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Contract Cheating Toolkit

This toolkit for staff aims to raise awareness about contract cheating as a form of academic malpractice, and offer ways in which to combat it.  The toolkit is divided into four sections:

  • Definitions and context
  • Prevention
  • Detection
  • Action

The Contract Cheating: Quick Guide for Staff summarises the key points. 

We welcome your feedback on the content, and suggestions on topics or resources to include. Please contact teaching.learning@manchester.ac.uk

Definitions and context

Contract cheating is a growing problem for Higher Education across the world. Brief definitions and some context are outlined below. 

Definitions

'Contract cheating' is the practice of students engaging a third-party to complete assignments. It occurs when anyone other than the student completes an assignment which the student then submits for assessment/credit.

'Essay mills' are businesses writing academic assignments on behalf of students, usually in exchange for money, often masquerading as online tutoring, study support or proof-reading services. Essay mills actively target students through social media,  even sending messages directly to students' university email addresses.

Context

Essay Mills are pervasive and directly targetting students

There is a growing industry in selling assignments to students. This is acknowledged internationally across the HE sector. “Students at all higher education institutions will be targeted by essay mill marketing, … their use has become increasingly commonplace … “ (p1, QAA 18/06/20)  An article in the Daily Mail Online in 2019 reported through a FOI request that “Manchester University saw 7,000 hits on the cheating sites in May”. Studying and countering this phenomenon is becoming a specialist area of academic research. See for example http://thomaslancaster.co.uk/contract-cheating/ and http://philldawson.com/.

The response to assessment during Covid-19 has seen a move away from assessing under controlled conditions, and resulted in some HEIs reporting higher instances of cheating

Coronavirus has put pressure on the delivery of on-campus examinations under controlled conditions, and some UK institutions have reported a significant spike in malpractice cases after a move to take-home exams. This ranges from students colluding via mobile phone apps or Facebook pages, through using online chatrooms such as Reddit or CourseHero to the use of online tutoring services where solutions for entire exams are advertised. “It should be stressed that typically the online tutoring company is providing a legitimate service, with warnings to students not to submit the provided materials as their own work, as they are intended to offer support with coursework.” (p26, QAA 18/06/20)

Students working at a distance may be more vulnerable to offers of ‘help’ than they would in normal campus-based circumstances

“Students who are working remotely, away from their familiar academic community, can feel less supported than usual. Students who feel vulnerable and isolated may be more tempted to cheat” (QAA, 07/05/20). “Essay mill marketing seeks to exploit students who are feeling vulnerable or anxious, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.” (QAA, 18/06/20)  These companies can target individual student email accounts to sell their services and it is not always clear to the student that their use is not legitimate.   

References

QAA Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education How to Address Essay Mills and Contract Cheating, 2nd Edition (QAA, 18 June 2020)

QAA Assessing with Integrity in Digital Delivery, (QAA, 07 May 2020)

Prevention

There is no such thing as a 'cheat-proof' assignment. However, there are many steps we can take to minimise malpractice.  Creativity in assessment design and a commitment to ethical conduct will support a culture of academic integrity across the physical and virtual campus.

Assessment design

Although no assessment can ever be considered ‘cheat-proof’, assessment design remains an important element of any strategy to combat contract cheating, and it is possible to use assessment mechanisms to give you a better chance of detecting cheating. (QAA 18/06/20).

All assessment types carry academic integrity challenges and advantages that need to be considered in both design and implementation. The University’s Assessment Framework sets out the general principles, practice and conduct of assessment, but the advice below draws on recent research into contract cheating.

Managing risk for different assessment types

Many essay mills don’t just provide essays – they can also supply lab reports, reflective journals, PowerPoint presentations, computer programming, film editing and even whole-dissertation packages that comprise: proposals; intermediate/formative assessments; final reports - with implied fabrication of data in some circumstances; presentation slides; and notes for vivas), (p8, QAA 18/06/20).

The document below outlines the challenges and advantages of a range of assessment tasks and how they can be managed to foster academic integrity. 

