Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 4 – Detecting Contract Cheating

This is Part 4 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

Mixed views continue to exist across the sector as to whether we should be trying to detect contract cheating. I have always felt that this is a duty of academics to protect the value of assessments for other students, but I can see why views vary here. There should be a deterrent factor as part of the risk of being caught. But I was interested to hear the views from student advocates at the conference, as presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith. Advocates felt that students wanted to see people who were contract cheating get caught.

This blog post focuses mainly on technology. Before anyone shouts of me, I should establish that we’re not yet in a position where we can assume that technology can detect contract cheating. However, we may perhaps be able to use technology to identify work that may be unoriginal, with the onus then being on a human to make a judgement. This is analogous to how software that identifies similarity between texts can be used as part of a plagiarism detection process.

Stylometric Analysis

Two conference presentations focused on software and techniques designed to identify the author of different documents. This is something of a trend right now, as I know of two further groups in the UK actively working on this (and I’m sure that there are other people working on this who I’m not aware of). Further, at the conference I found out about a current tool used for plagiarism detection that already has this built in. I also know about one of the largest software providers in the plagiarism field who is actively working to add writing style analysis to their software.

From the conference presentations, two quite different approaches were proposed.

Patrick Juola runs a company that aims to automate authorship attribution and proposed an approach that sounds simple on paper. He suggested collecting assessment submissions from students throughout their course. Their most recent document is then compared with the one submitted immediately prior using an automated process to see if both documents have been written by the same person. If not, there is cause for concern.

This is an approach that certainly sounds like it could have some merit, but this does also need to be supplemented by details of exactly what measures are being compared.

Rui Sousa-Silva looked at how authorship attribution software could be used by people who saw a document that they thought may have been written by someone other than the student submitting the work. He gave several examples using Wordsmith Tools. Here, an investigator would compare the suspect document with other work written by the student. This way of thinking about authorship did provide more detail, but I do still feel that a lot more training would be needed to help many staff feel comfortable with relying on this type of software, as well as understanding of the software by all involved with academic conduct investigations.

I made limited progress on the use of stylometry for both plagiarism and contract cheating detection in the early to mid-2000s, mostly working with students. Although a few results found their way into talks and papers, I was never able to devote sufficient time to this. So, it’s good to see other people taking up the mantle. There are still issues to overcome with ensuring the reliability of these stylometric approaches, as well as ensuring that student assignments are widely and systematically collected.

Other Approaches To Detection

Tracey Bretag presented results from a survey of academic staff from Australian universities based on how they had detected contract cheating. The most common responses given were detection by knowledge of the student’s academic ability (71%) and knowledge of their English language ability (62%). Both of these approaches are valid but can be difficult when anonymous marking is used.
Tracey also found that 49% of academics were alerted to contract cheating through text matching from similarity detection software, such as Turnitin. This is an interesting result from several perspectives. First, it supports some of my previous research looking at the use of Turnitin to detect contract cheating. Second, it casts doubt on the claim of many essay providers that they are providing a plagiarism free assignment. This does suggest that, even as new approaches are introduced, the use of software designed to detect plagiarism is still essential.

In research with student advocates presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith, she also found suggestions for the use of software, particularly to identify students. One suggestion was keystroke analysis, a technique with some overlap to writing style analysis. I also noticed a suggestion of eye detection. Whether this involves tracking the eyeline of a student to ensure that it’s focused on assessment tasks, or whether this involves iris scanning to ensure that the correct student is sitting examinations and submitted work is not clear.

Perhaps all of these different approaches for detecting contract cheating have some merit?

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 3 – Contract Cheating by Academics

This is Part 3 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

An area that has, as of yet, received little attention in the literature has been contract cheating by academics. I’ve touched on this on several occasions and this also its way into talks at the conference, but it’s generally a subject that may more closely fit with research integrity conferences. Although I don’t recall seeing much work on contract cheating going through those conferences either.

Research Integrity

The wider issue of research integrity did come up in the keynote by Jeffrey Beall, where he discussed the market in predatory journals. He presented a model of how some academics used predatory journals to gain promotion. The model was simple. The academic plagiarises a paper, submits it to the predatory journal, pays the fee and the paper gets published. A wider discussion looked at how the plagiarised paper version could be generating using article spinning software (an area I discussed in relation to student plagiarism in my paper on essay spinning). Once the plagiarised paper is published, the academic then adds to their publication count which they can use towards their next promotion. I’ve observed versions of this technique with contract cheating suppliers involved, particularly to get the paper written.

