Universities unite against academic black market

Social media helps students find and share information about how to get someone to do their academic work for them. There are sites where students can auction off their work to various bidders.
Social media helps students find and share information about how to get someone to do their academic work for them. There are sites where students can auction off their work to various bidders. PHOTO: AFP

'Contract cheaters' do academic work on a student's behalf - for a fee. It includes test taking and essay writing

On the TV show Suits, Mike Ross charges a hefty fee to students to take the LSAT (law school admission test) for them. Ross has a stellar memory and a remarkable ability to take tests - he is the perfect "contract cheater". Later, Ross builds a career as a lawyer based on fake credentials, presumably from Harvard.

Mike Ross may be fictional, but his business is only too real within universities globally. "Contract cheaters" such as Ross complete academic work on a student's behalf - for a fee.

This work includes test taking and homework services. It also includes essay writing and even PhD thesis writing services, also known as "paper mills".

In my role as interim associate dean of teaching and learning at the University of Calgary, and as a researcher who specialises in plagiarism prevention and academic integrity, I have been writing about contract cheating since 2010.

Since then, it has become rampant at high school and post-secondary levels.

This black market for academic work is vast and little understood. Universities in Canada, and around the world, are having a very hard time trying to police it.

On Oct 18, many universities committed to the second International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating. This aims to tackle the issue - by raising awareness and sharing prevention strategies.

A vast online marketplace

According to a CBC News survey, more than 7,000 Canadian university students were disciplined for academic cheating during 2011-2012.

Of those, more than half had plagiarised written material. Contract cheating differs from traditional plagiarism because students are not merely copying and pasting content. Instead, they pay for unique content, custom written to their exact specifications, such as instructions for an assignment.

No one knows exactly how many of these services exist, or how much money they make.

In Britain, more than 30,000 cases of contract cheating have been discovered over the past decade.

In Australia, there are documented cases of students being expelled from a university due to contract cheating.

We have very little data about the situation in Canada. A Google search using the terms "Canada" and "write my essay" returns more than 47 million results.

Among the top results are services offering to write essays for between C$19 (S$20.50) and C$25 per page. Another claims to have over 1,200 writers working for it. All offer completely original content, based on the assignment instructions and criteria.

It gets worse. Students can order an entire PhD thesis to be custom ghost written. In some countries, the PhD thesis market is publicly blatant. For example, In Hanoi, Vietnam, an entire area of the city is known as the "thesis market".

In Canada, thesis writing services and contract cheating remain largely hidden in an online black market for academic work.

Social media helps students find and share information about how to get someone to do their academic work for them. There are sites where students can auction off their work to various bidders.

One website shows exactly how the process works. Students place an order for a specific assignment. Then they can communicate with various bidders to figure out who they'd like to work with. After choosing a contract cheater, students can follow the entire workflow process online, answering questions along the way, with round-the-clock support.

Why students outsource their work

Students outsource their work to a third party for a variety of reasons. There are many different reasons why Canadian students use contract cheaters instead of doing the work themselves.

For some students, the pressure to complete their work by the deadline, or to get good grades, may prompt them to work with a contract cheater.

For others, the time they might spend completing an assignment is time they could more lucratively spend working at a paid job.

For example, let's say a student has a job where he or she earns C$15 per hour. If an assignment takes about 10 hours to complete, but costs only C$50 to outsource, the student is better off using those hours to earn C$150 at his paid job. They come out C$100 ahead and maybe even with a better grade. If they're careful, their instructors are none the wiser.

Secret jobs for impoverished academics

Some contract cheaters are located offshore, in countries such as India, Pakistan, Kenya and Nigeria, and the money they earn may be substantial when converted into their local currency. But not all contract cheaters work offshore.

A recent report from Britain reveals that teaching assistants and lecturers also top up their earnings by supplying black market academic work.

In recent years, the working conditions of highly qualified Canadian academics have come under increasing scrutiny, with some being classified as poor, according to Statistics Canada.

In 2014, CBC uncovered that most undergraduates were being taught by poorly paid part-time academic staff, some of whom earned as little as C$28,000 per year.

The reality is that some of these contract faculty may have second (and secret) jobs as contract cheaters.

Most students who hire a contract cheater never know the real identity of the person who completed work on their behalf.

And they don't care. The relationship is purely transactional. The student gets an academic product to submit for credit and the supplier gets paid.

Day of action to #defeatthecheat

Educators struggle to tackle the issue of contract cheating because it is hard to detect and harder to prove.

The International Centre for Academic Integrity has produced a toolkit to help institutions and educators combat contract cheating.

Strategies include educating students about how to make good ethical choices when it comes to school work. There's also a resource for faculty on how to design assessments and detect contract cheating.

More than 40 institutions across more than a dozen countries committed to the second International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, with events held on campuses to help instructors and students understand what contract cheating is and why it is wrong.

A social media campaign using the hashtags #excelwithintegrity and #defeatthecheat was used to promote the day of action online.

•This article first appeared in The Conversation on Oct 16.

•Dr Sarah Elaine Eaton is the Acting Associate Dean, Teaching and Learning, at the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2017, with the headline 'Universities unite against academic black market'. Print Edition | Subscribe