Assessment redesign for an online environment

For a look at online assessment design specifically through an 'academic integrity' lens, the presentation Assessment redesign and academic integrity (Douglas Harrison) (pdf, presented at REMOTE: The Connected Faculty Summit -13 & 14 July 2020 (Arizona State University)):

  • defines the foundations of academic integrity in assessment design
  • surveys key approaches to online assessment development
  • provides an overview of tips and techniques for designing effective and secure online assessments

Guidance on designing open book assessments is available in a resource produced by Sally Hickson (ITL Fellow) and colleagues from the OBL Assessment Group and ITL; this resource also includes advice on supporting students with open book exams and practical tips for delivery.  

See also Designing out plagiarism for online assessment: a blog post for the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) by Dr Jenny Lawrence, PFHEA. Head of the Teaching Excellence Academy, University of Hull Posted on April 2, 2020)

We welcome your feedback on the content, and suggestions on topics or resources to include. Please contact teaching.learning@manchester.ac.uk

Sources

Assessing with Integrity in Digital Delivery (QAA, 07/05/20) part of Covid-19 supporting resources at https://www.qaa.ac.uk/en/news-events/support-and-guidance-covid-19/academic-standards-supporting-student-achievement

Contracting to cheat in Higher Education: How to address essay mills and contract cheating 2nd edn.(QAA, 18/06/20) 

Supporting academic integrity: approaches and resources for higher education (HEA JISC Academic Integrity Service, 01/11/10) 

Contract Cheating and Assessment Design (A two-year, national project (2016-2018), funded and supported by the Australian Government Office for Learning). Contract Cheating and Assessment Design Framework resources

Contract cheating and assessment design: exploring the relationship by Tracey Bretag, Rowena Harper,  Michael Burton, Cath Ellis, Philip Newton, Karen van Haeringen, Sonia Saddiqui, Pearl Rozenberg in Assessment and evaluation in higher education, 2019-07-04, Vol.44 (5), p.676-691

7 Principles of Assessment Design: Infographic by Sally Hickson (ITL Fellow)

IT blocking and reporting

The Contract Cheating Task and Finish Group is working with IT Services to implement measures that discourage students from accessing contract cheating sites, and vice versa. These measures are becoming increasingly common at other UK HE institutions:

  1. Blocking access to known contract cheating websites from PCs on campus and in University residences.
  2. Intercepting and removing any emails received from contract cheating sites directed at students.
  3. Creating a mechanism that allows students to report unsolicited email from contract cheating companies.

These methods are not infallible. Contract cheating services often change their email/website addresses and new services can slip through. They will also have no effect if a student use a non-University email account or PC. However, they do send a clear message about the University’s attitude towards such activities, and remind students to be on their guard when using the internet and social media.

Messaging to students

Our students say*:

"I would feel this [contract cheating] is really unfair"
“Implications of contract cheating should be made clear”
“The university should talk more about it because it’s never discussed or discouraged by lecturers”

*Student-run focus groups (July 2020) 

Educating students about the importance of academic integrity - including an awareness of the concept of contract cheating - is central to protecting students and minimising instances of academic malpractice. This section contains guidance to help Schools, led by Programme Directors and other key officers, to communicate regularly with their students.

(Guidance for all staff about embedding messaging to students within the curriculum can be found in the Teaching and Learning section below).

Ultimately students are responsible for their individual actions, but we must fulfil our duty to ensure that students:

  • understand why contract cheating undermines integrity
  • are informed of the consequences of contract cheating
  • recognise the approaches that essay mills use to engage students
  • know how to access academic and pastoral support if they are struggling with their studies, and are encouraged to do so

The University is collaborating with Student Partner Interns and the Students’ Union to develop institutional messaging both promoting academic integrity and warning about the pitfalls of cheating. Most students are invested in maintaining a fair and equitable system. To strengthen institutional messaging it is important to promote academic integrity within local learning communities, and to discuss cheating with students openly.

Induction & transition

It is vital to include information about the Academic Malpractice Procedure and potential penalties to students as part of their induction through the Guidance to students on plagiarism and other forms of academic malpractice. Contract cheating should be mentioned as a particular form of malpractice that students may be enticed into through social media or even direct emails to their student accounts. It is helpful to acknowledge this openly, so that students know that the University is alert to the direct approaches that students may receive and they feel confident to inform University staff if they receive a communication they are concerned by.

Regular messaging

Timely information for students is crucial in addressing the threat of contract cheating” (QAA 18.06.20, 12)

Reinforcing messages should be repeated periodically throughout a student’s career, for example:

  • for returning students at the start of the year
  • at the start of the second semester 
  • when tasks and assignments are set
  • going into an assessment period

We know that students are increasingly being targeted individually by advertising, chat rooms, social media or even direct email, assuring them that use of online services is acceptable and common practice. Therefore it is important that we counter these messages.

Rather than repeating the same information at key points throughout the year, a more effective strategy would be to discuss malpractice through different lenses. Messaging should reassure students that staff know that the majority of students don’t cheat. Rather than a “staff versus students” mentality, the reality is more a case of "staff and students" versus the bad actors:

  • Informing: Forewarned is forearmed. It may seem counterintuitive to tell students about contract cheating sites and essay mills, when they might never have been aware of them before. But the line between legitimate online tutoring or proofreading services or chat rooms and essay mills can be difficult to discern. Students’ critical awareness about sources is important in this context. Students should be advised not to post details about their assessments on social media, or engage with contract cheating services who contact them. A poster, Work Hard, Work Honestly, has been developed by current students to raise awareness. Clear guidance for students is available on the Student Support microsite: Assessments and Exams - Avoiding Academic Malpractice.
  • Inspiring: the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) defines academic integrity as a commitment, even in the face of adversity, to six fundamental values: honesty, trust, fairness, respect, responsibility, and courage. Our students take part in many inspiring initiatives, such as volunteering, and the many ways of contributing to our community on and off campus under the Step up and Lead theme. (See the Stellify webpage for an overview). The final year of the Ethical Grand Challenges programme focusses on Workplace Ethics, and involves a range of interactive workshops and training scenarios that encourage students to consider ethical dilemmas in real-life work situations. These provide a positive context in which to frame discussions around the ethics of academic integrity and good citizenship.
  • Warning: Students should be made aware that their application to be admitted into a regulated profession may be put at risk if they commit academic malpractice. Moreover, extortion and blackmail are becoming greater threats to people who use essay mills. This WonkHE article highlights the dangers students face and how they can be exploited. Personal data may be stored online with minimal security, which exposes users to identity theft and bank fraud. There have been reports of essay mills contacting students after purchases are made and threatening them with identifying them to their institutions unless further money is given to them. (QAA 18/06/20) 
  • Planning and Supporting: Some students may have health conditions which affect their studies, and most will at some point experience personal issues which risk building up to a crisis. It is important to acknowledge that this is a part of life, and that ‘If you’re stressed, and come to an ethical fork in the road – don’t succumb. Choose legitimate support from within the institution’. State clearly who students can and should turn to for help - students should be encouraged to check with their Academic Advisor or equivalent if they are uncertain about the legitimacy of any support offered to them.
  • Detecting and reporting: Detection strategies must be visible in order to function as a deterrent.

Involve students

“Working in partnership with students is integral to combatting contact cheating.” (p5, QAA 18.06.20)

Students will benefit from knowing their peers’ attitudes to cheating. Students have a clear stake in ensuring that the hard work and dedication demonstrated by the majority is not undermined by the minority who seek to claim an unfair advantage. There are codes of ethics involved in academia - involve Student Reps and mobilise PASS leaders and Peer Mentors to engage with the Student Union as well as creating local initiatives and writing blogposts on the topic.