A presentation by Muhammad Shahid Soroya about the promotional requirements for academics in Pakistan emphasised how this model can be successful. Muhammad discussed how many academic requirements have been standardised across Pakistan, largely to around inconsistencies and corruption. One of these related to promotion, with academics required to get 10 papers published to become an Associate Professor and 15 papers to become a Professor. Papers published quickly, even for a fee, could prove to be financially advantageous to an academic in this situation.

A related issue in Romania was raised by Emilia Sercan, who worked as a undercover journalist to expose plagiarised PhD theses, seemingly a necessity for promotion for many positions in the country. She said that 14.63% of PhDs awarded by military universities were plagiarised, including some from high profile public officials. She also identified some of these PhD holders who had become supervisors, with their own students found to have plagiarised. Following the investigations, public access to the PhD archive was said to have been restricted, possibly suggesting that there was no desire to identify any further plagiarised theses. Although this investigation did not relate specifically to contract cheating, a separate presentation by Strike Plagiarism stated that Romania did not consider the use of essay mills a threat, despite these being said to be cheap to use. This does leave an open question regarding whether or not contract cheating services could be being used to support PhD completion in countries such as Romania.

Fake Authorship

The related area of fake authorship emerged in several discussions at the Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference. Most notably, this observed as either a financial or reputational transaction.

Jeffrey Beall talked about a move by authors to sell authorship on their papers. I’m assuming this is usually as an additional author, but I’ve also observed contract cheating services offering to write journal papers who I presume are offering the whole publication. Jeffrey also talked about authors who were gifting authorship, presumably as a form of bribery designed to pay dividends down the line. In some ways, this is not much of a stretch from forms of publication that happen with the names of large research teams involved. There may be the need for a discussion to see where the dividing line should be drawn. I know of people who do some (perhaps intense) copy-editing of research papers in return for an authorship credit, so this is not an easy area to define.

Another conference discussion covered a related area, where author names are added to a paper without their knowledge. This is presumably done to increase the kudos of the paper by having a bigger name associated and to hence improve the odds of publication. I’ve heard of variants of this technique, including things as sophisticated as setting up fake email accounts and profiles for the additional author, as well as recommending fake peer reviewers to ensure that the paper gets published without the added author becoming aware of the deception.

Academic Views on Contract Cheating

As part of a survey of academics working at Australian universities, Tracey Bretag and her team collected data from more than 1000 people. Some findings from that research are of concern.

Most of the academics surveyed were said to not take contract cheating cases forward. This suggests elements of “turning a blind eye” to the problem.

Two figures are of more concern. 0.5% of academics said that they had provided unfair materials of students. More analysis will be needed to confirm what that means, but it could include supplying assignments to students. Further, 10.0% of academics said that they had contract cheated themselves as a student. It is not clear is that means that they purchased assignment solutions themselves, or if they provided answers for other students, but neither of these are good reflections of academia, particularly as this is unlikely to be a topic that many academics would choose to boast about.

Phil Newton did note his wider research about the teaching of academic integrity principles to teaching staff in the UK, with none of the major textbooks used to show lecturers how to teach covering academic integrity. If this finding is typical of the rest of the world, it may be that a major rethinking of the curriculum used to teach academics about delivering high quality education are needed.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 2 – Inside The Contract Cheating Industry

This is Part 2 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

A lot of presentations at Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond discussed the wider essay industry as some part of their presentation. That has provided me with the opportunity to collate a lot interesting information for this blog post.

The Size of the Contract Cheating Industry

How big the essay industry is tends to be one of those questions that regularly repeats itself, particularly as this always seem to be a growing market. I’ve previously pulled together some existing estimates and added my own.

Phil Newton shared the figure that there are over 1000 English language essay sites. However, this does not necessarily mean 1000 different companies, as many sites are the same company, just with a different front-end to them. Similarly, as I’ve shown in my marketing research, some of these sites are not even essay mills at all. They just transfer potential customers to another site and receive a commission.

