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Anti-Plagiarism Tools

What to Do About Contract Cheating

Contract cheating — the use of essay writing services to manufacture coursework — is on the rise, along with other forms of academic dishonesty. Here's how technology can and can't help.

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When 13 undergraduate engineering students were booted out of the program at Australia's Deakin University in May 2016 for taking part in "contract cheating," it may have looked like just another round in institutional efforts to combat academic dishonesty, akin to reducing plagiarism or stamping out the use of term paper mills. However, some experts view this specific form of deceit as more pernicious because it can be so hard to detect by the usual tools and methods.

Wendy Sutherland-Smith, a longtime scholar of academic integrity, doesn't hold back: "Contract cheating companies are really insidious, evil, nasty beasts," she declared. As this director of teaching and learning in Deakin's School of Psychology described, these operators promote themselves as "legitimate, authorized writing help services." Their message: "We know the university hasn't got time to really help you. We know that you're struggling with timelines. We're here to help you with writing. We're available 24/7, which your university professors are not. We can talk to you anytime." As a result, "naïve, gullible, desperate students just get sucked in," said Sutherland-Smith. (One site,, suggests to potential customers that it provides the only reasonable alternative to intractable professors who won't give extensions due to active military missions, accidents that put students in the hospital or English learners struggling to keep up in class.)

Thomas Mays, an associate professor at the Middletown Campus of Miami University in Ohio, would likely agree with Sutherland-Smith's assessment. In "Promoting Academic Integrity in Online Courses," a recent Online Learning Consortium session, he told attendees, "[Contract cheating is] very difficult to catch. It takes faculty members who have academic dishonesty on mind and are actually looking for these things rather consistently. It's easy to gloss over it and totally miss it."

More broadly, Miami U has seen the cases of academic dishonesty increasing year over year. While there were 460 cases identified during 2015-2016, that grew to more than 500 cases in 2016-2017, Mays reported. And, the institution is "on track to go beyond that this year," he said.

What May can't say for certain is whether the growth is because "students have less integrity or that we're just better at reporting it."

The Nature of the Beast

Contract cheating takes place when a student has somebody else do all or part of the work and then hands it in as his or her own. It could be a specific paper or some other assessment task, or it could involve getting somebody else to take an entire course on behalf of the student (more easily accomplished in an online class). The cheating could be for pay or it could be performed by a supportive friend or family member. Standard plagiarism checkers don't catch these incidents because, frequently, the providers promise "all original work" with "0 percent plagiarism." (For proof, suggested Mays, just look up "research paper" on Twitter and follow the responses students get when they tweet complaints about their latest assignments.)

By posing as help services, many of the companies operating in this space tap into the desperation students feel when they're overwhelmed. As Mays observed, schools have to get at "the heart of why students cheat. In many cases it's because they're stressed out. It's not because they don't necessarily know what plagiarism is."

And sometimes, the cheating happens accidentally. "The thing is, you can tell students not to do something, but if they don't understand what it is they're not meant to do, then it makes no difference," said Sutherland-Smith. "There's been quite a bit of research about [telling students] in the unit guide or in the syllabus, 'Don't engage in plagiarism [and] reference your stuff properly.' But if students don't know what that looks like or they think they're already doing that, you get into a situation where students are very fearful. So you'll get a citation at the end of every sentence because they don't want to be caught for plagiarism, which, of course, is not what you want either." Her remedy: to show students examples and have them practice.

But that's not all. Like many institutions, both Deakin and Miami have specific ongoing educational strategies to help students understand the rules of academic integrity. At Miami, instructors are encouraged to use a "module zero" approach — a pre-work module that might include course basics, but also includes an academic integrity sub-module laying out the guidelines, created by the teaching community, that can be imported into the course with a couple of mouse clicks. And early in the semester each year, Deakin's student association (DUSA) hosts a "contract cheating awareness week" on each of its three campuses to educate students about academic integrity, citing resources and references and how to spot unethical providers.

Awareness efforts also need to cover the "serious long-term ramifications of this," said Sutherland-Smith. Students may not get caught right away; they may even believe they've gotten away with cheating once their degree is in hand. "But what happens if all of a sudden you're found out five years down the track and your degree is revoked and you can no longer work in that profession? Students need to understand that the quick fix of getting something contract cheated could cost them dearly in the end."

The Good and Bad of Tech Solutions

Both institutions also turn to technology to help out. For example, Miami currently uses Proctorio, one of myriad online proctoring services. According to a faculty explanation, the software is useful for locking down the browser for face-to-face class exams and recording student activities and geographic location for online assessments. The program flags potential cheating and generates a report for the instructor.

In addition, Turnitin is in use at Miami as well as Deakin. This widely used plagiarism detection tool checks student papers against a multitude of sources (including other papers already submitted) to identify those who hand in unoriginal work. At Deakin, according to Sutherland-Smith, students upload their papers to the service, which generates a "similarity report." This report, which instructors may request be handed in with the student assignment, includes a similarity score that summarizes the amount of matching or similar text found in the paper.

