Blog Posts from Academic Integrity Expert and Higher Education Professional
About Thomas Lancaster
I am an experienced Computer Science academic, best known for research work into academic integrity, plagiarism and contract cheating. I have held leadership positions in several universities, with specialty in student recruitment and keen interest in working in partnership with students.
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Some of the recent contract cheating work that I’ve been engaged with and have found to be the most interesting has been looking at the marketing funnels behind contract cheating services.
These funnels are increasingly elaborate. It’s no longer enough for an enterprising individual to set up a website offering to write essays for students. The successful sites now look closely at how students will find their website, they pay big commissions to the affiliates who send them traffic and they plug into existing services designed to write essays rather than need to employ their own writers.
I explored a lot of these issues in my talk about contract cheating at the International Center For Academic Integrity Inaugural Mediterranean Conference, held in Athens, Greece.
It is really interesting to look at all of the different individuals who are getting a piece of the money paid by a student to a contract cheating service. In many cases, only a small proportion of this goes to a writer. There’s certainly much more work on contract cheating supplier, essay mills and marketing that I hope to complete (and more formally publish) in the future.
Robert Clarke presented the conference version of this, so if you did attend his talk, you might find that the emphasis on my video version is different. If nothing else, my presentation did not have the strict time constraints that were present for the conference video and that allowed me to explore this area of exam cheating in more depth.
The ways in which exam cheating technologies are evolving continue to astound me. There is so much more happening now than students sneaking a few notes into an examination. I fear that this will continue to be a big story in the coming months and years.
Many academic studies looking at contract cheating think about this only from the point of view of this being a way for students to get essays, terms papers and assignments written for them.
The reality is that the definition of contract cheating extends much more widely than that. As part of wider work, I’ve recently been looking a lot at exam cheating and there are certainly mechanisms that are easily available for students to use to pay a third party to attend an examination for them.
These slides, originally presented at the CSpace Conference devoted to teaching and learning and held at Birmingham City University look further into the issues about how third parties can become involved in the exam taking process.
The slides from the exam cheating presentation include examples of cheating seen in agency sites, as a spin-off to the work that essay mills already offer and on online classified sites. They also look at the people being paid to held students with exams through advances in technology.
There’s a whole murky underworld of exam cheating going on through students who have the money and this continues to be an area that needs research and practical solutions.
This is the final part in a 10 part series looking at how contract cheating has changed since the term was first publicised in a research paper and presentation in June 2006.
As I’ve explored throughout this series of blog posts looking at a decade of contract cheating, the world in which students are using assignment writing services and consultancies has changed substantially. Although it often seems that the push for universities to seriously tackle contract cheating is media driven, there have been substantive pieces of research completed in the contract cheating field.
This post identifies 10 research findings which are of particular interest to researchers now and which should inform the next decade of work in this area of student cheating.
Finding #1 – Once Students Have Begun To Cheat, Many Such Students Continue To Do Cheat Habitually
One of the most interesting findings in the first contract cheating study that Robert Clarke and I published, was that very few students cheated as a one-off activity. We noticed the behaviour that students had successfully made several requests to outsource their work, sometimes with multiple assignments for different subjects being completed at the same time.
Recent media reports looking inside essay mills have also noticed the same group of students appearing again and again. Other media reports speaking to essay writers have also stated that there is a personal continuing business relationship between the writer and the student.
The traditional academic research into student cheating suggests that student cheat due to desperation, because they don’t know how to complete the work, or because they don’t have enough time. All of those issues may be enabling factors for student cheating, but it appears that once students have found that cheating has granted them academic success, they will continue to cheat. There are cheating networks now, where students refer other students to writers. The growing awareness of these essay writing services around students is leading to their continued growth.
Finding #2 – Workers Can Be Commissioned Quickly To Complete Assignments For Students
One proposal to combat contract cheating that has been made is for the assignment details to be released to students very late, so as to give them little time to secure a worker.
Melisa Wallace and Philip Newton investigated how long the likely turnaround times on visible contract cheating sites and found a group of people ready to take on an assignment with either a week’s deadline or even 24 hour’s deadline. They even found that over 10 such workers would be available to choose from for each such assignment. For workers for whom academic writing is their living, being responsive to market needs is important.
