Bournemouth builds armoury against ‘contract’ essay cheats

Personalised assessments and more emphasis on exams could help cut out plagiarism, argues associate dean Mark Ridolfo

June 13, 2013

Source: Corbis

Undercover work: websites offer to custom-prepare assignments, which are hard to detect as not a student’s own

As efforts to detect student plagiarism get more sophisticated, a university is considering bolstering the weapons in its armoury against a growing form of misconduct, “contract” cheating.

The term refers to students handing in bespoke essays purchased through essay-writing sites. But according to Mark Ridolfo, associate dean for student experience at Bournemouth University’s Business School, the phenomenon is difficult to detect and prove.

Because assignments are written from scratch, contract cheating gets around plagiarism detection software, and although other tools that detect changes in writing style exist, they can be slow, inaccurate and expensive, he said.

Detecting this kind of cheating “is almost impossible, incredibly time-consuming and, even when you have suspicions, going through to the next stage of the process [an academic offence panel] is difficult,” he said.

So, at the request of Bournemouth’s Academic Standards Committee, Mr Ridolfo has been working with the school’s deputy dean for education, Geoff Willcocks, on ways to tackle the issue.

In a paper that will go to the university’s senate, the pair suggest that the institution would benefit from making greater use of exams and designing assessments that are more “personalised” to the course, to make contract cheating more difficult.

For assignments worth more than 20 credits (out of 120 for a year’s undergraduate study), staged assessments should be considered, they add, and academic procedures should be revised to provide staff with more powers to investigate and more guidance on how to “pros-ecute” such cases.

Another idea trialled recently – using viva-style oral assessments in suspect cases to explore students’ understanding of concepts, phrases and sources – met with mixed success.

In three of four cases the meetings helped to determine that the work was a student’s own, but proving the contrary remained difficult, Mr Ridolfo said. “In one case we had grave concerns…but even after 40 minutes of talking we couldn’t pin down anything concrete that we could take to an academic offence panel.”

Nor did responding badly to such questioning necessarily imply guilt, he added.

The ability to undertake such investigations should become an option in more programmes, especially for dissertations, he said. But given their labour-intensive nature, future efforts to stop contract cheating were more likely to focus on prevention and deterrence, he added.

The students’ union at Bournemouth told Times Higher Education that it would happily work with the institution to prevent contract cheating. “The idea of vivas for undergraduates may even help [students] to apply their learning and summarise what they have understood from various projects,” it said.

“However, it would need to be confirmed how this process could work to ensure discrimination…doesn’t occur and that the selection of who receives vivas is appropriate.”

Mr Ridolfo said that his university was far from the only one affected by contract cheating: “I think all institutions are looking at how to deal with this problem and I suspect they will, like us, be looking at a combination of prevention, detection and penalties.”

Companies that provide and commission assignments have begun to market more aggressively, he added. Not only have staff been approached to write essays and PhDs but adverts targeting students are being placed on social networking sites and on campus, he said. “We’ve even had to tear them down from noticeboards.”

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