The advent of text matching software, such as Turnitin, means that cut-and-paste plagiarism is now relatively easy to detect. As a result, we have recently seen a new form of cheating emerge: where students engage someone else—who benefits from the transaction—to do their assessment work for them. This has come to be known as “contract cheating”.
A whole new industry has emerged catering to this growing demand for bespoke writing. There are many platforms through which writers and student (as clients) can connect with each other. One of the most prolific are specialized websites, often called academic custom writing sites, which allow students to place an order for their assessment to be done for them. The sites then send these orders to writers who complete the work to the required specifications and send it back to the students.
Not “just” plagiarism
Of course, this kind of behavior constitutes plagiarism: using someone else’s words and ideas as if they are your own without appropriate acknowledgement. However, because the work created by these sites is “bespoke” each time, it is currently very difficult to detect using text matching software.
There’s nothing that you can study at University that does not constitute some kind of public risk if the person who graduates with the qualification has outsourced some or all of their learning to others.
Some may think that cheating at school or university is not a big deal and in the end these students are only cheating themselves by outsourcing their learning to someone else. But this is not a victimless crime:
Just imagine the damage that could be done by a nursing or dentistry student who contracts someone else to do all their University work for them. Then consider aviation students training to be pilots or engineers and architects who go on to build massive structures. Think about students training to be school teachers, financial advisors, human resource managers, lawyers. Really, there’s nothing that you can study at University that does not constitute some kind of public risk if the person who graduates with the qualification has outsourced some or all of their learning to others.
Obviously the nature of the work done by these academic custom writing sites is covert and duplicitous so it’s something not all teachers are aware of. In order to improve teachers’ ability to detect instances of contract cheating, it’s important that everyone better understands how these sites work.
How custom writing sites work
In our research we have taken a close look at a small number of sites—just under 50 in total—that in different ways constitutes part of the academic custom writing industry. What may appear from the outside to be a single academic custom writing company may actually be nothing more than a virtual “shop window” that allows student orders to be directed through to a main admin site. It is this main site that writers use to collect and complete their orders and for administrators to manage their workforce.
In fact, we found that in many instances, several of these “client sites” were connected together into one business. This gives potential clients an illusion of choice while maximizing market share for the academic custom writing business.
We even found some sites that offer to build an academic custom writing site. These sites, that we call “master sites” offered a “demo” of the sites they build. We used this to have a look around and were able to ascertain the internal workings of the sites they built.
These sites have achieved a high level of maturity which, in turn, suggests that they are servicing an established and potentially large market demand for bespoke writing.
One of the really surprising things was just how sophisticated the business processes are within these sites—particularly the quality assurance process. This indicates that these sites have achieved a high level of maturity which, in turn, suggests that they are servicing an established and potentially large market demand for bespoke writing.
The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to address contract cheating. One of the first and most important things we can do is to raise awareness amongst teaching staff as well as students about the existence of these sites and the ways that they conduct their business. The more we know about a problem, the easier it is to address it.
Once they have learned more about the problem, we encourage teachers and students to have conversations about it in the context of academic, personal and professional integrity. After all, contract cheating constitutes a massive risk to a lot of people: not just a public risk but a very personal one as well.