What to consider when drafting messages to students and planning local solutions

Studies have shown that students who cheat in assessments do so for a wide range of reasons, (p10, QAA 18/06/20). Bretag et al. have summarised the many reasons students plagiarise and cheat, including an inability to manage the demands of student life or low interest in the topic. You might consider implementing local solutions to support students, such as providing additional support for students with English as a second language.  Below are the reasons provided by Bretag et al. in more detail: 

Why students plagiarise and cheat
Pressures and life complexity (Brimble 2016)
Perceived seriousness (Curtis & Popal 2011)
Lack of understanding or confidence (Curtis & Vardanega 2016)
Lack of language proficiency (Bretag et al. 2018)
Poor time management and procrastination (Siaputra 2013; Wallace & Newton 2014)

Perceived norms (Curtis et al. 2018; McCabe & Trevino 1993)

Opportunities to cheat (Baird & Clare 2017; Bretag et al. 2018)
Lack of institutional support for academic integrity (Husain et al. 2017)
Student perception of staff apathy, knowledge and dedication (Husain et al. 2017)
No fear of detection and consequences (Deikhoff et al. 1999)
Student dissatisfaction with the learning and teaching environment (Bretag et al 2018; Park 2003)

Sources:

PASS and Peer Mentoring

“Effective institutional and peer support can help.” (Contracting to cheat in Higher Education: How to address essay mills and contract cheating, QAA, 18/06/20)

Our Peer Support Programme provides the opportunity for every first year undergraduate student to gain advice and learn from the experience of higher year students. Transitioning to University can leave many students feeling isolated, especially at a large institution like Manchester and in particular students from widening participation, international, black, Asian or other minority ethnic backgrounds.

Our Peer Support Programme is shaped by our student leaders and their experiences of studying, which enable them to design content based on the needs of their attendees. In conjunction with this approach, we are now developing a series of monthly themes that focus on key issues affecting students such as:

  • digital literacy
  • securing work placements
  • contract cheating

We will source and develop resources that allow student leaders to explore the issues of contract cheating with incoming students. Key themes for discussion will include the consequences of engaging with such organisations and the approaches they often implement to disguise their motives and normalise engagement with their services.

As peer support is focused at programme level, adopting this approach enables staff coordinators to liaise with student leaders and agree an increased focus on the monthly theme of contract cheating, if institutional data demonstrates that particular programmes have a significant issue with contract cheating.

Academic advising

Academic Advising is a key element of the student experience and serves as an essential mechanism for supporting students as they progress through their time at University.

As part of the Academic Advising role, advisors are expected to support students in recognising habits, situations and stressors that may lead them to feeling as though contract cheating, plagiarism or other forms of academic malpractice are acceptable or inevitable.

The Academic Advising Toolkit will contain supporting materials that help advisors to guide students in reflecting on current habits and pressures to pre-emptively address those areas (such as time management, differences in cultural or academic expectations or others) that may drive a student to consider academic malpractice. The Academic Advising Toolkit and this Academic Malpractice Toolkit can be used in tandem to identify, discuss and address these issues with supportive strategies.

The Academic Advising Toolkit also links out to supporting services such as the Library, DASS and the SU Advice service, all of which can and should be recommended if needed, as part of an individual Advisee’s academic development.

Teaching and learning

Our students say*:

"I would feel this [contract cheating] is really unfair"
“Implications of contract cheating should be made clear”
“The university should talk more about it because it’s never discussed or discouraged by lecturers”

*Student-run focus groups (July 2020)

A two-year Australian research project - Contract Cheating and Assessment Design: Exploring the Connection (Associate Professor Tracey Bretag and Dr Rowena Harper (University of South Australia) - investigated contract cheating. The project found that students who cheated expressed significantly lower levels of satisfaction with three key aspects of the teaching and learning environment:

  1. Staff ensure that students understand assignment requirements
  2. Staff provide sufficient assessment feedback
  3. Staff can be approached for assistance when needed

Source: Assessment design won't stop cheating, but our relationships with our students might. The Conversation (UK edition, 11/05/2017). 

Approachable staff

If a student feels able to seek clarification on something they don't understand or to discuss feedback, for example, they are less likely to fall behind, become isolated, and be desperate enough to go outside of the institution for 'help'.

Research ethics

Preparation for independent projects, dissertations or field work offers a way of opening up discussion of ethics in academia. Knowing that all academic work - even that done by academic staff - goes through ethical approval and review processes helps to make this a more real and relatable concept. 

Groupwork

Use group work to teach about the challenges and benefits of collaboration. Give students strategies for responding to academic integrity issues.

MORE CONTENT COMING SOON

We welcome your feedback on the content, and suggestions on topics or resources to include.

Please contact teaching.learning@manchester.ac.uk

Detection

Signs that markers can look out for to detect malpractice, including judicious use of technological tools.  

Technological approaches

Technology can help detect the use of essay mills, but is most effective when used by experienced staff with knowledge of the student.” Contracting to cheat in Higher Education: How to address essay mills and contract cheating (QAA, 18/06/20)

Plagiarism-checking software

The base Turnitin package (Originality) currently used by the University can be of some benefit in the detection of contract cheating. Essay mill contributors often use short-cuts and plagiarise sources or recycle prior commissions (although this is not always the case and some of these services now offer “plagiarism-free” guarantees). So although Turnitin does not provide a very powerful solution, since it is routine practice anyway this software may be able to assist in identifying occasional cases. See "Detecting contract cheating" below for more information.

Advanced analytics software

More sophisticated software solutions are available on the market, e.g. Turnitin Authorship. These claim to use “forensic linguistic” algorithms to detect anomalies in a student’s body of work that could be associated with a purchased essay. However, in practice these are of limited value:

  • These approaches rely on a student submitting several pieces of their own work to establish a baseline pattern that can then be used to detect anomalies. If a student begins using essay mill submissions early in their studies, this type of software will be unable to detect them.
  • The measures used by such algorithms imply a level of sophistication, but in reality the data set (of an individual student’s work) is too small for these measures to have any real discriminatory power. Some potentially useful insights can be pulled from the metadata in a document’s header (author name, paper size, etc.) but there are many valid reasons for variations in these parameters – so very large numbers of false positives are likely.
  • The whole approach is contradictory to anonymous and blind marking approaches – because to have any value, a marker needs sight of a student’s entire body of work. Significant changes to marking workflow would be required to make the use of this software practicable.

Guidance for markers

Detecting contract cheating

Tips on possible indicators of contract cheating, for markers of student work:

  1. Something as simple as searching for your assignment titles online after you set them may show instances of students trying to commission answers.
  2. Some essay mills advertise “plagiarism-free” essays. Thus, they drive the originality score in Turnitin down very low, exceptionally low, by running the draft essay through Turnitin, then eliminating anything it turns up. So, if you see 0% to a few percent and commonly used phrases in your field are avoided through the use of synonyms and rewording, then you might have contract cheating.
  3. Run the document through Turnitin with the reference list included. If the reference list appears duplicated as a block of references rather than individual references, then it is possible that the reference list is duplicating a document from an essay mill where they’ve reused the essay on this topic in different student reports.
  4. If the essay is supposed to be a reflective piece written by the student, but the gender is wrong, then you might have contract cheating.
  5. Turn on tracked changes in Word. It may be that there are annotations to the student from the author to make certain changes that are then not deleted by the student.
  6. If any parts of the assignment (e.g., student name, assignment name, course number, due date, word count) are enclosed in brackets (e.g., “[Joe Smith]”, “[EART10111]”, “Word count: [2497 words]"), then this may be an indication from the essay mill to the student that the student was supposed to change items in the file at these locations, but then left the brackets behind. D’oh!
  7. If you see any weird strings of numbers (e.g., “CE-1234-5678") that may indicate a contract number with the essay mill (e.g., in the header or footer, in the document properties), then you may have a situation of contract cheating.

Substantiating contract cheating

 A checklist for markers of student work where contract cheating is suspected, to aid decision-making and substantiation of a case:

I think I have a substantiated case of contract cheating: What do I do next? 

  • Please refer to the next section, Action, below.

Action

Advice on what to do next if you believe you have a substantiated case of academic malpractice. 

Academic Malpractice Procedure

Academic Malpractice Process Flowchart

The Academic Malpractice Process Flowchart summarises the process of bringing a case from an academic's perspective.

Authorised University Officer (AUO)

If you have completed the checklists above and believe you have detected a case of contract cheating, refer it to your local designated officer. AUOs are the people named in the Regulation e.g. Head of School, Faculty Dean etc who can take disciplinary action. In practice an AUO delegates their responsibilities around investigations, pre-hearings and hearings to whoever is best placed to perform a particular role (an Academic Malpractice Officer, Programme Director or equivalent).

They will review the material as a whole to determine whether to refer the case for disciplinary action to an appropriate level of the University; this may be based on various factors including consistency of handling, the seriousness of the case and the penalty that might be warranted.

Section 4.3 of the Academic Malpractice Procedure (2019) covers Contract Cheating: 

If there is a reasonable suspicion that a student may have commissioned a piece of work from a third party, but there is no direct evidence of this, then in agreement with the School Officer a viva voce can be arranged to give the student the opportunity to demonstrate that they:

  • Produced the work;
  • Undertook the reading and research themselves;
  • Undertook the preparatory work themselves;
  • Understand what they have written.

The viva voce can have one of two outcomes:

  1. The staff conducting the viva voce will confirm that they accept that the student wrote the work in question; no further action will be taken. The work should then be marked on its own merit, if it has not already been marked. (§4.3.3.1)
  2. If the staff conducting the viva voce still remain doubtful of the authorship of the work in question, or the student admits that it is not their work, then the case should be referred for disciplinary action. Any future disciplinary panel should not include, as a member of the panel, the examiner or the same School Officer. The viva voce, in itself, will not result in a penalty being applied; a penalty can only be applied by a disciplinary panel. (§4.3.3.2)

 

Guidance for academic malpractice officers on contract cheating

Guidance for Academic Malpractice Officers on substantiating contract cheating: key principles

Educate: Ensure all staff are aware of the signals that can indicate contract cheating.

Investigate: One or two signals do not provide enough evidence to substantiate cheating, but can provide cause for further investigation.

Use policy: The University’s Academic Malpractice Procedure (2019) section 4.3 covers contract cheating specifically.

Not ‘proof’, but ‘balance of probability’: Investigate suspected breaches as a lay proceeding, using the standard from civil law, where the ‘balance of probability’ is the relevant test to which allegations must be subjected. The balance of probability is based on ‘clear and convincing evidence’ that it is more likely than not that the allegation is true. This is less demanding than the criminal law test of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.

Examine: Look carefully at each aspect of the document and other relevant sources of evidence. Identify every aspect that is cause for concern. Conduct an interview with the student to ascertain his/her familiarity with the contents of the assignment.

Collect evidence: Accumulate a range of evidence that clearly and convincingly establishes the firm belief that the breach in question is not only probable, but highly probable. Two forms of evidence are critical: a. Textual evidence; b. Knowledge of the student’s academic and linguistic abilities

Use experience: Decide how much weight to give to each piece of evidence, based on common sense, everyday experience, and experience of previous academic integrity breach cases.


Source: UNISA Contract Cheating and Assessment Design Framework resources - Substantiating Contract Cheating, under Creative Commons Licence

Interviews: An effective way of detecting third-party written assignments is to interview the student after the work has been assessed. The use of viva assessment is commonly used in HE but it is not practical to put these in place for every assignment on every course. A pragmatic approach would be to require an interview as part of an investigation process to establish evidence for decision-making.

The QAA advises, “Universities should raise requests for information and evidence to support academic misconduct cases relating ton essay mills/contract cheating directly with the tutoring service and take advantage of any policy published by the service to support such requests.” (QAA, 18/06/20 p26) The University's Legal Affairs team can offer legal advice and support.

Further Resources and Contacts

Useful contacts

Poor practice or plagiarism?

This document, created by the Faculty of Humanities, is a useful guide in interpreting various signs of potential malpractice:

External sources and resources