Spokes in the wheels of bespoke plagiarism

University hears bespoke course assessments can deter ‘contract’ cheats. Elizabeth Gibney reports

June 13, 2013

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.”

elizabeth.gibney@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

International Student Support Assistant YORK ST JOHN UNIVERSITY
Senior Lecturer: Architecture (Cultural Content) NORWICH UNIVERSITY OF THE ARTS
Head of Department of Physics ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY
Research Assistant LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS & POLITICAL SCIENCE LSE

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest