How to investigate contract cheating and what type of evidence is appropriate for an academic integrity hearing?
I explored this issue as part of a workshop held at Deakin University. It’s a university that is proactive in promoting academic integrity values to students and detecting contract cheating, but also knows that there are challenges in doing this fairly and consistently.
As part of the presentation, I suggested twelve types of evidence that could be collected and taken to an academic integrity hearing. These are explored more in the slides (and were discussed), but these are:
1 – Writing style – is the consistent with other work by the student? 2 – Document properties – does the metadata suggest this was not produced by the student? 3 – Essay mill layout – is this presented perfectly, but with style over substance? 4 – Contextual concept – does this use ideas that the student would be unfamiliar with? 5 – Public websites – is the assignment specification on a freelancing website or viewable essay mill? 6 – Student mark profile – is there consistency between student performance in supervised and unsupervised environments, in similar tasks? 7 – Access logs – has the student accessed module resources in an expected way and from known locations? Have they accessed inappropriate resources from the university network? 8 – Turnitin report – is the similarity score too low? Does this indicate any surprises in the sources used? 9 – Authenticity viva – can the student discuss their work? 10 – Assessment production process – can the student show their interim work on demonstrate that they were working on the assignment over a period of time? 11 – Verification tasks – can the student complete a task based on their work in a controlled environment? 12 – Opportunity to own up – there can be advantages to everyone in allowing students to discuss their situation with an independent advisor and bypassing a formal hearing where students agree they have contract cheated.
A single one of these indicators may not be enough to be sure that a student has contract cheated, but several of them, used together, could provide appropriate evidence. All of this assumes that university policies and regulations allow these types of evidence to be used.
I concluded the workshop by suggesting that the design of assessment tasks which automatically allow for the collection of some evidence could be the way forward. Now, in an ideal world, this would never be used, but collecting evidence in this way can help to streamline the process, as well as to protect the majority of students who are acting with academic integrity.
Essay mill and contract cheating services are as visible as they’ve ever been. This has to be creating a challenging market for those companies looking to peddle their unethical wares to students. After all, students now have a wealth of people offering assignment production services that they can choose to purchase work from.
What’s next with essay mill marketing? What we’re now seeing are companies finding ways to get their messages to students, whether they’ve expressed any interest in paying for a completed assessment or not.
I’ve rounded up several examples of how essay mills are spamming their services for this post.
Here is an extract from an email advert that one of my former students received directly to his university email account.
This is also an email address he hadn’t used outside the university and for which the account details weren’t listed anywhere online.
It may not be the best ever advert, but it would certainly get noticed in a student email account.
All of the classic sales points are there, including the mention of prominent universities, a distinctive offering of statistical services and the option to sell Turnitin reports (something which really shouldn’t be possible).
Despite being advertised as a UK company (including a UK address), further investigation suggests that this company is almost certainly based in Pakistan.
It is not clear how the student’s email address was accessed. It may be through access to email account details, through a link inside the university with access to address books, or perhaps just automatically guessed email addresses (many universities use email accounts that are formulaic in nature).
These services don’t differentiate between staff and students. I too have received spam emails from essay mills to my university staff email account.
This process is now much more automated than it ever was before. If your tweet contains word combinations along the lines of write essays, chances are you’ll immediately receive both public and private offers to help from would-be helpers.
Thankfully, many people are now starting to fight back, or at least make it clear that they do not support the essay company spam. Here are some recent examples from Donna Yates and Joseph Gordon Diehard.
Other Types Of Essay Mill Spam
There are many other ways in which essay mills use spamming techniques to get the message about their companies out there.
If you run an educational blog, post related videos on YouTube, or submit content to anywhere that allows comments, you’re bound to find essay mill spam posted to them before too long. There’s a chance you’ll get such comments even if your site has nothing to do with education, as so much of this spam comes from automated software.
I originally wrote this in 2015 based on a talk that Robert Clarke and I delivered. The problem of contract cheating in health and nursing education was prominent then and I have addressed this in subsequent talks and on this blog.
The paper was never submitted for publication, as the conference I was originally aiming this at didn’t run and I haven’t subsequently seen the right outlet. Looking back at the paper with 2018 eyes, it would need a substantial rewrite to fit suitably into the current academic integrity climate. This would include updating the sources and examples, so that it was substantially a new paper.
Due to this, I am providing the original unpublished paper here as drafted in the hope that it may be useful to researchers instead.
When students obtain academic awards in the health industry that they do not deserve, they may emerge unfit for professional practice. This paper explores the challenges posed by academic misconduct in public-facing health fields, such as nursing and medicine. Specifically, the paper explores contract cheating, where students employ a third party or ghostwriter to complete assessed work. The problem appears more crucial in health than some other academic disciplines, since here fitness for practice is important and human lives may be at stake.
The paper argues about the importance of academic integrity in health through multiple examples. This includes showcasing media cases where medical professionals have been put in positions which their skills did not warrant and giving three specific examples of attempts by students to cheat that have been detected online. The examples demonstrate that such contract cheating starts before students arrive at university. This misconduct continues throughout their academic career up to postgraduate level. The overall findings in this field support the view that contract cheating is habitual and repeated regularly by some students.
Several sources are used to show that contract cheating in health is amongst the most popular subjects that students cheat on. Other examples show that original essays and assessments can be purchased by students for affordable prices. These essays will not be detected as unoriginal by Turnitin. The paper concludes by arguing that increased academic pressure is needed to change the wider health culture that is affording contract cheating.
There is still a need for research in this field. In particular, this includes gathering more data and implementing subject specific solutions. I would like to look back at this area again as time and opportunities permit.
This was one of the most respectful audiences that I’ve ever presented for, with an extended period of questions and answers afterwards. I was also pleased to see students in the audience.
From the discussion, it was clear that many in the audience hadn’t really considered that contract cheating happened. I hope the discussion we had about assessment design techniques was useful. I don’t think that it’s ever possible to completely design out cheating from assessments, but it is possible to make this a strategy that students wouldn’t consider effective to use.
Here is a short video introduction to why contract cheating is a problem (it only last 1 minute and 39 seconds).
The video uses some of the recommendations from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) report on contract cheating, released in October 2017. I was part of the team steering the report and have been speaking about it in media interviews. It’s great to see the national push asking universities to address this form of academic misconduct.
What I don’t do in the video is define contract cheating or go into a lot of detail about it. I deliberately wanted to keep this one short and shareable.
The video looks at why contract cheating is an issue, some recent numbers about the extent of contract cheating (the source in the video says that 7% of students have contract cheated at least once) and to look at solutions, particularly regarding the movement to work with students and promote academic integrity.