The term ‘contract cheating’ was first coined in 2006 by Robert Clarke and Thomas Lancaster (Clarke & Lancaster, 2006) to describe the phenomenon they were seeing where students were, rather than potentially simply plagiarising other’s materials, actually paying someone else to complete their assignment for them (usually essays) and then submitting the work as their own. Since then, the term has broadened slightly to remove the focus on whether the student paid for the work, but rather on whether they ‘contract’ someone else with or without payment.
In 2014, Australia was hit by the MyMaster scandal, where the Fairfax Press broke the story that significant numbers of students had been paying for assignments and laid these facts bare for the nation to see. This prompted the Australia higher education sector to undergo a major review of the practices at their institutions and to put processes in place to counter this problem. As a result, Australia is now an international leader in how to identify and combat such threats to academic integrity.
There is general recognition now that the contract cheating that was revealed by the MyMaster scandal is not in any way unique to Australia. There is evidence of such behaviour affecting many universities in many countries. Cath Ellis (an established expert in the field) at the University of New South Wales, has remarked that if we haven’t noticed contract cheating in our own institution, it’s probably because we haven’t yet looked hard enough! Last year she gave a fascinating talk to Ireland’s National Academic Integrity Network (NAIN), which is a unique partnership between the national quality agency (QQI), the Union of Students in Ireland, and representatives of the higher education institutions. The recording, and a summary of the key points can be found at: Detecting and Investigating Contract Cheating Cases and Supporting Students through the Process.
Recent estimations in Australia say that up to at least 11% of students (Curtis et al, 2021) will engage in contract cheating during their time at university. Contract cheating is now accessible, affordable and all too attractive to some students who have been under high levels of stress during the pandemic in particular. Contract cheating providers, and platforms which facilitate such behaviour (albeit that they often have an ‘honor code’ and state that submitting work on the platforms for assignments is against the site’s rules) have become more and more prominent in recent times and the subject of journalistic attention (e.g. This $12 Billion Company Is Getting Rich Off Students Cheating Their Way Through Covid). Many sites often promote themselves as providing learner support, fostering peer-learning, and sharing learning materials, but even a cursory glance at some of their offerings will reveal uploaded student assignments, exam papers, and lecture notes with little regard for copyright or Intellectual Property.
When deciding whether or not to take the gamble of using such services, students will often find that the cost of purchasing materials is cheaper than repeating an exam or a year of study (Yorke et al 2020). In addition to the perceived value for money, ‘help sites’ are available 24/7, often during those hours when students are scrambling to complete their work and when official supports are not open or available.
What many students do not realize is that there is a significant risk to them when they engage with contract cheating services. Some providers have threatened to reveal the fact that the student has contracted an assignment (including, in some cases, years later, even after graduation) if they don’t pay them more or pass on contact information of other students on their course (Yorke et al 2020). Blackmail is not the only risk, more and more employers are becoming aware that students are engaged in such behaviour and universities run reputational risk for their degree programmes and qualifications. An additional trend is that some services are actively recruiting postgraduate students (or even current or previous academic staff) to work as writers or ‘tutors’. In Ireland (as in Australia), the provision of contract cheating services and facilitating cheating, or writing work for another to submit as their own, is now illegal, with fines of up to €100,000 and/or imprisonment for a term of up to five years.
As part of our work, in partnership with students and others, we have developed awareness raising and training materials, including this online lesson Contract Cheating and Academic Integrity
Contract cheating and other forms of academic misconduct are time-consuming to combat, and their nature and form continue to develop and expand. Any individual institution will find it hard from both a policy and resources perspective to stay current and effective in this effort. The benefits of taking a sectoral approach and of sharing knowledge and expertise internationally are essential to rise to the scale of the issue.
At a more fundamental level, of course, a continuing ‘arms race’ is far less preferable to the nurturing of an integrity culture, in which ethical behaviour, personal and professional standards, the provision of support, authentic assessment, and mutual trust become the hallmarks of university learning.
Join Us 🕗
The live tweet-chat will take place via https://twitter.com/LTHEchat on Wednesday 23rd March 2022, 8:00 to 9:00 pm GMT.
During this time 6 questions will be posed (one every 10 minutes) – everyone is welcome to contribute (as much or as little as they like) or just to read. Conversation is also welcomed at any time post 9:00pm GMT.
Clarke, Robert, and Thomas Lancaster. 2006. “Eliminating the Successor to Plagiarism? Identifying the Usage of Contract Cheating Sites.” Paper presented at the Proceedings of 2nd International Plagiarism Conference, 19–21 June 2006.
Guy J. Curtis, Margot McNeill, Christine Slade, Kell Tremayne, Rowena Harper, Kiata Rundle & Ruth Greenaway (2021) Moving beyond self-reports to estimate the prevalence of commercial contract cheating: an Australian study, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2021.1972093
Yorke, J., Sefcik, L., & Veeran-Colton, T. (2020). Contract cheating and blackmail: A risky business? Studies in Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2020.1730313
Q1. What does ‘academic integrity’ mean to you?
Q2. What do you think/know ‘academic integrity’ means to students? What about the term ‘contract cheating’?
Q3. Contract cheating services now regularly reach out to students via social media & recruited promoters. How familiar are you with these types of services and activities? Have you come across examples?
Q4. Does your institution currently have policies in place which reflect the wider academic integrity landscape, or are they largely focused on plagiarism?
Q5. The importance of students as partners in promoting academic integrity is now recognised. How can we engage students in conversations around academic integrity and what practical steps can we take?
Q6. What do you think are the best ways of building an ethos of integrity within higher education assessment?
Here’s a link to the Wakelet of this week’s chat: https://wke.lt/w/s/xPKpUk
The Hosts’ Bios 📷
Dr. Mairead Greene (@MaireadGreene2)
Dr. Mairead Greene (@MaireadGreene2) is Assistant Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the National University of Ireland, Galway and a HEA Senior Fellow. Mairead is known for her work in inquiry-based learning, assessment design and academic integrity. Mairead has worked extensively at NUI Galway to increase awareness around academic integrity in general and contract cheating in particular. Her recent work has included facilitating academic integrity workshops for lecturers, leading the review and rewrite of the current plagiarism policy to expand to a more comprehensive academic integrity policy and co-writing a lesson for students to raise awareness of contract cheating.
Dr. Iain MacLaren (@iainmacl)
Dr. Iain MacLaren (@iainmacl) is the Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) in NUI Galway. He has worked in academic and educational development locally, nationally, and in international contexts and continues to learn every day from colleagues, students, and others. He is a member of the steering committee of Ireland’s National Academic Integrity Network (NAIN), and a Principal Fellow of the HEA/AdvanceHE.
Dr. Michelle Tooher (@michelletooher)
Dr. Michelle Tooher (@michelletooher) is an Educational Developer in CELT at NUI Galway and has been working on curricular design, assessment reform, and on policy development. Michelle is a contributing author to “Reflective Teaching in Higher Education” (Ashwin et al, 2020). She is currently working with Mairead on the issue of academic integrity. Mairead, Michelle, and Lyndsay Olson (Learning Technologist) have produced an online lesson aimed at students to raise awareness of these issues: https://www.crannog-he.ie/mmcontent/ContractCheatingGeneral/story.html