Contract Cheating In The Gig Economy

Topics: Blog, Research

The higher education is sector is talking about contract cheating. When a student replaces themselves with a third party for the purposes of assessment, they stand to gain qualifications that they don’t deserve. They are also devaluing the qualifications for everyone around them.

My session at the 2019 International Center for Academic Integrity annual conference – Contract Cheating in the Gig Economy – focused on how the contract cheating industry has been changing (for a copy of this presentation. The industry has become a complex beast, fueled by low-cost writing labour completing the assessments that we would expect students to complete.

When Robert Clarke and I first introduced the term contract cheating in 2006, we focused on how students were misusing outsourcing websites to connect with providers to have academic work completed for them. The outsourcing websites were set up for perfectly legitimate reasons. As an example, a business could tender a request for someone to create a new website for them, then hire someone based on the offers received. But students misused these sites. They were posting requests for various assignments, which were then offered to a range of providers through a bidding process. Students could get their assignment produced cheaply, and dishonestly, by hiring one of the least expensive of those providers.

Most of the recent academic discussion on contract cheating has focused on the use of essay mills. These are services that offer assignment production services to students, often targeted at vulnerable students, such as those with English as a second language. These services connect with students through social media, by giving out flyers on university campuses and some have even found ways to cold call students on their personal phones. There are substantial businesses operating in this space, some with revenues of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

An interesting industry development, as my ICAI talk mentioned, is that many essay mills have the same internal model of operation as the original freelance sites Robert Clarke and I talked about in 2006. The difference is that the bids and interactions on those essay mills are hidden from public view. The internal operation of such services is also not known by students. They can easily be misled as to who is writing an essay for them, for instance by expecting a US writer but their request secretly going to someone operating from somewhere else in the world.

I continue to be fascinated by all the developments going on around contract cheating. The industry is not standing still and is very resistant to any university developments designed to reduce its effectiveness. If anything, more people are trying to work as academic writers for contract cheating services and those writers already operating are becoming more resourceful. That has led to companies competing on price and individual writers trying to avoid paying commission to the intermediary companies, instead connecting directly with students.

My session at the ICAI conference focused on the gig economy type sites that individual writers are using. On one such site, Fiverr.com, for example, I found a proliferation of writers from Kenya offering services to students. Here, the job of an academic writer actually carries with it prestige and is presented as a respectable profession. Writers have the benefits of being able to work from home. To an outside audience, the ways in which Kenyan writers are employed could be looked at as exploitative. I found an average price point for essay writing of around $30 USD per 1,000 words, which is well below the cost of a traditional essay mill. But, relatively speaking, in that region essay writers could think of this as good money. Of course, $30 USD per 1,000 words is not the only price point. Many of the essay mills who take a large commission from orders pay writers much less.

With the wide availability of low cost labour, continued heavy marketing of contract cheating services and the gig economy driving down prices, contract cheating will continue to offer us challenges. I believe that more research into the industry itself and the writers supplying the industry is needed. We need to understand why qualified individuals are looking at enabling contract cheating as a good career choice. We need to continue to broadcast the message to instructors that contract cheating is cheap, is happening and that many assessment types are susceptible to it. And we have to put interventions in place to stop students falling into the contract cheating trap.

For a copy of the presentation, see Lancaster Slides on  page 2 at this link.

About the Author
Dr Thomas Lancaster is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Computing at Imperial College London, UK, with responsibility for student support. He is an experienced academic integrity researcher and international speaker, with publications dating back to 2000. He completed his PhD in 2003, where he developed plagiarism detection technology intended to be more intuitive for users. Thomas collaborated with international colleagues for the Council of Europe South East European Project on Academic Integrity (SEEPPAI) research. With Robert Clarke, he published the first research on contract cheating, an area he continues to discuss regularly in the media. His recent work has focused on the writers and providers behind contract cheating, the reasons students commit contract cheating and the opportunities to work with student partners to reduce contract cheating (http://thomaslancaster.co.uk).
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