15 Strategies to Detect Contract Cheating

Sarah Elaine Eaton, PhD, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary

Contract cheating (Clarke & Lancaster, 2006) is an umbrella term referring to a form of cheating where students have third parties complete academic work on their behalf. Contract cheating can take a variety of forms, including but not limited to:

  • assignment completion services
  • essay mills (also called “paper mills”)
  • custom-writing services
  • thesis-writing services
  • examination impersonators

More and more, contract cheating services are being supplied by sophisticated commercial enterprises, operating mostly online. Experts have declared that Canada is now tied with the UK for second place among countries where students engage most often in contract cheating, with the USA taking top spot (Lancaster, 2018). It is estimated that over 71,000 post-secondary students in Canada engage in contract cheating behaviour (Eaton, 2018).

Contract cheating can be tricky to detect. Here are 15 strategies to help educators identify when an assignment has been completed by a third party.

  1. Use Metadata (Properties) in Word – check to see if the name of the author matches the name of the student. If the name of the author does not match the name of the student, you may have cause for concern.
  2. Look for quotations or citations from journal articles that draw from abstracts rather than main articles.
  3. Look for citations, quotations or excerpts from books that draw solely from excerpts available only online (e.g. Google Books, Amazon).
  4. Be alert to in-text citations that do not match sources in the references.
  5. Look for a reference list with no in-text citations.
  6. Keep an eye out for sources that are generic, irrelevant or unrelated to the topic.
  7. Be alert to words or phrases repeated verbatim directly from the course outline or assignment instructions.
  8. Observe selective compliance to assignment instructions. Contract cheaters need to write quickly and can sometimes miss important details.
  9. Pay attention to suspicious broadening of the research topic – contract cheaters tend to write broadly, not narrowly.
  10. Pay attention to suspiciously high writing quality, in comparison to what you might expect.
  11. Be alert to style – if you know your students, look for text that does not match their styles. Writers contracted by cheating companies will recycle material.
  12. Look for “compositional dexterity” (Turnitin, 2013) (excellent writing with poor or inaccurate research).
  13. Develop intolerance for “rhetorical fluff” (Turnitin, 2013), attempts to try and fill up the page.
  14. Question references in foreign languages that you are pretty sure your student does not know.
  15. Look for particularly outdated sources or books that are out of print listed in the references.

If you suspect a case of contract cheating, follow your faculty’s guidelines for addressing violations of academic integrity.

For more information about contract cheating, join us on October 17, 2018 at the Taylor Institute of Teaching and Learning (Learning Studio A) from noon to 1:00 p.m. for a campus conversation about how to build awareness and take action.

References and Further Reading

Bretag, T. (2017). Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, Good Practice Note: Addressing contract cheating to safeguard academic integrity Retrieved from https://www.teqsa.gov.au/latest-news/publications/good-practice-note-addressing-contract-cheating-safeguard-academic

Clarke, R., & Lancaster, T. (2006). Eliminating the successor to plagiarism: Identifying the usage of contract cheating sites. Paper presented at the Second International Plagiarism Conference, Gateshead, UK.

Curtis, G. J., & Clare, J. (2017). How Prevalent is contract cheating and to what extent are students repeat offenders? Journal of Academic Ethics, 15(2), 115-124. doi:10.1007/s10805-017-9278-x

Eaton, S. E. (2018). Contract cheating: A Canadian perspective. Retrieved from http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/bmcblog/2018/07/24/contract-cheating-a-canadian-perspective/

Eaton, S. E., & Edino, R. I. (2018). Strengthening the research agenda of educational integrity in Canada: A review of the research literature and call to action. Journal of Educational Integrity, 14(1). Retrieved from https://edintegrity.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1007/s40979-018-0028-7 doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s40979-018-0028-7

Hosney, M. I., & Fatima, S. (2014). Attitude of students towards cheating and plagiarism: University case study. Journal of Applied Sciences, 14(8), 748-757. doi:10.3923/jas.2014.748.757

International Center for Academic Integrity. (2016). Institutional toolkit to combat contract cheating Retrieved from http://integrity.fiu.edu/pdfs/Contract%20Cheating.pdf

Lancaster, T. (2018). US in first place for essays orders (not surprising), with the UK and Canada in equal second place [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/DrLancaster/status/1029014675198013440

Lancaster, T., & Clarke, R. (2008). The phenomena of contract cheating. In T. S. Roberts (Ed.), Student plagiarism in an online world: Problems and solutions (pp. 144-158). Hershey, PA: Idea Group Inc.

Newton, P. (2018). How common is commercial contract cheating in higher education? Frontiers in Education. doi:https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2018.00067

Newton, P. M., & Lang, C. (2016). Custom essay writers, freelancers, and other paid third parties. In T. Bretag (Ed.), Handbook of Academic Integrity (pp. 249-271). Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Plagiarism.org. (2017). How big of a problem in contract cheating? Retrieved from http://www.plagiarism.org/blog/2017/12/12/how-big-of-a-problem-is-contract-cheating

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (UK) (QAA). (2017). Contracting to cheat in higher education: How to address contract cheating, the use of third-party services and essay mills Retrieved from http://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/Publications/Documents/Contracting-to-cheat-in-higher-education.pdf

Rogerson, A. M. (2017). Detecting contract cheating in essay and report submissions: process, patterns, clues and conversations. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 13(1), 10. doi:10.1007/s40979-017-0021-6

Turnitin. (2013). Paying for plagiarism (webinar). Retrieved from http://go.turnitin.com/webcast/paying-for-plagiarism

University of Alberta. (n.d.). Student Conduct and Accountability: Proving Misconduct. Retrieved from https://www.ualberta.ca/provost/dean-of-students/student-conduct-and-accountability/proving-misconduct

Walker, M., & Townley, C. (2012). Contract cheating: A new challenge for academic honesty? Journal of Academic Ethics, 10(1), 27–44. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-012-9150-y

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