‘Contract cheating’ has recently emerged as a form of academic dishonesty. It involves students contracting out their coursework to writers in order to submit the purchased assignments as their own work, usually via the internet. This form of cheating involves epistemic and ethical problems that are continuous with older forms of cheating, but which it also casts in a new form. It is a concern to educators because it is very difficult to detect, because it is arguably more fraudulent than some other forms of plagiarism, and because it appears to be connected to a range of systemic problems within modern higher education. This paper provides an overview of the information and literature thus far available on the topic, including its definition, the problems it involves, its causal factors, and the ways in which educators might respond. We argue that while contract cheating is a concern, some of the suggested responses are themselves problematic, and that best practice responses to the issue should avoid moral panic and remain focussed on supporting honest students and good academic practice.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
A list of sites associated with contract cheating can be downloaded from http://www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/events/displayevent.php?id=182. RentACoder.com, now called Vworker.com, has since become more vigilant in removing such posts (Lancaster and Clarke 2009).
Some users had also posted large numbers of assignments from different institutions, which Clarke and Lancaster considered likely to be companies acting as middle men.
It is possible that this does not always apply to contract cheating through auction sites, if the student disguises what they want the work for and the assignment is something of potential commercial value. However Jenkins and Helmore’s study suggests that students rarely need to disguise their intentions (Jenkins and Helmore 2006).
Roig (cited in Sisti 2007: 218) labels this ‘crypomnesia’: “the unconscious appropriation of another author’s work by a plagiarist who thinks the work they are producing is original”.
Similar points apply to attempting to address the issue via the supply side, i.e. through having contract cheating requests removed from websites or attempting some kind of legal action against companies.
For a detailed overview of recent studies investigating a range of questions relating to plagiarism, see Comas-Forgas and Sureda-Negre (2010: 217–219).
Many academics have reported they are reticent to report some cases or suspected cases, either because the procedures are very time-consuming, or because they perceive the formal procedures to result in penalties that are out of proportion (Edgren and Walters 2006: 57). Conveying the message to students that academics do care about academic honesty is one reason to use at least some detection measures.
Statements linking a perceived rise in cheating to lack of character education may also commit the attribution error: attributing to character what really results from the situation. See Ross (1977).
In addition to viewing written work as a commodity, a range of other changes to our notion of authorship have been discussed in the plagiarism literature, and are potentially relevant to contract cheating. See Abilock (2009) for discussion of group versus individual authorship; Sigthorsson (2005) on alterations to our assumptions about how sources attain authority; and Townley and Parsell (2004) for discussion of changes to our ideas about intellectual ownership.
See Dahl (2007) on the positives and negatives of plagiarism detection software from student perspectives.
‘Personalising’ assignments also sometimes refers to setting different assignments to either smaller groups of students or even to individual students (Lancaster and Clarke 2007b). Personalising assessment in that sense is intended to make detection easier.
Abilock, D. (2009). Guiding the gifted to honest work. Knowledge Quest, 37(3), 12–15.
Bornstein, J. (2007). Fighting plagiarism with humor. Plagiary: Cross Disciplinary Studies in Plagiarism, Fabrication, and Falsification, 2007, 104–109.
Clarke, R., & Lancaster, T. (2006). Eliminating the successor to plagiarism: identifying the usage of contract cheating sites. Proceedings of the Second International Plagiarism Conference. United Kingdom, Gateshead.
Clarke, R., & Lancaster, T. (2007a). Establishing a systematic six-stage process for detecting contract cheating. Pervasive Computing and Applications, 2007, 342–347.
Clarke, R., & Lancaster, T. (2007b). Assessing contract cheating through auction sites—a computing perspective. HE Academy for Information and Computer Sciences <http://www.ics.heacademy.ac.uk/events/8th-annual-conf/PapersThomas%20Lancaster%20final.pdf>, accessed 17 August 2011.
Clarke, R., & Lancaster, T. (2009). Contract cheating in UK higher education: promoting a proactive approach. HE Academy for Information and Computer Sciences (presentation powerpoint) <http://www.brookes.ac.uk/aske/documentsPlagiarism09_LancasterClarke.pdf>, accessed 17 August 2011.
Comas-Forgas, R., & Sureda-Negre, J. (2010). Academic plagiarism: explanatory factors from students’ perspective. Journal of Academic Ethics, 8(3), 217–232.
“The cybercheats making a small fortune”. (2006). Mail Online, 17 June 2006. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-391085The-cybercheats-making-small-fortune.html>, accessed 17 August 2011.
Dahl, S. (2007). Turnitin(R): the student perspective on using plagiarism detection software. Active Learning in Higher Education, 8(2), 173–191.
Dante, E. (2010a). The shadow scholar. Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12 2010. <http://chronicle.com/article/The-Shadow-Scholar/125329/>, accessed 15 August 2011.
Dante, E. (2010b). Live chat with an academic mercenary. The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 12 2010. <http://chronicle.com/articleLive-Chat-With-an-Academic/125342/>, accessed 15 August 2011.
Devlin, M., & Gray, K. (2007). In their own words: a qualitative study of the reasons Australian university students plagiarize. Higher Education Research & Development, 26(2), 181–198.
Edgren, S., & Walters, S. (2006). Academic Dishonesty in the 21st Century. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 54(2), 56–59.
Faucher, D., & Caves, S. (2009). Academic dishonesty: innovative cheating techniques and the detenction and prevention of them. Teaching and Learning in Nursing, 4, 37–41.
Gallant, T. (2008). Revisiting the past: the historical context of academic integrity. Academic Integrity in the 21st Century: ASHE Higher Education Report, 33(5). San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
Gullifer, J., & Tyson, G. A. (2010). Exploring university students’ perceptions of plagiarism: a focus group study. Studies in Higher Education, 35(4), 463–481.