Other essay mills also regularly advertise that same day turnaround for assignments is possible. They can do this as they have access to their own army of freelance writers, usually consisting of far more people that they actually need. They people are trained to turn assignments around quickly, following the formatting and layout norms for that academic discipline.
Our own observations of contract cheating agency sites have seen requests to hire workers in advance, so that these workers are online and available at the time that assignments are released. This is particularly the case for take home examinations.
The recommendation has to be that “just in time” release of assignment details is not the right option and may actually create more problems with allowing students to do their best work in this area.
Finding #3 – Essays And Assignments Can Be Purchased Cheaply And They Can Be Of High Quality
There is a traditional viewpoint that original essays purchased from third party sources will be of low quality, particularly since the essay provider has not vested interest in turning out high quality report. Several studies of around ten years ago went along with this viewpoint, showing examples of work purchased at premium prices, but received marks around the pass threshold, involving some failures.
The more recent studies about the quality of student work have counteracted that viewpoint.
A study by Lisa Lines saw the purchase of multiple essays from different providers, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Although the marks awarded for completing essays with the same title varied across providers, she identified essays receiving exceptional marks (above 90%), with few failures. She also found that the work at undergraduate level was generally better than the work at postgraduate level and that the providers who charged more generally returned higher quality essays.
During our own research, we’ve seen examples of essays, reports, programming assignments and other pieces of work produced by different academic writing firms and directly commissioned from writers. The standard has been variable, but the work from major providers also seems to have improved in recent years. This is likely largely due to increased education between firms and writers about how high quality academic work should be presented. It also appears that there may now be more internal checking included in the academic commissioning process.
It also seems that the quality of the work is dependent more on choosing the correct writer, rather than the amount being paid. It is possible to commission writers directly through contract cheating agency sites. Working with a motivated writer, perhaps through setting them a question that differs from run-of-the-mill assignments, can be engaging for them. Direct communication with a writer can also keep the prices down.
Finding #4 – The Business Academic Discipline Represents The “Bread And Butter” For Contract Cheating Providers
During our early studies, we identified that most assignment requests on the EssayBay site were from the business discipline.
That finding has been supported many times since. Several academics in the discipline have told me that they believe that there is a real problem in business. I’ve also spoken to a writer for an essay mill and he was very quick to tell me that business assignments and term papers ranked at the top of the more requested list.
I often joke that we are turning out people equipped to work in business, as they understand where they should invest money. But clearly, contract cheating in any discipline is not a behaviour that we want to encourage.
In the assignments we’ve seen, requests for MBA work and MBA dissertations are appearing with alarming frequency. These are often needed as a professional qualification, can be taken online and don’t appear to have the same level of supervision as other types of qualification. When Neil Wellman and Julia Fallon seriously investigated cheating in an MBA module that they were responsible for, they were able to identify consistent cheating rates of around 30%. The students estimated that around 40% of the work on the MBA was purchased, although that number could not be verified. One student even confidentially admitted that he had given the assignments to their cousin to complete the work.
It may soon get to the stage where MBA holders have to be able to demonstrate that their qualification is, indeed, a reputable one.
Finding #5 – Ghostwriters Now Look At Completing Work For Students As A Reputable Career Move For Them
Another interesting research strand that has begun to emerge has been looking at the people who are completing work for students, the techniques that they use and why they engage in this behaviour.
A key finding, backed up by my own investigations into the people bidding to complete work for the students, is that this is purely a financial arrangement. The work can be well paid, particularly in economies where the cost of living is lower. There is a lot of work available. The hours and working arrangements can be flexible. As I’ve outlined in previous talks and post, academic writing work is now seen as so lucrative and in demand that people will pay to get access to writing work opportunities. There are whole communities set up to help academic ghostwriters perform better, work more efficiently and avoid the fines imposed by essay writing agencies.
Several sources have found ghostwriters who are in this field for revenge. Shiva Sivasubramaniam, Kalliopi Kostelidou and Sharavan Ramachandran identified a community of international writers with qualifications from western universities, but who had resorted to academic ghostwriting due to a lack of work experience. A media investigation found a UK based tutor who had been unsuccessful at gaining an an academic position, so was now supplementing tutorial work by writing assignments for students. My own research has seen plenty of workers on outsourcing websites offering to complete academic work and advertising academic qualifications up to PhD level as their credentials.
