Contract cheating ‘ripe to explode’

Universities must be vigilant in age of social media and sneaky technology, researchers warn

April 23, 2018
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The sharing economy has not yet spawned an epidemic of contract cheating on campuses, research suggests, but pressures on students and lenience among academics have sown the seeds for a potential explosion in fraudsters.

Surveys at eight Australian universities have reproduced the findings of smaller studies in other countries, with about one in 17 students admitting to some sort of cheating. However, the research has also revealed an alarmingly laissez-faire attitude to the problem, with students indifferent and staff taking little action.

“The numbers are relatively low, but the concern is also really low,” said lead researcher Tracey Bretag, academic integrity director at the University of South Australia. “It will become the norm if we don’t do something about it now and nip it in the bud. And part of nipping it in the bud is having appropriate penalties.”

The findings have been revealed in two papers published in the journal Studies in Higher Education. They come from surveys of more than 14,000 students and 1,100 staff, delivering what is thought to be by far the biggest dataset on contract cheating.

The research was triggered by the furore after 2015 reports that students from 16 Australian universities had hired a Sydney-based online essay writing company, MyMaster, to produce assignments or sit online tests for them. 

The new research suggests that this sort of commercially oriented cheating is fairly rare. While 6 per cent of students confessed to some form of contract cheating – masquerading as others in assignments or tests, or giving or receiving help during exams – money was exchanged less than one-tenth of the time.

Most fraud involved fellow students, friends or family members, with professional services or file-sharing websites implicated on only about 4 per cent of occasions.

Staff suspicions about substituted work were usually aroused by their familiarity with the students’ abilities and language skills. Text-matching software, document metadata and other technical methods tipped them off in only a minority of cases. But staff members’ gut feelings often led to little action, with almost half saying that they had either done nothing or handled their suspicions themselves – usually by giving warnings or “counselling”, marking students down or making them resubmit.

Among the staff who had not referred their suspicions, most said that they would be “impossible to prove” – even though when cases were referred, they were substantiated more often than not. 

Just 4 per cent of offenders were suspended and 2 per cent expelled. About one-quarter were marked down or forced to resubmit, with 37 per cent given no marks for the assignments.

Dr Bretag said that suspension should be the minimum response, as zero marks left cheats no worse off than students who had not submitted assignments in the first place.

“The whole cohort needs to understand that cheating is just not OK,” she added. “If people think the worse that’s going to happen is they’ll get a zero, they may as well give it a go – because we know they’re unlikely to be identified.”

Overall, the findings suggested that one or two students in each tutorial class were cheating. “But we also know that students are being inundated by marketing-savvy commercial cheat sites,” Dr Bretag said.

“They infiltrate social media, WeChat, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and even university email systems, advertising their so-called plagiarism-free high-quality essays. They blitz the campus with posters, so even students who would never consider outsourcing their work are constantly bombarded by this marketing material.”

Dr Bretag said that well-intentioned students could learn that the handful of cheats were mostly getting away with it. “Before we know it, it’s not one or two – it’s five or six. It becomes the norm.”

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