You may have noticed during the month of October, heightened media coverage of Contract Cheating and Academic Integrity. In fact, Monday 17 October 2018 was the third ‘international day of action against contract cheating’; a day organised by the International Centre for Academic Integrity (ICIA). The ICIA was established to “...combat cheating, plagiarism and academic misconduct in higher education” and it looks like they’ve got a mountain to climb, which seems to be getting higher!
What is Academic Misconduct and ‘Contract Cheating’?
Academic Misconduct could be any form of cheating that happens in connection to a formal academic exercise. ‘Contract cheating’ was first used by Clarke and Lancaster in 2007 and according to Professor Phillip Newton of Swansea University, it’s basically cheating by getting someone else to do the work for you, and of course then passing the work off as your own! Contract cheating is closely linked to the use of ‘essay mills’ - companies or individuals set up to generate academic work, usually essays, at the request of a customer.
According to Professor Newton’s recently published systematic review, there has been an increase in contract cheating, some 15.4% of students admitted to, “paying someone else to undertake their work…” Alarmingly, this percentage potentially amounts to 31 million students around the world.
Here’s what a standard transaction might look like...
|Student||Online Essay Mill||Essay prepared on request||Graduating student|
It’s easy to think of contract cheating this way. The ‘lazy’ student that goes searching on the internet for someone else to do the work for him or her. The clean and safe online transaction with a company. The supply of a quality, customised, plagiarism-free essay. The successful happy graduating student. But, if we dig a little deeper, this interpretation of contract cheating is some way from what is actually happening.
Here’s what might actually be happening...
Some students are genuinely struggling. With the prevalence of unconditional offers, are students being recruited with integrity by higher education institutions, or are financial considerations getting in the way? Fanni Zomber, VP Media and Campaigns at the Open University Student’s Association, raises the point that due to the cost of attending university, some students fear the stigma of dropping out and instead find themselves thinking that cheating is the better option. We all know that it isn’t, but things aren’t as black and white as they first appear.
Is the student doing the chasing, or is the student the one being pursued? It’s easy to think that ‘lazy’ students go on the hunt for essay mills, but there is evidence to show that students are being targeted by essay mills. Dr Thomas Lancaster highlights in his article that students simply mentioning that they need to write essays on social media platforms, are being spammed by essay mills.
Internet bots are sending unsolicited messages offering the services of essay mills after being triggered by the use of keywords. Unsolicited emails are also being sent to students, again advertising the services of essay mills, offering to make student life so much easier. If that isn’t bad enough, earlier this year the BBC reported on YouTube stars being paid to sell academic cheating.
Let’s talk about this quality, plagiarism-free essay that is being written on request. There are instances of students finding the essay mill websites have been closed down before the essay was provided, or the essays sent being of such poor quality they couldn’t be submitted anyway. Professor Lancaster told The Guardian in 2017, that students were exposing themselves to risks due to the nature of essay mills which “skirt around the law” and there is “no comeback if what they pay for isn’t delivered or is of poor quality.” Worse still, some students have even been subjected to blackmail by essay mills. As Professor Lancaster points out:
“Even if you get away with this contract cheating, there are writers and companies who know who you are, what you’re studying, where you are based, what university you’re at and who your lecturer is. They’ve got all the information they need to turn you in.”
Thomas Lancaster on LinkedIn
...and what about the elated graduating student? Well, those feelings of elation may not last, or may not even surface at all. One reader shared his experience with The Guardian explaining, “I regret it now as I felt quite guilty about it when I got my results.” We put ourselves through academic or vocational studies to earn the qualifications that demonstrate that we know what we need to know, that we are qualified to do the task at hand. How would you feel if you knew that the doctor operating on you, the pilot flying the plane, the engineer who built the bridge you’re driving over, or the lawyer representing you in court, all cheated when studying and got someone else to do their work for them?
So what is to be done?
Well, in September 2018 46 university vice-chancellors and heads of higher education institutions wrote to the education secretary seeking a ban on essay mill companies. It is clear that if we have a ‘supply and demand’ scenario, then removing the ‘supply’ should solve the problem. The Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah has said that, “legislative options are not off the table.” Right now it is not illegal to provide an essay writing service, the only consequences lie with the student who goes on to submit the essay as their own, which amounts to academic misconduct.
Sam Gyimah is also pushing for the higher education sector to do more in terms of raising awareness with students of the significant consequences of contract cheating. Certainly a two-pronged approach would mean that not only is the ‘supply’ being cut off, the ‘demand’ is being removed too, as more students opt to #excelwithintegrity and do their own work.
Another consideration is to take a fresh look at how students are assessed. Are essays really the best way to find out what someone actually knows or, as suggested by Professor Newton, would more face to face assessment be better? It would certainly pull the rug from under the essay mill market.
One thing is for sure, what might seem like a quick and easy option when that deadline is looming, could end up being a huge risk that really wasn’t worth taking...