Halford, R. (2007). “Is it ethical and legal to buy a custom written or pre-written essay?”. Articlesbase June 20 2007, <http://www.articlesbase.com/college-and-university-articles/is-it-ethical-and-legal-to-buy-a-custom-written-or-prewritten-essay-167868.html>, accessed 24 August 2011.
Hayes, N., & Introna, L. (2005). Systems for the Production of Plagiarists? The implications arising from the use of plagiarism detection systems in UK universities for Asian learners. Journal of Academic Ethics, 3, 55–73.
Howard, R. M. (2001). Don’t police plagiarism: just teach!. The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 18 2001.
Jenkins, T., & Helmore, S. (2006). Coursework for cash: the threat from on-line plagiarism. Higher Education Academy Proceedings of the 7th Annual Conference for Information and Computer Science (August 2006): 121–126.
Konheim-Kalkstein, Y. L., Stellmack, M. A., & Shilkey, M. L. (2008). Comparison of honor code and non-honor code classrooms at a non-honor code university. Journal of College and Character, 9(3), 1–13.
Lancaster, T., & Clarke, R. (2008). The phenomena of contract cheating. In T. Roberts (Ed.), Student plagiarism in an online world: Problems and solutions. Hershey: Idea Group.
Levinson, H. (2005). Internet essays prove poor buys. BBC News, 7 April 2005. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4420845.stm>, accessed 17 August 2011.
Lofstrom, E. (2011). “Does plagiarism mean anything? LOL.” Students’ conceptions of writing and cheating. Journal of Academic Ethics, 8(3), 217–232.
Mahmood, Z. (2009). Contract cheating: a new phenomenon in cyber-plagiarism. Communications of the IBIMA, 10, 93–97.
Malgwi, C. A., & Rakovski, C. C. (2009). Combating academic fraud: are students reticent about uncovering the covert? Journal of Academic Ethics, 7, 207–221.
Mamatas, N. (2008). “The Term Paper Artist: The lucrative industry behind higher ed’s failings”. The Smart Set, <http://www.thesmartset.com/article/article10100801.aspx>, accessed 16 August 2011.
McCabe, D. (2001). Cheating: why students do it and how we can help them stop. American Educator Winter 2001.
McCabe, D. (2005). Cheating among college and university students: a North American perspective. International Journal for Educational Integrity, 1(1). <http://www.ojs.unisa.edu.au/index.php/IJEI/article/viewFile/14/9>, accessed 12 October 2011.
McCabe, D., & Trevino, L. K. (1993). Academic dishonesty: honor codes and other contextual influences. Journal of Higher Education, 64(5), 522–538.
McCabe, D. L., & Trevino, L. K. (1996). What we know about cheating in college: longitudinal trends and recent developments. Change, 28(1), 28–33.
McCabe, D., Trevino, L. K., & Buttfield, K. D. (2004). Academic integrity: How widespread are cheating and plagiarism? In T. Allena & D. R. Karp (Eds.), Restorative justice on the college campus: Promoting student growth, and responsibility, and reawakening the spirit of campus community (pp. 130–141). Springfield: Charles C Thomas.
Online Etymology Dictionary. (2011). <http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=plagiarism&searchmode=none>, accessed 14 October 2011.
Oppenheim, C. (2005). Why I… believe students who buy essays via the web get poor value for money. Times Higher Education, 8 April 2005. <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=195226§ioncode=26>, accessed 17 August 2011.
Page, J. S. (2004). Cyber-pseudepigraphy: a new challenge for higher education policy and management. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 26(3), 429–433.
Perry, M. (2011). NYU Prof vows never to probe cheating again—and faces a backlash. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 July 2011. <http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampusnyu-prof-vows-never-to-probe-cheating-again%E2%80%94and-faces-a-backlash/32351>, accessed 15 August 2011.
Ritter, K. (2006). Buying in, selling short: a pedagogy against the rhetoric of online paper mills. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, 6(1), 25–51.
Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (pp. 173–220). New York: Academic.
Shepherd, J. (2008). History essay in the making. The Guardian, May 6 2008. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/may/06/highereducation.students>, accessed 15 August 2011.
Shepherd, J., & Tobin, L. (2007). Their dark materials. The Guardian, 3 April 2007. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2007/apr/03/highereducation.students>, accessed 17 August 2011.
Sigthorsson, G. (2005). Copy/Paste: the joys of plagiarism. M/C Journal: A journal of media and culture, 8(3), <http://journal.media-culture.org.au/0507/04-sigthorsson.php>, accessed 30 August 2011.
Sisti, D. (2007). How do high school students justify internet plagiarism? Ethics and Behaviour, 17(3), 215–231.
Stevenson, S. (2001). “Adventures in Cheating: A guide to buying term papers online”. Slate <http://www.slate.com/id/2059540/>, accessed 16 August 2011.
Time Magazine. “Education: Term Paper Hustlers”. (1971). Time Magazine U.S. April 19 1971. <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,905050-2,00.html>, accessed 14 October 2011.
Townley, C., & Parsell, M. (2004). Technology and academic virtue: student plagiarism through the looking glass. Ethics and Information Technology, 6(4), 271–277.
Witherspoon, A. (1995). This pen for hire: on grinding out papers for college students. Harper’s Magazine, <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-16916045.html>, accessed 16 August 2011.
Witte, A. S. (2008). Speeding is okay and cheating is cool. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 2008 (Fall/Winter): 29–33.
About this article
Cite this article
Walker, M., Townley, C. Contract cheating: a new challenge for academic honesty?. J Acad Ethics 10, 27–44 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-012-9150-y
- Academic honesty
- Contract cheating