Study casts doubt on whether anti-cheating laws work

Some students still cheat despite thinking it is illegal, international survey finds

August 18, 2021
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Some students get others to do their work even when they believe – often mistakenly – that they are breaking the law, an international study has found, casting doubt on the potential effectiveness of anti-contract cheating legislation.

Writing in the journal Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Deakin University researchers say: “[Our] findings beg the question: will such laws have any effect on changing student behaviour at all?”

Australia, the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand and 17 US states prohibit the outsourcing of students’ work to third-party services, and the UK Parliament is considering the latest of a series of bills aiming to outlaw the provision or advertising of cheating services.

But while there has been considerable research into contract cheating, few studies have probed students’ attitudes to anti-cheating laws. The Deakin team surveyed more than 7,000 students on three continents about whether they thought outsourcing assignments should be illegal, and – if so – whether the cheating services, students or both should be liable.

More than three in five respondents thought cheating should be outlawed, with three-quarters of those saying both essay mills and their customers should be prosecuted.

Twenty-two per cent of respondents thought cheating was not against the law, with 24 per cent saying it was and 54 per cent unsure. Yet views on legality made little difference to people’s propensity to cheat, with respondents proving only slightly more likely to admit to having outsourced their work if they did not think it was unlawful.

Co-author Phillip Dawson, associate director of Deakin’s Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, said this was the most surprising finding. He had assumed that students who thought cheating was illegal “probably wouldn’t do it”.

Their willingness to do so suggests that they do not expect to be caught – a reasonable interpretation, with no prosecutions reported so far in Australia or Ireland. New Zealand authorities launched proceedings against a company thought to have earned NZ$1.1 million (£558,000) from cheating but settled out of court, the paper says.

Professor Dawson said he was sceptical of legislation: “For it to have real deterrent effect, there needs to be a perceived likelihood that it’s going to catch you, and there needs to be an understanding that the punishments are severe enough.”

He said universities needed to invest on two fronts. “One is promoting academic integrity and having frank and fearless conversations with students about cheating. And we need to take detection seriously. We need to resource it. Academics who suspect cheating often don’t come forward because they think it’s going to be too hard or time-consuming to prove. We need to address those issues.”

Eighty-seven per cent of respondents said students should be targeted by anti-cheating laws, including a large proportion who admitted cheating themselves. “I’d be really concerned if we went down that line,” Professor Dawson said.

He added: “Universities are well placed to deal with student misconduct. Universities are not in as good a position to deal with the actions of large businesses, particularly multi-billion dollar companies.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Some cheat while thinking it’s illegal 

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