Veronika Kralikova completed a similar study for sites marketed at students from the Czech Republic. She found over 100 such sites, most of which were said to be locally run. Again, it’s not clear if this means that there were 100 unique companies or not. Veronika did say that the sites were easy to find. This compares similarly to the SEEPPAI research I’ve been involved with in SE Europe, which also found that markets were heavily localised.

Veronika also tried to work out how many people were using those sites and collected together log files of accesses from her university network between January and March 2017. For the most used of the sites, she found an average of 58,000 visits per month. That will include duplicate visits but the number is still astonishing. It would be interesting to see similar numbers collected from other university networks.

Neither of the figures referring to the number of essay mills reflect the fact that most contract cheating does not go through traditional essay mills at all. My own work has looked heavily at the use of agency sites, such as Freelancer, as well as student connections with ghost-writers through classified adverts and private tutors. More interestingly, Tracey Bretag’s research looking at student use of contract cheating services in Australia found that only 10.4% of students who had contract cheated said that they had used a professional service. By contrast, 60.2% of students said they had relied on a current student or former student. That may not be surprising, as these are people familiar with the material, and, where the assignment details do not change from year to year, also familiar with the exact assessment. A study in the Czech Republic used different groupings, but found that 40% of students who had contract cheated had used a professional service, whereas 60% had used friends and family.

Tracey also found that only 13.2% of students said that they had paid money for the assignment or assignments they received. With friends, family members and significant others supplying much of the work, this again looks believable, although the payment figure may hide agreements of other forms that carry value for both parties, for instance as previous examples of contract cheating being undertaken for bedroom favours have shown.

The Writers Behind The Contract Cheating Industry

Some of the most fascinating research into contract cheating that has emerged, or has started to emerge, has looked at the ghostwriters who are keeping the essay industry afloat. This was discussed in several talks, as well as in the main contract cheating panel discussion.

I mentioned my work looking at the sales funnels used by contract cheating providers and noted that very little of the money paid by a student to a big company would end up with the eventual writer. This was supported by Chloe Walker’s ongoing research in Kenya, where she provided some case studies of the people employed in contract cheating provider roles. She gave one example of a writer who moonlighted in the evenings after completing their main job, usually returning two essays per night for $2 or $3 per essay. She also discussed a former full time writer who previously worked in the industry for one year, typically working 15 hour days. That writer was said to usually receive between $5 and $25 per page, although it wasn’t made clear how many pages were written in a day.

Those figures show some disparity, but my own experience suggests that the lower figures are more common, particularly for writers working in a developing economy or having work supplied through a large company.

There was some discussion about whether these wages represented exploitation, with no consensus reached. It is a difficult argument to sum up in a short space. $25 per page, if true, is more than many companies charge and more than UK and US essay writers make. I can remember the same discussions happening back when I used to discuss contract cheating for program source code, potentially an even cheaper task as the worker does not need to be able to speak English.

Financially, Chloe said that workers in Kenya are keen to find a position working in the gig economy. Some of the numbers are alarming. 35% of youths in Kenya are unemployed. 40,000 people are said to be employed as digital workers, with 20,000 of those people in Kenya employed as “academic writers”. That is a substantial figure, particularly if the essay industry is able to supply enough work to keep all of those people busy. The vast number of people working in the industry can only drive prices (and wages) down.

Where there likely is more exploitation is due to a lack of job security. Workers in the contract cheating industry are easy to replace. By its nature, the work is also unpredictable and seasonal. There could be weeks with no orders and other weeks with 50 orders. The situation is comparable with the wider gig economy jobs in the UK, like driving an Uber, to working on zero hour contracts serving drinks in a bar. Although many workers do seem to treat contract cheating like a career, it’s hard to consider this line of work as one.

Some writers have managed to work out how to turn the contract cheating industry to their advantage. I’ve spoken to several who have acquired high paying regular clients, particularly writers based in the UK and US. At other conferences, I’ve heard about students who identify a writer, sometimes before they go to university and then refer that same writer to their friends and contacts.

