How to Deal with Contract Cheating

As a blog editor and writer, I follow a number of other blogs on a range of topics, as a way to keep tabs on what similar blogs are posting, stay current with educational trends, follow current news and information, and add some variety to my online reading. It was in the latter category earlier this summer, that I came across an article that threw me for a loop.

Young man at laptop. Gray-scale background shows a silhouetted man and woman shaking hands, all on a field of dollar bills.I won’t identify the blog or the writer, other than to say that this particular blog posts on a wide array of subject matter. The article caught my eye because it was about college students writing essays. As I read the piece, I was horrified to discover that the author was supporting the idea that students, finding themselves in a bind over a tight deadline, should feel it perfectly acceptable to pay for someone to write an essay or term paper for them. Students have enough stress in their lives, the authored reasoned, why not avail themselves of an essay-writing service?

It turns out that there are numerous such services out there. I was aware of this fact in part because this blog gets a fair number of spam comments, and in a given week, at least a couple of these are from paper-writing companies offering their wares. These companies employ writers with M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in a wide range of disciplines, who are skilled in research and writing, and who will, for fees varying from $20 a page to $80 a page and up—depending on the topic and assignment requirements, write any type of paper needed. This includes entire dissertations. If this concept is new to you, an article in The Atlantic, Write My Essay, Please!, by Richard Gunderman, October 24, 2012, will give you a good starting point on the issue. Note the date, 2012—this is not a brand new problem.

Gunderman outlines a typical scenario: An instructor receives a paper from a student that is excellent in all regards, but is suspicious because the writing is far superior to that of other work the student has submitted. The instructor puts the paper through the university’s plagiarism detection service, and is surprised to find it comes out clean. Confronting the student reveals that they have purchased the paper from an online service.  This is not plagiarism—the work was original. The ethical issue is that the student was planning to accept credit for the paper and the course based on someone else’s work.

Gunderson looks at the culture that perpetuates these services from both the standpoint of the consumers and those doing the real work. High-stakes assignments with no scaffolding and inflexible deadlines create an environment where students may feel desperate. Academics with PhDs who find themselves in low-paying adjunct jobs may discover that essay writing “can be quite a lucrative business.”  Gunderson notes that the real problem is that paying someone to do your work has become increasingly accepted in our culture and that “there is no law against it.” Of course these students are cheating their classmates and instructors, but most of all, themselves, by not taking the opportunity to learn. Gunderson called for “probing discussions in classrooms all over the country, encouraging students to reflect on the real purpose of education,” but as more recent articles attest, this has not yet happened.

Getting Smart—Cheating 2.0: How to Fight Back Against ‘Contract Cheating’, July 21, 2018 by Dennis Pierce examines contract cheating and looks at ways instructors can take action. Pierce suggests that instructors educate their students on the risks that using writing services brings to both themselves and the public at large. Graduates need to be properly qualified or they may ultimately endanger or harm people who depend on their work. The risks for students themselves start with getting caught. There have also been cases of paper-writing companies reporting to the college/university when students didn’t pay their bills for services, and there is an ongoing potential for blackmail. But just as important, instructors should examine their assignments and consider designs that will make it less likely that a student will use a paper-writing service. Scaffolding the work towards a final paper by creating smaller, lower-stakes assignments along the way will keep students from falling behind. It will also make it easier to detect a ghost-written assignment, because the instructor will have examples of the student’s work to compare. Pierce says, “Establishing a culture of integrity, communicating the risks of cheating to students, and designing more thoughtful writing assignments are important. … it’s equally important for educators to be able to recognize contract cheating when it happens.”

The International Center for Academic Integrity at Florida International University, offers academic integrity resources including  the Institutional Toolkit to Combat Contract Cheating [PDF]. This 15-page document offers high-level solutions—discussing what can be done by academic institutions to address the problem (e.g., creating a culture that counters cheating) but there is also practical advice for faculty designing assessments. These include:

  • Require multiple drafts of an assessment.
  • Use in-class writing to provide a baseline of student voice and writing style.
  • Create personalized and authentic assignments that are specific to the class.
  • Limit non-substantive requirements (e.g., page or word limits/requirements).
  • Allow for late submissions (flexible deadlines).
  • Give students more choice and control.
  • Provide at least one proctored assessment.

The toolkit also has suggestions for detecting contract cheating and advises making sure that your institution’s academic integrity policy is up-to-date and covers contract cheating. “Many policies don’t cover contract cheating adequately. For example, they cover students cheating, but not students cheating for other students. Many policies might also inaccurately treat this behavior as plagiarism or exam cheating, rather than Fraud.” There is also a short list of resources on contract cheating and academic integrity that may be useful.

Being aware of the problem and armed with solutions will put you in a good place to fight contract cheating.  A good thing, since at least for now, the problem is continuing to grow.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

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