Contract cheating: a new challenge for academic honesty?

Abstract

‘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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    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).

  2. 2.

    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.

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    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”.

  5. 5.

    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.

  6. 6.

    For a detailed overview of recent studies investigating a range of questions relating to plagiarism, see Comas-Forgas and Sureda-Negre (2010: 217–219).

  7. 7.

    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.

  8. 8.

    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).

  9. 9.

    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.

  10. 10.

    See Dahl (2007) on the positives and negatives of plagiarism detection software from student perspectives.

  11. 11.

    ‘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.

  12. 12.

    See both Dante (2010a) and Mamatas (2008) on writing personalised university admission essays.

  13. 13.

    For more information on honour code efficacy see McCabe (2001, 2005); McCabe and Trevino (1993). For some investigation of student perspectives on honour codes see Malgwi and Rakovski (2009).

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Correspondence to Cynthia Townley.

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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

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Keywords

  • Ethics
  • Academic honesty
  • Plagiarism
  • Contract cheating