But technology isn't failsafe, Sutherland-Smith added, especially when a faculty or staff member isn't fully trained on the use of it. She first learned of Turnitin in 2001, during a university pilot to test the service. "Part of what we found in that pilot trial was that staff would misinterpret the information they were getting. We found that staff would just look at the total percentage and go, 'All right. It's a 75 percent text match; [that means the paper is] 75 percent plagiarized.'" In reality, there can be many factors behind that number.

As a guide on the Turnitin website itself laid out, "If the student has used quotes and has referenced correctly, there will be instances where we will find a match." Or the user may not exclude "small sources" or "quotes and bibliography items." Sometimes, added Sutherland-Smith, a student will use content positively identified by the software as a duplicate pulled from somewhere else that might be exactly what the instructor said to use. All those nuances feed into a score that could generate suspicions.

"The tool was never, ever about plagiarism detection," she asserted. "The tool's only ever about providing evidence from text matching. From there it has to be a human decision."

A Better Alternative: Authentic Assessment

Another aspect of the solution, noted both educators, is to come up with assessment designs that are tougher to hire contract cheating companies to produce. One way to do that is to make the assignment "authentic and local," said Sutherland-Smith. It might require the student to use locally gathered data or information that's hard for contracting cheating companies to get their hands on in time to complete a given assignment, she offered.

Turnitin Turns to AI

Authorship Investigation is a new service announced (but not yet released) by Turnitin specifically to combat contract cheating by comparing aspects of the file's authorship, such as readability, punctuation, vocabulary, file naming and changes in layout. According to the company's public statements, the application will use "a combination of machine learning algorithms and forensic linguistic best practices to detect major differences in students' writing style between papers." Wendy Sutherland-Smith, director of teaching and learning in Deakin University's School of Psychology, has tested the technology and found it to be "impressive" in terms of the "breadth of the forensic linguistics and what the software is doing in terms of looking for writing style."

Specifically, Deakin has run a trial of the software against historical cases — situations where instances of contract cheating were proven. That could be invaluable in large-enrollment courses where faculty don't have the time to get familiar with every student's writing style. "We don't have the time and we don't have the resources to be able to do that kind of metadata comparison. We just don't have the staff to do it," Sutherland-Smith explained. "That's where something like this tool is really useful. It can check a number of files. It can do it quickly."

Her concern, however, is that the results will be misunderstood in the same way they are for those who use the text-matching program. "The tool will not detect contract cheating," she said. "The tool will only supply data that warrants further investigation by people like me."

Mays, who teaches Excel courses, has modified his assignments to force the inclusion of something original. He'll have the students create and customize a chart based on the data in a table and then have them write an essay that analyzes the results. "I have caught several students who have totally copied everything," he said. "Since I grade everything in one sitting, I can remember when one chart looks similar, which makes life easier on the detection end." Or he might ask students to create a macro and do a save-as to record the full path of where that file was created.

Mays advised more frequent "lower-stakes assessments" to replace courses that rely on a midterm, a final and a lone paper for grading. As an example, the instructor might require multiple drafts. That prevents what he called "one-time transactions" with a contract cheating company. "If you're doing it in steps, where you have multiple drafts to do, either the student is going to submit sub-par work for the drafts and then go buy the real essay — and you can obviously notice the difference in the quality — or they're going to have to go back to the contract cheater for each draft."

He also encouraged the use of tests that don't reuse questions, either by scrambling their order or having multiple editions, and using time limits on test-taking. Then there's the addition of "oral components," which, if it's an online course, may require video monitoring to make sure the student and not a proxy is making the recording.

Talking with Students

While contract cheaters tell prospects their approach is undetectable, Sutherland-Smith takes issue with that claim. A research team at her institution ran a pilot study in which "markers" were paid to read through a mix of "student work" to find out how accurate they were in detecting contract cheating. Seven people marked the same bundle of 20 second-year psychology assignments, including six that were purchased from contract cheating websites. As the researchers noted, "Sensitivity analyses showed markers detected contract cheating 62 percent of the time. Specificity analyses showed markers correctly identified real student work 96 percent of the time."

A follow-up study on a much wider group, awaiting publication, found similar results. "You can train markers to look for contract cheating and quite successfully detect it," she said.

And that gets at the central message when it comes to cornering contract cheating. While the various mechanisms for cutting down on contract cheating certainly hobble the racket, ultimately, the best solution may require human intervention: a faculty member taking the time to talk with the student whose future could be at stake.

It doesn't have to take long, she insisted. Even a three-minute conversation will divulge tons. She uses questions such as, "I'm really interested — that particular piece of literature seems to be a little out of left field. How did you come across that?" or "What drew you to that piece of literature?" or "Why did you think that fitted in with everything else that we've covered in class?" "They're not difficult questions," she pointed out, "but if you haven't done the work, you're not going to know the answer."

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