During UC San Diego’s Virtual Symposium on “The Threat & Opportunities of Artificial Intelligence and Contract Cheating: Charting a Teaching & Learning Path Forward”, Guy Curtis gave a talk on the Scale of Contract Cheating. This blog post is a follow-up to that talk.


Text-matching software has made blatant copy-paste plagiarism almost impossible for students to get away with undetected. Contract cheating - the outsourcing of assignments to third parties like essay mills - seems like a logical alternative for lazy or time-poor students. When assignments are written afresh, so long as the writer has not plagiarised, they can elude text-matching software, and graders are usually unable to detect that the assignment was not written by the student whose name is on the front.

Despite the ease and lack of detection of contract cheating, it seems that very few students do it. In a 2017 mini meta-analysis conducted with my colleague Joe Clare, we found that only 3.5% of students admitted to contract cheating, something that text-matching software would not detect, yet over 20% of those same students admitted to plagiarism, which text-matching software would easily detect.

These findings led us to a new interesting research agenda - “why students don’t engage in contract cheating?”. Luckily, we had an exceptional honours student who wanted to work with us named Kiata Rundle. Working with Kiata 2018, we developed a list of reasons why students may not engage in contract cheating. This list drew on a focus group, relevant literature, and our own expertise in psychology, academic integrity, and criminology. Then, we gave this list of reasons to a large group of students, asking them to indicate their strongest reasons for not engaging in contract cheating. We also gave them an opportunity, in an open-ended question, to tell us any other reasons they had for not engaging in contract cheating. Finally, we measured various aspects of the students’ personality that we thought might predict their reasons for not contract cheating. The resulting study, published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2019 (and recognized in the ICAI Reader (2nd ed) as a foundational and influential research piece) presented the main reasons students refrain from engaging in contract cheating as falling into five broad categories: morals and norms; motivation for learning; fear of detection and punishment; self-efficacy and (mis)trust; and lack of opportunity. This list of five categories is in the order of importance that students, on average, rated these reasons for not engaging in contract cheating.

Our latest study (stemming from Kiata's Ph.D.) continues this line of research. "Why students do not engage in contract cheating: a closer look" (which will be available June 16th in the International Journal for Educational Integrity at this link), addresses inconsistencies and unanswered questions concerning the psychological variables we measured as predictors of students’ reasons for not engaging in contract cheating. We added new measures to our overall survey to include a more reliable measure of a critical set of personality dimensions (the Dark Triad: Machiavellianism, psychopathy, narcissism), a measure of academic self-efficacy, and a measure of satisfaction and frustration of the psychological need for autonomy.

We also thematically analysed students' open-ended responses (obtained in the previous study) and reviewed subsequently-published literature on contract cheating to update the list of reasons for not engaging in contract cheating. With this updated list, we identified a sixth category that we called “academic environment”. The explicit reasons for not cheating that were part of this category included statements such as “I have respect for my lecturer” and “I believe that marking is fair”. Academic environment was rated as a more important category of reasons for not cheating than fear of detection and punishment, self-efficacy and (mis)trust, and lack of opportunity.

There is a lesson for higher education providers in the finding that the academic environment is an important reason for not contract cheating. Specifically, when people who teach within higher education put in effort, attempt to be fair, and are fair, students will reciprocate these efforts by being more likely to act with integrity. We think the same lesson can be drawn from the findings of Bretag et al.’s (2019) large-scale survey of contract cheating, which found that dissatisfaction with the learning and teaching environment was related to engagement in contract cheating. We should quickly add, however, that we do not believe there is a silver bullet that will slay contract cheating. Nonetheless, being mindful of good practice in teaching and assessment clearly can help.

In addition to this new finding concerning student reasons for avoiding contract cheating, we also found some interesting new results regarding the psychological predictors of students’ reasons for not engaging in contract cheating. Specifically, when students’ psychological needs for autonomy are satisfied in the educational context (that is, they feel they have more choice and control), they are more motivated to learn and this motivation for learning is a justification for not cheating. Again, the lesson for educators is clear. Give students some scope to make their own choices and pursue their interests because they are less likely to cheat on the things they want to do for themselves.

Kiata, Joe, and I have conducted further studies examining students’ reasons for cheating and not, and the psychological profiles that influence these reasons. We hope to submit these studies for peer review soon so that we can share some more of our interesting findings with the academic integrity community. As the TV host Rachel Maddow says, “watch this space”.