My First Experience Of Contract Cheating

Perhaps the area of academic life that I’m best known for is contract cheating. I’ve both published and spoken widely on this subject, exploring how students are getting work completed for them, which they are then handing in for academic credit as if this were their own work.

I’ve also recently been instrumental in setting up a Contract Cheating Special Interest Group on behalf of the Higher Education Academy, which is well worth participating in if this area of practioner and academic research interests you.

I can’t remember when exactly I first came across outsourcing services, such as RentACoder (now known as vWorker). As someone with a widespread interest in computing and technology, I’m normally at the forefront of interesting new developments like these services, and I certainly knew about services like essay mills from my PhD research into plagiarism detection.

But, I do remember the first time that I saw one of my assignment specifications on RentACoder.

It was late 2003, a few months into my tenure as a Lecturer at Birmingham City University, when I was teaching C programming to second year students. I always believe in setting original assignments to students, and this one was original, but it was based loosely on a Java programming assingment from my teaching at London South Bank University. The objective was to model the seat reservation system for an airline.

Out of curiousity, I happened to search for terms I’d used in the assignment specification, not expecting to find anything, but the search raised a match on RentACoder. A quick check of the link revealed a copy of the assignment specification hosted on RentACoder and that a contractor was working on this for a cost somewhere under $20. It also revealed that this was not the first assignment specification listed under this user’s account.

But, particularly interesting were the combinations of assignments that were listed. There was no way that these could all belong to a particular student, or even to one university. Unknowingly, I’d stumbled upon my first example of what I’d now term a contract cheating subcontactor.

In this case, even though the username didn’t directly match a student, it was pretty easy to track down both the students involved using forensic clues. This turned out to be a student who had put up a few of their assignments, both for our course and at a previous university they’d attended (this combination making this particularly simple to track down). My assignment was the result of putting up a bid request for a friend.

Even if I hadn’t spotted it, the finished assignment, when submitted, would have raised alarm bells, mainly because the coding style didn’t bear any resemblance to the class teaching. The assignment specification also required a number of reflective elements, which weren’t clearly addressed by the finished work. Most importantly, the other requirements for the module assessment design meant that the student wouldn’t pass with the outsourced work, even before appropriate actions were taken through the official university disciplinary processes.

It was that incident that sparked off an interest in what would come to be called contract cheating. That hasn’t been the most memorable incident of contract cheating that I’ve been involved with, but perhaps that can be addressed in another post.


Feel free to add your first (or subsequent) experience of contact cheating as a reply.

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Article by Thomas Lancaster

My name is Dr. Thomas Lancaster, and I am a Associate Dean in Recruitment at Staffordshire University in the United Kingdom and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. My background is in the Computer Science discipline. My best known academic research relates to student plagiarism and contract cheating. Please browse around the blog and the links, and feel free to leave your thoughts.
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