Also their focus is more on money-making than security, so as the Sydney Herald case shows, it is easy enough to obtain information about the people using the sites (often little more than a customised WordPress blog). The challenge for automated detection at the time of submission is that these essays (or at least the expensive ones) are new works, so will not flag up as plagiarised. Instead systems need to look at changes in writing style, sentence length, ¬†examine the document meta data, and possibly perform some form of stylistic analysis. This is where having a bank of submissions from the same person helps. Technical solutions are currently being tested and when available it will be possible to apply them to the back catalogue – so cheaters be warned!

If you want to know more have a look at this post from academic integrity expert Prof Phil Newton at Swansea University

Cover photo shared under a CC0 license by Sander Smeeks at unsplash