Contract Cheating

The area of academic research I’m best known for is contract cheating. Much of this research, including the early studies, was completed alongside my colleague Robert Clarke.

Contract cheating is a term that we originally publicised in 2006, based around a research study carried out of the use of the RentACoder (now Freelancer) site. The working definition of contract cheating has changed over a series of subsequent studies, talks and publications, but we’d generally classify this loosely along the lines of:

Contract cheating describes the process through which students can have original work produced for them, which they can then submit as if this were their own work. Often this involves the payment of a fee and this can be facilitated using online auction sites.

One of the most striking aspects of the original research into contract cheating has been how cheaply students can have work produced for them. Often, this costs only a few dollars when an agency site is used, using an auction process to help students find people to create assignments for them. This work is often produced far cheaper than traditional essay mills. The workers who provide these cheap assignments are commonly based overseas where the economy allows them to work for less.

Agency sites are not the only examples of contract cheating sites. Students can still use traditional essay mills. They can use tutorial sites and services, or offline services. They may also make use of friends and family to have worked produced for them. Regardless of how this work is produced, it is a concern. Since contract cheating produces original work, this is unlikely to be picked up using standard text matching plagiarism detection services such as Turnitin.

Some of the more interesting findings across our research have related to the extent of the use of contract cheating services. Very few students do this as a one off, suggesting that there are students who are continually cheating (and, presumably, getting away with it). There are also outsourcers who have published tens, if not hundreds, of assignments, made up from a variety of different universities and courses. This suggests that a “third party subcontractor” is in operation, likely taking orders from students at a high price and then outsourcing them again themselves at a lower price.

There is a lot of potential for further research into contract cheating, in particular trying to establish how and why students cheat. There is also a gap in the knowledge about how to detect this contract cheating. A variety of methods have been proposed, from requiring all assignment specifications to be submitted to a central repository to make them traceable, to using techniques from linguistics to investigate when an assignment has not been written by the student who submitted it. Neither of these detection techniques are foolproof and much more research is needed.

Beyond this, there are parallels with the research into the anti-plagiarism fields, in particular looking at the policies, processes and penalties surrounding contract cheating, and how to write assignments to prevent contract cheating. The research I’ve been involved with has proposed a number of solutions, but there are many others.

Feel free to contact me regarding contract cheating. I often deliver keynote talks, research seminars and training related to plagiarism and contract cheating. I’m happy to discuss the issues further, to assist with staff development and to support requests from the media.

For more information on contract cheating, visit

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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. Much more information about what I've been working on recently is available on my blog.
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  1. Ali.J says:

    Dear professor
    My research subject is plagiarism. Since you coined the term contract cheating in 2006, would you mind clarifying how a “contarct cheater” is different from a “ghost writer”?

    Thank you in advance.

    • Very informally:
      1. If you read the original research on contract cheating, you’ll see that this referred to requests by students to outsource their work.
      2. A ghostwriter could be involved in the process, in preparing work for the student. However, not all assessed work in academia is in a written format.
      3. Ghostwriting can be a legitimate pursuit. There are many reasons why companies and individuals hire ghostwriters and this is acceptable. For instance, to write speeches, prepare autobiographies, even produce teaching resources for resale. The terminology needs to differentiate the legitimate activities from the cheating activity.

  • […] My research into contract cheating with Robert Clarke is probably the area which I’m best known for. For this research, we look at how students have work completed for them. This primarily involves the payment of a fee, using services such as RentACoder, although we’ve extended this definition to include work completed for students for which no fee is charged (most commonly provided by family or friends). This area continues to fascinate me, and I’ve had the pleasure of presenting this regularly at conferences and workshops, as well as on TV, radio and in the wider media. I also regularly get to hear interesting stories from other academics who have been touched by the world of contract cheating, many unfortunately not repeatable as they would identify individuals, but I’m also interested to hear about the wide range of people who have been touched by this contract cheating research. […]

  • […] Contract Cheating Research On […]

  • […] der Vorreiter dieses Fachgebietes ist wie erwähnt Thomas Lancaster, den ich auch auf der oben genannten Tagung im Mai dazu vortragen hörte. Auf seinen Websites […]

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Welcome to my site, here at, where you can find out more about me, Dr Thomas Lancaster. I work as an Associate Dean responsible for student recruitment at Staffordshire University, United Kingdom. I'm best known for my research work into contract cheating and academic integrity. Feel free to browse, and to check out my other social profiles.

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