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.

Contract Cheating – A Decade (Plus One) Of Contract Cheating

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Year 11 Review

In 2016, I quietly published a series of blog posts looking back at 10 years of contract cheating. June 2016 marked the 10th anniversary of my research referring to contract cheating. This was first being published in June 2006 (although the data referred to in that study predates this, as it was collected from 2004 onwards).

The A Decade of Contract Cheating series looked back at previous developments, considered future work in the contract cheating and debuted some new elements of research prior to formal publication.

I didn’t heavily promote A Decade of Contract Cheating when the posts were originally published, although I’ve had some good feedback relating to the series. That means that many of the posts have become buried inside the blog.

June 2017 marks 11 years of contract cheating. This brings with it the perfect time to review the A Decade of Contract Cheating series and to look at how the field is continuing to progress. I’ve summarised the posts, with links to the original discussions, in the table below.

Post Number Post Title Post Details
Part 01 Examining The Changes That Have Been Made To The Marketplace For Bespoke Essays Slides This was the first talk I delivered that really drilled down into the marketing of essay mills and contract cheating services. This marketing is one of the main reasons that the essay industry has been able to become so big. I’ve since developed these ideas much further through other presentations.
Part 02 Examining The Changes That Have Been Made To The Marketplace For Bespoke Essays Video As part of the 10 in 10 series, I recorded a separate (34 minute) version of what I billed as my anniversary presentation. Conference presentations are always tight on time, so this video version allowed me to go into more detail about the examples. Marketing is such a fast moving field that there are new developments to add to how the essay industry works even from one year ago.
Part 03 The Demand For Essay Writing Jobs A little-spoken about challenge within contract cheating has been the set of academic writers who provide essays and assignments for students. This post identifies five types of ghostwriters along with examples and details of the market that buys and sells essay writing service accounts as these are in great demand. The post doesn’t discuss the fake academic writers who are also out there, collecting money from unsuspecting students.
Part 04 Eliminating The Successor To Plagiarism – Identifying The Usage Of Contract Cheating Sites 10 Years On Slides I developed this talk as an Internet exclusive, taking the set of slides from my first conference presentation on contract cheating and annotating them with how the field had developed in the past 10 years. The slides empathise the change in marketing techniques and how the success of similarity detection software has moved the essay industry away from selling the same essay multiple times. They also show the still valid finding, that students don’t just buy a single assignment, but students continue to habitually buy assignments throughout their course.
Part 05 Eliminating The Successor To Plagiarism – Identifying The Usage Of Contract Cheating Sites 10 Years On Video The video version of the 10 Years On talk (another Internet exclusive) runs to 27 minutes, allowing me to drill down much more into the differences between the essay writing industry in 2006 and 2016. This is a useful introduction video to anyone looking to see how the contract cheating field has developed.
Part 06 The Growth Of Essay Outsourcing To Fiverr.com As part of my publications, I’ve broken the news of different sites being used to facilitate contract cheating on many occasions. Fiverr.com is part of the gig economy for cheating, offering very low cost outsourcing opportunities for students thinking outside the box of the major essay mills. Students are using this an agency style website and cutting out the other links in the cheating chain to connect together directly with writers. The site provides over 800 advertised gigs for essay writing services. In a separate investigation of mine where I priced up one of my own assignments, a literature review, most writers asked for $20 USD to complete this 2000 word literature review (just 1c per word).
Part 07 What Shape Is The Bespoke Essay Industry In Today? How big is the essay industry is one of those difficult questions to answer. I tend to play safe when asked that question, pointing instead to the massive growth of essay site marketing and visibility as being suggestive on many more sites. There have also been suggestions that, although the number of orders has grown, the amount paid per assignment has dropped, so the financial growth of the industry has also slowed. Equating known facts about the industry and search traffic, I estimate an essay industry worth £50 million per year. This is below the figures suggested by the essay mills themselves. However, when smaller players such as individual writers and private tutors are included, as well as the market for work in languages other than English, the real figure could be much higher.
Part 08 The Impact Of Twitter On The Essay Industry I was an early adopter of social media use within teaching in the UK. In the world of 2017, it would be difficult to imagine a world where students weren’t digitally led and engaged through social media. The contract cheating industry also knows this, with advertising sent to students that can be both context aware and geotargeted. This post focuses on Twitter, but as my essay marketing work has shown, similar functionality is available through Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat and other sites. As well as examples of adverts and classifications of users, the post also identifies the essay companies who are tweeting details of all the assignments they complete – seemingly a great way of advertising the work that can be requested, but also a possible method that academics can use to check if a request for their assignment to be outsourced has been made.
Part 09 Ten Years Of Contract Cheating Keynote Presentation Slides and Video This keynote presentation traces the movement from contract cheating being kept under wraps to becoming a highly developed and sophisticated industry. This talk firmly sets the stage for the need for open discussions about contract cheating and looks at the challenges posed by new technologies. As well as the slides, a video version of the keynote is also available with my contribution lasting around one hour (for convenience, I’ve embedded this at the end of this blog post).
Part 10 10 Contract Cheating Research Observations From The Past Decade That Have Shaped What We Know About Student Cheating Behaviour What have we discovered about contract cheating that we didn’t know before (forgive me, this is one of those list type of blog posts). I’ve picked up 10 observations from across the contract cheating literature and collected knowledge base that I think are of importance and I’ve discussed each of these. The final observation holds particularly true and I heard very similar sentiments expressed in a different study just recently. That is, all assignments are cheatable when students are inclined to cheat. To me, student engagement is key, as is their ownership of their learning journey.

