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

14 thoughts on “Contract Cheating”

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  3. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Michael Eardley


        1. This is an area I’ve discussed in both talks and academic papers. You’re quite right. We would want a student’s ability to write academically to improve during their course.

          Any stylometric software being used needs to take this into account. That is also why there always has to be a human stage to the process, to look at the new piece of work and see if the change is justified. The lecturer may know the student well and have seen the way that their writing style has developed, or they may be able to interview them to check that they understand the assessment that they’ve submitted.

          We do also have to differentiate between the style of the writing and the quality of the writing.

          Everyone has certain quirks about their writing style. There are words they use more often that they should, or certain combinations of words. I certainly have these myself. This is even more obvious if you think about speech patterns. It is very hard to avoid these regardless of how good or bad a writer you are.

          The quality of the writing is something that we would expect to improve, gradually, during a course. Areas like the preciseness of the English. A sudden shift from Grade D writing to Grade A writing would be suspicious (but could be justified after discussions with a lecturer).

          Some changes of student writing style between assignments just aren’t subtle. There are cases where the writing style gets worse (not better), which can be caused by using a different writer. And, there are some that just stand out like a sore thumb, such as someone who usually writes with UK English, but has suddenly started writing with US English.

          1. Thanks for yout promp reply just to the point do you not think that allowing the lecturer himself to be the judge of this matter based on software or whistle blowers’ information is a presumption of guilt thus making a bad impression of the student? Why not an independent committee similar to EC panel where the lecturers have no role to play in this. I say this since one can be targetted and persecuted vindictively for his/her writing style by his/her fellow colleagues through whistle blowing.

          2. It would be unusual in the UK (and many other countries) for someone marking the student’s work to also be the same person who made the decision about if it represents a breach of academic integrity. The market might submit evidence, but this would go to a panel.

            It would be difficult for anyone other than the marker/lecturer to complete this stage. They would be the person who had got to know the student and their writing style. They would also be the person with the subject knowledge to undertake a viva of the student work.

            A student making false allegations about another student is clearly wrong. University academic misconduct processes should already cover this and the student making the allegation could be liable in such a case. This is similar to the (not uncommon) case where a student makes a false allegation about a lecturer’s conduct.

            I agree that university processes have to be carefully considered to be fair to all involved.

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    1. Alison, the services often present themselves as offering support that universities do not. The more support we can offer in house, the better. There’s nothing to be ashamed of from seeking support. It also means we can track what support our students need and potentially put improvements in place ready for future students.

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