by Shelley Seale
Contract cheating — students paying a third party to complete university assessments for them — is a dominant problem of academic integrity for many institutions of higher education. How can universities respond in an effective, collaborative way?
While we can certainly improve our ability to deter students from engaging in cheating behaviors, there is also value in investing time, energy, and resources into developing the capacity to detect instances of contract cheating.
Cheating Behaviors and Problems
A 2019 study conducted by Australian universities found that only about three percent of students engage in contract cheating. However, an entire industry has sprung up around helping students cheat, even to the extent of targeting and cloaking their offerings so that students may not understand they are, in fact, violating academic integrity.
In Australia, the issue came to light in a 2014 scandal that involved students at some of the nation’s top universities who were caught turning in papers they purchased from a company called MyMaster. The company’s website was written in Chinese and marketed to students who did not speak English as their first language, explained Jeffrey Young at EdSurge.
“In response to increasingly aggressive marketing tactics by companies that help students cheat, colleges are striking back with new responses of their own,” Young wrote.
Many college administrators see this as an existential threat, particularly today when online learning has exploded due to COVID-19. These illegitimate services are sometimes even promoted on universities’ own websites using “black hat” techniques, reported Times Higher Education. They found that the most egregious instances involved fake essay contests that promised prizes of scholarships — but in reality actually provided the companies with clean, non-plagiarized essays they could then re-sell.
Detection and Deterrence of Contract Cheating
In “A Research Agenda for Academic Integrity”, Cath Ellis, Karen van Haeringen, and David House of UNSW in Australia wrote a chapter on establishing evidentiary standards for managing contract cheating cases. The chapter identifies a research gap: specifically, empirical studies to support the efficacy of educational institutions in their administrative compliance function of upholding standards of academic integrity.
“One of the things we were able to identify was just how much of the current research was focused on deterrence,” Ellis told attendees at the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) conference in March. This research has been focused on student behaviors, staff behaviors, and the contract cheating “industry.”
Ellis said that her team noticed a big gap, however, on research into detection. A 2019 survey of 1,100 academic staff revealed that while one-third had never suspected a paper turned in was not actually done by the student, roughly two-thirds had experienced at least one instance of suspected cheating. However, only half of those actually reported this.
So for the half who had not reported the suspected cheating, why hadn’t they? Ellis said the most dominant response was that they thought it was impossible to actually prove that cheating had in fact taken place.
“Perhaps one of the reasons detection hasn’t been a huge focus of the research is because of this perception that it’s impossible to prove,” Ellis said.
This belief drives other behaviors, she continued. “It’s encouraging us to put our energies into certain solutions which we are loosely bundling together here as reactive, ineffective, whack-a-mole [responses].”
Effective Techniques to Combat Contract Cheating
Kane Murdoch of UNSW Sydney described some actions that universities were taking, such as blocking essay mill websites — but he noted that this tactic isn’t very effective, as the companies simply change their URLs and find easy ways around that.
Actual legislation is being taken against these companies in some countries, including Australia, Ireland, and South Africa.
Other actions and tactics that universities can take include:
- Participating in the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. ICAI provided a free checklist to help universities prepare.
- ICAI also offers a comprehensive Institutional Toolkit to Combat Contract Cheating.
- Utilizing a service such as Turnitin Originality, which ensures that student work is original and addresses even the most sophisticated methods of misconduct. This comprehensive solution moved past simple text similarity checking — which Turnitin pioneered 20 years ago — and helps universities uphold academic integrity.
- Universities should be proactive on their campus, watching for and removing posters from such companies. Murdoch suggested they could even stick their own QR codes over these posters to redirect students to support against them.
- Report offensive links on Chegg, a site that students have turned to in great numbers. Murdoch shares a process for getting Chegg to take down these links in a Twitter thread.
- Talk to your students about contract cheating, misleading services, and academic integrity policies. Some administrators have a belief that by addressing it, they will alert students to the idea of cheating in the first place, but Murdoch said that is a fallacy. Students already know about such things, and addressing it head-on does much more to alleviate the problem and bring students into the solution.
“Supporting academic integrity is a multi-layered process of setting expectations, providing tools to students so they can self check and correct, and then helping faculty to identify potential misconduct so that they can intervene,” said Valerie Schreiner, CPO, and CMO of Turnitin. “Turnitin Originality gives instructors and administrators the capability of identifying the full range of potential misconduct in one tool so that instances of plagiarism or inauthentic authorship are teachable moments, not punitive ones.”
Given the increasing frequency of reported violations of integrity, and that online learning will not go away and will most certainly grow globally, a more coordinated approach to tackling issues of misconduct is needed. Along with efforts by groups like ICAI, institutions of higher education must take concerted efforts to tackle contract cheating in order to protect the academic integrity of their institutions.