Contract Cheating and Essay Mills 2017 Findings Part 5 – Emerging Issues in Contract Cheating

This is Part 5 of the 7 part series examining Findings From Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2017

There are always new emerging issues that relate to contract cheating and academic integrity. This post is my attempt to capture some of those ideas that don’t fit too cleanly with the other themes.

Addressing Contract Cheating Beyond The Academic Environment

Early in the opening keynote, Tracey Bretag proposed the use of the term outcomes instead of penalties when discussing academic misconduct cases. I’ll try and remember to use that terminology.

Phil Newton discussed his investigations regarding the legality of contract cheating providers. This continues to be location dependent.

Phil did discuss interesting findings from Rebecca Awdry that say a lot about public perceptions of contract cheating. Rebecca found that the majority of people think that it should be illegal for companies to sell essays to students. Perhaps more interestingly, they also thought that it should be illegal for students to buy essays and assignments. If such a development happened, this could make contract cheating into a criminal offence. Government legislation was also suggested as a solution by student advocates from Australia in research findings presented by Wendy Sutherland-Smith.

Trudy Somers suggested that contract cheating might need to be presented as a fraudulent activity. I don’t want to attempt to get into a legal discussion as this was said from a United States viewpoint, but there may be issues here with student loans having being obtained fraudulently if a student is found to have contract cheated. There may also be issues with the future credit scores of students. This seems like something worth warning students about if they are considering getting a mortgage, or even a loan for a new car, later in their life.

Student advocates also thought that students do not know enough about the possible consequences of contract cheating. Wendy Sutherland-Smith presented the results of research with advocates in Australia. One of their recommendations was that students need to be made aware about the risks posed to their wider professional registration. It certainly seems that the discussion with students regarding contract cheating posing more than just an academic outcome is worth having.

Other Academic Integrity Challenges

Some other challenges were discussed at the conference which I think are worth flagging, even if they are only tangentially related to contract cheating.

Much has been said in the past about a race between students and academics to get around any safeguards put in place to preserve academic integrity. One such example is the move away from “copy and paste” plagiarism to contract cheating, since word for word copying is detectable. There are also many more players getting involved in this race now, since helping students to cheat is seen as big business.

I’ve presented many times on the development of technology designed to enable cheating in exams, ranging from the sophisticate contract cheating like processes with third parties completing an examination for a student, all the way down to the simple micro-sized notes printed onto a fake water bottle label.

Some students have been looking at ways to defeat plagiarism detection software and have resorted to various types of article spinning and essay spinning. One of the most developed of these methods appears to be the use of translation software, an area which I’ve presented on and which was presented at the conference by Rui-Sousa Silva. There are various methods that students can use here, including using Google Translate to take an essay written in a foreign language and translate it into English, to taking English text and translating it through a chain of languages back to English, then ending up with text that is rather different than the original. I wouldn’t be surprised if many essay writers for contract cheating services weren’t using techniques like this to quickly supply work that gets around the “no plagiarism” guarantee that many essay mills advertise.

Rui believes that the patterns left behind by the machine translation can be detected and presented some initial ideas at the conference. There is a wider problem for linguistically able detectives to research here, as my foreign language skills are not at that level. Rui’s ideas do depend on knowing that something is amiss with the writing, or that the written ability does not match the spoken ability of a writer, but this is not possible in all situations. One thing I did discover that I wasn’t aware of is that Turnitin does now offer the detection of translation plagiarism in its software, but this isn’t turned on in many installations. This is a step in the right direction, even if the algorithms don’t perfectly solve this problem yet.

Translation is not always perfect, whether this goes through a machine or is completed by hand. I also noted that at the end of my talk, where a quote I gave to the media had become scrambled through translation and may even have been suggesting the opposite of what I intended. The quote was actually there to introduce a wider question about student cheating and smart drugs. These drugs are the (usually prescription) medication that students and professionals can take to stay awake, increase concentration levels and work more efficiently – that is, if the promotion behind these substances is to be believed.

I’ll discuss more about these substances, which appear under a variety of classifications including smart drugs, study drugs and nootropics, another time, but there is a wider question to be answered. This questions asks does using smart drugs gives a student an unfair advantage over another student that could be considered as cheating. Research is starting to emerge on this subject with much to suggest that the drugs do provide an advantage to some, but the cheating issue remains unanswered.

I’m pleased to say that the conference organisers quickly picked this topic up as one of the conference themes for Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond 2018 (using the term “mind stimulating drugs”). That means that there will be plenty of opportunities for the academic integrity community to research and address the smart drugs issue.