Shiva Sivasubramaniam also discussed the findings from his work with international writers, but who had been educated in countries like the UK and US. He suggested that these people had not been able to find jobs and so had been driven into this line of work, using some of the skills from their degree studies. Alas, I doubt that this is the type of entrepreneurial spirit that universities are hoping that their students will develop. I’ve seen Shiva’s wider work and he’s also identified strong marketing techniques used by this group of international writers, including developing their own writing networks.

There is still much more work to be done to look at the ghost-writers behind the contract cheating industry. A discussion of concern suggested that there may be academics working as ghost-writers, particularly those who are hourly paid and could be considered to be on the university version of zero hour contracts. A presentation from Strike Plagiarism discussed wider research in Europe where academics had been found associated with essay mills. I certainly know of cases involving PhD students who have worked as academic writers, but the suggestion of full academics is taking this to another level. There is more work for us to do as a sector here.

The Quality Of Purchased Essays

There’s been a fair amount of research in recent years looking at the quality of work provided by ghost-writers and essay mills. Although recent research has suggested that there have been some improvements, there is still a lot of disparity from company to company and writer to writer.

Veronika Kralikova purchased an essay from two of the main essay mills in the Czech Republic. In each case, the same essay topic was requested with a payment of $107 for an essay with a three-week turnaround time. The results were mixed, with one of the essays said to be “very bad” and the other said to be “average”. This ties in with wider work looking at the quality of purchased essays which suggests that the buyer should beware.

The Marketing Behind The Contract Cheating Industry

An area related to the size of the essay industry looks at the marketing of contract cheating services. How the sites and individuals promote themselves is something that I’ve found continues to change. Many presenters provided examples of media stories in their talk providing publicity to essay mills. Others presenters gave examples of advertisements that had been seen around campus, many of which were creative.

Wendy-Sutherland Smith disucssed a large essay mill operating in Australia. In response to recent media attention, the site now advertises that they will wipe all details of their clients after their essay purchase is complete, thus removing any risk of the client being caught. Tracey Bretag an interesting example with messages sent directly to students using the logo of the university where she works as part of the marketing message. The use of this logo could be seen to provide some legitimacy to the essay providing service. I showed several cases where students had requested assignments and exams and providers went directly to the student to make offers, often at a competitive price.

Several people showed examples of marketing aimed at specific types of international students. Tracey showed an advert in Chinese, making the aims of that advert obvious. I’ve seen similar styles of adverts in other countries. Shiva Sivasubramaniam discussed some of his findings when working with ghost-writers in Asia. He noted a market where graduates would return to their home country after completing a degree at a Western university and set up as a ghost-writer. They would then market directly to students that their home country, benefiting from the advantage of knowing that market well and possibly even steering the student towards a degree course that they knew they could assist with.

Social media marketing was mentioned several times during the conference, both as a method used by companies to find essay buyers, as well as by companies to employ new writers. Chloe Walker turned the idea of Facebook marketing on its head and discussed how she’d used Facebook advertising to recruit people to participate in her study of contract cheating in Kenya. She used similar search profiles and advertisements to those used by the essay industry itself. A useful idea would be to consider if it’s possible to conduct similar research in other geographical areas and academic disciplines.

Chloe showed several adverts for writers, including one summing up why this might be a good business to move into. Its headline simply promised, “You will earn a lot if you take up online academic writing jobs, Kenya”.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 1 – Academic Integrity and Contract Cheating Terminology

This is Part 1 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

One of the main challenges to emerge from the Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference from an understanding point of view related to problems with the terminology used across the field. Therefore, I’ve selected a discussion of the issues as a slightly unusual place to launch this blog post series reviewing the conference findings.

The Lack of Terminology

There were several occasions during the conference when the lack of a consistent terminology caused problems. Contract cheating was noted to not be a common term in the Czech Republic and some presenters substituted ghostwriting. The panel discussion noted that the term ghostwriting was rather flawed in this context, since this automatically assumes that work produced through contract cheating is of the written form. Many disciplines do not use essays and reports, or rarely use them, but contract cheating is equally applicable to a student requesting a musical composition, a set of PowerPoint slides or the source code for a computer program.

One member of the audience thought that contract cheating had only recently become known about in Canada and was not aware of the volume of research and practical advice on the subject. The pre-conference programme had made it clear that there were multiple sessions on the topic at the conference, including two of the keynotes. This suggests that there is still much more work to do to spread the message about this form of academic misconduct.

