What Colleges Are Doing to Fight the 'Contract Cheating' Industry
This is the second of a three-part series on the “cheating economy.” Read part one, and look for part three next week, about new kinds of cheating approaches that experts see on the horizon.
In response to increasingly aggressive marketing tactics by companies that help students cheat, colleges are striking back with new responses of their own.
In some cases, colleges are looking abroad for research and models to fight companies that offer term papers for hire, a practice known as “contract cheating.”
In Australia, for instance, the issue is well-known among the general public, thanks to a 2014 scandal that involved students at some of the nation’s top universities who were caught turning in papers they purchased from a company called MyMaster. The company’s website was written in Chinese and marketed to students who did not speak English as their first language.
In that incident, receipts from students purchasing term papers were exposed on the company’s website, which led to the expulsions of scores of students at several universities. The public outcry that followed led to research into the scope of the problem and new attempts to crack down on contract cheating companies.
“Australia is paying a lot more attention to this than any other country in the world,” says Tricia Bertram Gallant, director of the Academic Integrity Office at the University of California at San Diego.
Plenty of college administrators in the U.S., meanwhile, see the problem of contract cheating as an existential threat, especially as more colleges offer online degrees.
“This problem has the potential to question our entire industry, or at least put it into question,” says Adel Lelo, a senior principal product manager at Western Governors University. “The product of higher education is the credibility of the certifications they bestow upon people.”
But contract cheating isn’t just a problem for online programs, since students on traditional campuses are clearly using the services as well.
“We are letting this industry turn every legitimate educational institution into a diploma mill,” says Bertram Gallant.
Here are some of the ways colleges are responding:
Offering stronger academic support services to students
Just about every college leader we talked to on this issue said the first step is to make sure students feel like they have official resources they can turn to, like tutoring services, so they are less tempted when contract cheaters hit them with aggressive marketing pitches.
“The best way for colleges and universities to address this is to clearly express our expectations and build the resources that students need,” says Amanda McKenzie, director of quality assurance for academic programs at the University of Waterloo, in Canada.
Taking legal action against contract cheating companies
To get a better sense of the problem, some staff members at Western Governors University went undercover as “secret shoppers” on contract cheating sites to see how they operated.
In some cases those investigations led to legal action against companies offering paper-writing services, says Lelo. And that legal action has even led to the shutdown of “multiple of these sites,” he adds, though he would not name the companies that have been shuttered.
In other cases, however, companies that sell term papers to students may not be violating any laws. “What we have learned is that they have the legal framework in terms of disclosures that cover them from any legal actions against them,” says Lelo. For instance, some sites include carefully-worded legal disclaimers on their sites requiring students to pledge not to turn in the papers as their own work. The goal, for officials like Lelo, is to try to build a case that the company’s practices do not follow its disclaimers and instead focus on encouraging students to cheat.
Blocking the IP addresses of contract cheating sites
Some colleges have gotten the IT departments involved by having officials blacklist websites known to engage in contract cheating.
McKenzie, of the University of Waterloo, says that her university blocks access to the IP addresses of some term paper sites, for instance.
The problem, though, is that some sites simply set up shop on a new internet server to avoid the ban, and officials say there is no way to completely restrict access to such sites through blocking IP addresses alone.
Teaming up to share resources and tactics
Colleges are increasingly teaming up to address the issue.
“The only way this goes beyond a reactionary game of Whack-a-Mole is by the [higher ed] industry uniting to fight this problem,” says Lelo, of Western Governors University. He says he is working with colleagues to create a consortium of universities in the U.S. to combat contract cheating.
One challenge, though, is that some campus officials can be reluctant to call too much attention to the issue, which calls into question whether students are doing the work they claim to do at college. That can be especially true for online colleges, which still face perceptions that they are not as rigorous or high-quality as traditional institutions.
One campus that has been willing to work with Lelo on the issue is University of Maryland Global Campus, an online operation that mainly serves adult students. “We’re absolutely looking for ways to explore collective action to leverage against some of these threats,” says Douglas Harrison, vice president and dean of the school of cybersecurity and information technology at Maryland’s Global Campus.
In Canada, colleges have started to band together to tackle the issue as well. For instance, the Academic Integrity Council of Ontario gathers college officials in the province twice a year to share best practices, says McKenzie, of University of Waterloo. And other provinces have similar groups as well, she says.
Pushing legislation to make it harder for contract cheaters to operate
One thing that these university groups are hoping to do collectively is advocate for new laws that would make it easier for colleges to stop contract cheating companies.
Officials point to a proposed federal legislation in Australia. A draft of the bill would subject operators of contract cheating companies to jail time of up to two years and face hefty fines. New Zealand has already passed a similar law.
But the proposed law in Australia has faced pushback from some parent groups, who argue that the law could penalize parents or friends offering legitimate help to students.
“That’s certainly not the intention,” says Rowena Harper, a professor and director of the center for learning and teaching Edith Cowan University, in Australia.
Designing assignments that are more difficult to cheat on
Harper helped lead a large-scale study on how to address contract cheating by improving the assignments given by universities, which produced an extensive website with resources and recommendations.
The study found that students were more likely to cheat when the assignments did not feel authentic or connected to skills they might later need in the workplace. “Be sure you’re choosing assessments that are appropriate for the real-world learning that students are looking for,” she advises.
Students are also more likely to employ contract cheating on high-stakes assignments, she says, so professors should be careful in how much weight they give to any one paper.
Still, no type of assignment is cheat-proof, she adds. “There was this prevailing conventional sense [when the study began] that you could design it out—that you could design out the potential for students to outsource their assignments,” she says. “We were suspicious of that.”
Using software to check for contract cheating
Companies that have long made tools to check for plagiarism have recently introduced products designed to check for contract cheating.
For instance, Turnitin, one of the largest makers of software that colleges use to check student papers for plagiarism, now sells an add-on service called Turnitin Originality. Marketing pitches for the product say the software uses “forensic linguistic analysis” to help professors compare a student’s essays to their past submissions, making the classroom sound like the set of “CSI” or some other TV crime show.
Valerie Schreiner, a chief product officer at Turnitin, said the tool, which was previously named Authorship, has been in beta since 2018 and has been available since March 2019. So far about 20 institutions are using it, she says.
She was careful to say that the software alone is not enough to determine if a paper was written by the student or by someone they hired. “We never claim to be certain,” she says. The goal is to aid professors in the investigation process if they do suspect contract cheating, or flag a paper for a closer look.
Another plagiarism-detection company, Unicheck, also offers a product that it says can help colleges address contract cheating. Professors must enter at least three previous writing samples from a student and then the paper suspected of being written by someone else, and then the system uses AI tools to see if the writing style of the work in question matches the previous efforts.
Aside from using advanced technologies, there’s also a more old-fashioned approach that college officials recommend to professors who suspect contract cheating may have taken place: interview the student to see if they can talk knowledgeably about the paper they turned in. If they don’t even know what they wrote or what the assignment called for, that’s a clearer sign of cheating than any digital check of the text.