I have spoken to online writers and found a mix of ethical views towards completing student work. Many writers say that they are happy to complete academic work for students, as they see this as fulfilling a market need, but ethical boundaries vary. One writer said that they were unwilling to help prospective nurses, for example, but would happily turn out several business essays a day if sufficient work was available.
Christopher Harris and Padmini Srinivasan went further and created a fake website offering homework help services. They found that most workers on a micro-outsourcing site were willing to allow their answers to be submitted by students for academic credit, most significantly when the worker was from India or Bangladesh. They also found that the size of the payment made to the workers did not change their ethical views on this topic or whether they would accept work offered as providing contract cheating opportunities. These workers were either already willing to support student cheating, or they were not.
The growth of individual writers advertising contract cheating services on social media and the more aggressive and the targeted nature of this advertising suggests that workers are now seeing the benefits of setting up their own direct provision of essay writing services. There are all kinds of involved marketing methods that students can now use to attract students. I predict that the number of people who are using academic writing as a major source of income, or looking at this as their career, will only grow further.
Finding #6 – Contract Cheating Detection Software Has Still Not Proven Successful
One of the biggest surprises to me during the 10 years of contract cheating research that I’ve been involved with, is that no-one has made substantial progress towards the problem of writing software to identify when contract cheating has taken place.
My own research publications have identified several possible models for this, ranging from suggesting stylometric analysis to look for a student writing style that differs from what would be expected, to developing intelligent systems designed to monitor the requests posted on contract cheating websites and attempt to alert the owners.
I have seen some initial findings of promise, including some unpublished work suggesting that there are elements of student writing styles that can identify them, even with a small writing sample. But, there has not been interest shown by funding bodies to take this work to the next level and no computer scientists or linguists have taken this on as a personal project to challenge them. Likewise, none of the major plagiarism detection services have looked to add this type of detection to their services, preferring instead to stick with releasing traditional text matching software.
One surprising result that I have found during my investigations with Robert Clarke is that running requests for assignment help found online through Turnitin can sometimes help to identify the source, particularly where academics reuse the same assignment briefs year after year. Likewise, student work can often throw up indicators that all is not what it seems, particularly through small percentage matches to external sites. Not all ghostwriters provide work that is as original as they advertise and several students have been caught out when their writer was found to have taken shortcuts.
Contract cheating detection would be an excellent area for PhD students to get involved with. There’s scope for multiple PhD projects in this area as there are many different approaches that can be investigated. There is a timeliness for this work and so opportunities to make an impact during and beyond the PhD. This ties in with trends of national and international interest. My own PhD developed software to solve the more traditional problem of detecting plagiarism, but I would be keen to work with PhD students looking to develop methods, metrics and software for detecting contract cheating.
Finding #7 – The Real Money In Contract Cheating Is Made By The Third Party Subcontractors
Very early on in our contract cheating research, we identified the pattern of certain accounts that were requesting that vast volumes of assignments were completed for them. These were often across different academic disciplines, involved multiple years of study and even covered assignments from several universities.
What we identified were third party subcontractors, essentially people or businesses who took in orders from students and then themselves used an outsourcing process to find workers to complete the assessments.
Over the past decade, that third party subcontractor model has become more commonplace, with many of the larger essay writing companies using a similar process. The main difference here is that the continued outsourcing process is often kept private inside those sites and only seen by registered writers.
For smaller companies, for instance those single-person companies operating within a local area, or targeting students at a particular university, cheap outsourcing to traditional agency sites such as Freelancer still exists. Sometimes, this can be done by individual writers who simply do not have the capacity to complete all of the orders that they’re receiving at busy times of the academic year. During the continued student work outsourcing process, the latest observations are that these third party subcontractors often have a group of regular workers that they use, continue to manage and put their assignments through, all protected through the privacy and escrow payment process in place at these outsourcing websites.
Writers have indicated that as little as 10% of the money paid by students to essay sites may end up with writers. The real money in the essay industry is clearly taking in the orders, not completing the writing. Likewise, the students who are now identified as going directly to writers rather than through other companies have also clearly identified how to get the best return for their academic writing investment.
Finding #8 – Over 50% Of Students Are Willing To Buy Essays If The Price Is Right
One of the most interesting of the contract cheating studies that I’ve read about over the past decade was an investigation by Dan Rigby and team into how much willing students would be to pay to outsource their assignments. They completed this study using standard proven economic theories.