One presentation used the term “contract cheaters” to refer to the writers providing assignments for students. To me, the “cheaters’ have always been the students receiving the work, so that terminology is difficult. I’ve tended to use “workers” to describe the writers, particularly as this term does not preclude non-written assessments. There are further complications when the person or company paid to complete an assignment is not the same person who completes it and I’ve identified many such examples during my research. The term “academic writer” was also noted to be used by people in the trade, although that rather lends the profession legitimacy.

The Use of the Term Exams

The term “exams” also proved to be difficult. I’d observed this causing problems during the SEEPPAI research I’ve been involved with and based on some discussions, it seemed that the same different interpretations were happening with some delegates at the conference. I interpret exams (or examinations) as being the tests taken by students, usually in a controlled environment. It seems that some countries say exams when they want to represent the entire set of assessment making up a module or course, even if this is solely graded through coursework. My talk also showed an example where a student said they were attempting to outsource the completion of an exam for them. They were actually asking for the production of a set of PowerPoint slides.

Further Developments

I may have inadvertently further added to the overall confusion. I presented a session that looked at contract cheating when applied to an examination setting. There are many such examples when this terminology is valid, for instance when a student hires a third party to complete an online examination for them.

I suspect that it’s getting to the point where a full taxonomy of terms relating to academic integrity and contract is needed. Older papers may even need to be reworked in light of a fresh annotated bibliography that has such an agreed taxonomy in place.

Contract Cheating and Essay Mills – Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

Much of my blog is devoted to discussions around contract cheating, the area of concern to academic integrity advocates as this sees students use a third party to have work completed for them.

Sessions at the 2017 international conference on Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond ended up heavily focused on contract cheating. Having been part of contact cheating research since the term first formed part of the research literature and having recently published a series of articles marking the 10 year mark for research into contract cheating, I’m always pleased to see how the field is developing, but still have some disappointment that this wider interest took so long to emerge.

I’ve already shared my conference presentation on contract cheating in examinations and provided general collected thoughts about Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017.

It is the conference findings on contract cheating that are of most interest to me. In my next series of posts, I want to share some of the main ideas that have emerged from the collective brains at the conference. Rather than presenting these thoughts linearly, I’ve grouped them into seven thematic areas, although these areas do have some overlap.

Here’s a summary of some of the main contract cheating themes I observed at the conference.

Theme Number Theme Conference Highlights
01 Academic Integrity and Contract Cheating Terminology Some of the conference discussions were challenged by a lack of awareness of contract cheating and a lack of understanding of the main ideas and termninology. Even the term exam was used to mean different things in different contexts.
02 Inside The Contract Cheating Industry Understanding the operations of the essay industry is essential to knowing how the address the issues. In particular, the conference identified the role of large numbers of international ghost-writers in keeping the industry financially viable.
03 Contract Cheating by Academics The behaviours surrounding contract cheating have begun to be observed within groups of academics, particularly where these relate to misconduct in fulfilling research publication quotas.
04 Detecting Contract Cheating Computer scientists and linguistics have been making progress in detecting work that has not been written by the student submitting it. There are many approaches here, but recent developments have focused on stylometry.
05 Emerging Issues In Contract Cheating Wider challenges surrounding educational integrity also influence how contract cheating practice could develop. These include traditional areas of student plagiarism, the use of translation and essay spinning software, as well as the risks posed by students using smart drugs.
06 Which Students Are Contract Cheating And What Does This Mean For Assessment? Recent data collection from students has helped with an understanding of which types of students may need help to avoid contract cheating temptations and which assessment modalities should be considered in place of an essay-oriented curriculum.
07 Understanding Contract Cheating From The Student Viewpoint The views of students have not previously been consistently considered as part of the movement in favour of academic integrity, but there is now much good work going on in this area, including the use of events designed to engage students in discussions regarding contract cheating.

 

The observations from the conference cover a wide spectrum of contract cheating areas. One overall emerging challenge that occurs to me is that we need to know more about all of the players involved in the contract cheating industry, including how they are involved with the essay industry and what their motivation is.

My own summary of ideas and reflections from the conference, from which these posts are compiled, runs to nearly 8,000 words, so that just shows how much value there was in the presentations and discussions at Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017.

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