Looking back at the posts, I actually cheated a little as there are only really eight subjects (in two cases, I posted slides and a video as separate entitles), but there’s still a lot of information that I hope is of use there.

As several people have expressed to me recently, I’m bad at traditional academic publishing, so there are several components that could easily form the basis for a good academic paper (if only I had an unlimited conference budget). There’s also a huge amount of material I leave buried in the slides from talks, or worse still, in the verbal and video discussions.

There is a useful book bringing the developments in the contract cheating research field together that just needs to emerge.

If you have time to look at just one thing, I think that the keynote I gave on contract cheating at Curtin University balances well the need to review the past and look ahead to the potential future developments in the field.

I’ve also since worked out how to embed the video from the keynote presentation, which you can view below.

This only seems to be a screen capture with audio, but I know that cameras were filming, so that footage might be around somewhere.

The other presentations from the symposium are worth a look as well and there’s the complete recording of an internal contract cheating workshop that I delivered. There’s also audio from the closing discussion where I was part of the contract cheating panel.

Contract Cheating – A Workshop On The Bespoke Assessment Industry

I’m often asked to deliver workshops on contract cheating for different audiences and academic disciplines and I’m always keen to help with these if I can fit them into my schedule.

I delivered a workshop for the Faculty of Arts, Computing, Engineering and Sciences Learning and Teaching Conference at Sheffield Hallam University, which I presented as a way to encourage academics there to think about the type of assessments that they were asking students to complete.

You can see the slides for the workshop on my SlideShare account. They are also embedded below.

This workshop led to a particularly interesting discussion about what types of assignments work best in different disciplines. I do continue to believe that subject specific solutions to contract cheating are needed, although much of the necessary work does not seem to have happened yet.

Contract Cheating And The Essay Writing Industry – Where Does The Money Go

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.

You can see the slides for the presentation on my SlideShare account. They are also embedded below.

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.

10 Contract Cheating Research Observations From The Past Decade That Have Shaped What We Know About Student Cheating Behaviour

10 In 10 Contract Cheating Series – Part 10

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.

Although I don’t have a budget to directly commission work from writers and assess how good this is, I am certain that a high quality 2000 word assignment could easily be purchased for $100 USD or less (and earlier in this series, I’ve demonstrated that offers exist to complete work for as low as $20 USD).

 

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.

Page 1 of 212»