They identified that over 50% of students would be willing to buy original assessments from ghostwriting services, with a clear reduction in numbers if the risk of being caught went up. Increased numbers would commission work if the quoted price was lower or the likelihood of receiving a top grade was higher.
It is still difficult to ascertain exactly how many students have used contract cheating services, as only a small number of students get detected and taken through formal disciplinary processes. I’ve seen small scale estimates suggesting that this number could lie anywhere between 1 in 100 and 1 in 2, depending on the students and discipline. I suspect that the real percentage of students who have tried using contract cheating services is closer to 10%, although this will vary between cohorts and academic disciplines. In any case, the number of students contract cheating must be sizable, as the latest estimates suggest that a minimum of £100 million (GBP) a year of business is working its way through these sites (although my own studies suggest £20 million as a more immediately believable figure).
Finding #9 – International Students Are Particularly Susceptible To Taking Advantage Of Contract Cheating Opportunities
Much media attention has been paid to the likelihood that international students are involved with outsourcing their work. A Freedom of Information Act request in the UK found that international students were three times more likely to be caught cheating than home students. A media investigation in Australia went inside an essay mill aimed at students from China and found that many made prevalent and repeated use of this service.
When Dan Rigby and group investigated which students would be willing to pay for assignments, they found that around 75% of students with English as a second language were willing to buy assessed work, as opposed to 50% of the general student body.
When non-international and international students work in teams together, there have been several online discussions where the non-international students have reported pressure from the international students to use academic writing services. There are many indications that suggest that the use of contract cheating providers is common across that group.
We need to be aware that international students are particularly susceptible to the marketing of contract cheating services and identify how to best support those students and ensure that they do not end up tempted to use essay writing services.
Finding #10 – All Assignments Are Cheatable When Students Are Inclined To Cheat
If we can dream up an assignment, students can find a way to either cheat on that assignment, or to give themselves an unfair advantage.
I’ve often given talks and heard academics talk about their “unbeatable” assignment. For instance, they require students to complete work in stages, each of which receives feedback and is sent back to the student for improvements.
Assignments like those are just as easy to outsource as any other. We’ve seen plenty of examples online of students securing workers to complete their project work, with the workers being sent the feedback comments as they come in. If anything, this makes the workers life easier, as they get the benefit of the feedback intended for the student.
What we can do is avoid setting the type of standard repetitive essays that are many writers bread and butter. The writers eagerly await the essays on standard themes that they can turn around in a few hours. Many of the more challenging and unusual assignments are harder for students to find a worker to complete for them.
Contract Cheating Research Must Continue
Although this is the final post in this series on contract cheating, you can be assured that coverage of this problem will continue on my blog, through my teaching and learning presentations and as part of my wider media and research work. The problem will not go away. New cheating developments will continue to emerge, as a small group of students continues to look for new ways to earn qualifications that they do not deserve.
Do take a look at the other parts of the 10 in 10 contract cheating series and let me know about any areas of student cheating that you’d like me to focus in on, or to direct other researchers in the academy integrity field towards.
As always, I’m happy to be contacted regarding keynote speaking opportunities, research collaborations, training sessions and other consultancy opportunities around the field of contract cheating.
This is post 9 in a 10 part series looking back at contract cheating over the past 10 years and how what we know about this type of cheating has developed.
Many of my feelings about contract cheating over the past decade have been captured in a keynote presentation I gave at the Western Australia Forum for Contract Cheating, which was held at Curtin University in Perth Australia.
It’s all pleasing to see the messages behind contract cheating being taken seriously and the sheer interest in this presentation was incredible. Participation included many major contract cheating researchers from Australia and the message that contact cheating was not something that we want to see clearly resonated. There was also media interest in the presentation.
I used the keynote presentation to position contract cheating within a wider context, including looking at the similar cheating behaviours that existed before widespread use of the Internet. I also considered the messages that we need to think about in the future world of fair and accountable assessment of academic skills.
You can see the slides for the contract cheating keynote presentation on my SlideShare account. They are also embedded below.
The video recordings from the full forum are available here (including my keynote). There were some really interesting presentations of work in progress, including looks at how to profile students in danger of contract cheating through their marks, the legal issues of contract cheating, how cheating groups had been set up to “defeat” business simulation assignments and even the pre-workshop discussion I gave for Curtin University staff.