Contract cheating

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Contract cheating is a form of academic dishonesty in which students pay others to complete their coursework.[1][2][3][4]

The term was coined in a 2006 study by Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke of the University of Central England in Birmingham (now known as Birmingham City University).[5][6][7]


The first published material detailing the extent of contract cheating was a study by Robert Clarke and Thomas Lancaster.[5] The study presented three main findings:

  1. Over 12 percent of postings on a popular website for outsourcing computer contract work were actually bid requests from students seeking contract cheating services.
  2. Contract cheaters posted an average of 4–7 requests, suggesting that some students make habitual use of such services.
  3. A smaller number of users have posted over 50 bid requests, including examples from multiple institutions. This suggests that these are agencies subcontracting work, not students who are directly making use of the services.

Whereas the quality of solutions to assignments sold by essay mills has been questioned, a study by Jenkins and Helmore showed that work obtained through the use of an auction site was of sufficient quality to gain satisfactory grades and thus remain undetected by educators.[8]

A 2007 study examined more than 900 examples of contract cheating by students studying computing subjects. The published results categorised the assignment types (e.g. programming, database, web design, etc.) and were analysed by country. One new concern identified by this study was the number of major projects (both final-year undergraduate and postgraduate) that had been posted on auction sites.[9]

From a study of 4,000 suspected cases of contract cheating, some interesting patterns of behaviour have been observed. A summary was presented at the HEA Workshop on Contract Cheating in March 2008.[10]

At the June 2009 Aske conference, a paper detailing a multifaceted approach to dealing with the problem of contract cheating was presented.[11] A study was presented at the April 2012 STEM conference involving more than 600 assignments in subject areas ranging from anthropology to theology.[12] There is debate about which subjects are most susceptible to contract cheating, but an overall consensus by several scholars, including Curtis & Clare (2017)[13], Bretag (2017)[14], Lancaster & Clarke (2015)[15] and Eaton (2019),[16] indicates that the following disciplines have the highest incidence:

  1. Business
  2. Engineering
  3. Sciences (including pre-medicine and health sciences)
  4. Humanities
  5. Education

The commercial aspects of contract cheating were examined in a paper given at the 2013 Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education. This paper analysed the monetary value of contract cheating to the various parties who play roles in the contract cheating process. The main analysis was based on a corpus consisting of 14,438 identified attempts to cheat, collected between March 2005 and July 2012.[17][18]

In a 2017 meta-analysis of five studies, 3.5% of a total of 1,378 students reported having bought assignments to submit as their own. Of the students who reported engaging in contract cheating, more than 60% admitted to having done so more than once.[13]


Contract-cheating outfits promise that their output work is original and likely to evade detection by software products such as those provided by Turnitin. Assessment design strategies may limit the possibility that students can use contract cheating services, although a 2014 article in Educational Studies showed that reducing the time given to students to prepare their assessments is unlikely to deter contract cheating, and that there appeared to be significant spare capacity in the contract cheating market.[19]


In July 2007, a paper proposed a systematic six-stage process that tutors can use to detect students who are contract cheating.[20]

Contract cheating sites often boast that the use of their services is undetectable,[21] a claim that has been tested in two studies. In a 2016 Australian study, when educators were asked to grade a set of contract cheating assignments, without the issue of contract cheating mentioned to them, none of the educators raised any concerns of contract cheating.[21] However, in a later study when graders were specifically asked to detect contract cheating, they correctly identified it 62% of the time.[22]

It has recently been proposed that existing assignment and invigilated assessment data can be systematically analyzed in order to detect patterns of students' performance that may be indicative of contract cheating.[23] At the 2015 Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond conference, it was demonstrated how collecting analytical data at the time of writing can help in identifying cases of contract cheating. [24] [25]

Although plagiarism-detection engines such as that offered by Turnitin are unlikely to detect contract cheating, such tools have shown some success in identifying the source of assignments found on auction sites.[26]


Some academic institutions consider contract cheating to be among the most serious forms of academic misconduct and penalise culpable students accordingly. In 2010, the Academic Misconduct Benchmarking Research Project (AMBeR) developed a plagiarism tariff in the UK in an attempt to standardise penalties for all forms of academic misconduct. The final report noted that purchase of an assignment should be penalised with the most serious measures available, such as expulsion from the institution, and that many institutions consider contract cheating as a separate form of misconduct altogether because of the seemingly obvious intent associated with it.[27] However, a 2015 UK research study that collected university students' opinions on appropriate penalties for academic misconduct demonstrated that students consistently recommended lenient penalties for plagiarism, and that this effect was most pronounced for contract cheating.[28][29][30]


The legality of contract cheating services was reviewed by Newton and Lang in a 2016 chapter of the Handbook of Academic Integrity.[31] The legal status of these services varies internationally. In New Zealand it is illegal to "advertise or provide third party assistance to cheat", with similar, older laws on the statutes of 17 U.S. states. Australia has proposed laws similar to that of the New Zealand law, with a draft bill at the federal level.[32][33]

In the United Kingdom, the Quality Assurance Agency published a report[34] advocating the use of a legal approach as one way to tackle contract cheating, and suggested that existing fraud laws might be used, since the activities of such services, and their clients, could be reasonably interpreted to fit with definitions of fraud, as they involve false representation and failure to disclose information. A subsequent research project[35] compared the UK fraud laws with the terms and conditions used by contract cheating services and concluded that such services would be unlikely to fall foul of fraud law because the disclaimers, terms and conditions the services provide generally state that any custom written products are to be used only as "study guides" or "revision aids", thereby placing responsibility and intent on the student client. Despite this, media stings have shown that companies can be complicit in the inappropriate use of these products.[36] A similar analysis in Lithuania[37] concluded that contract cheating services were unlikely to fall foul of existing laws, although an analysis of Australian[38] law concluded that fraud, as well as forgery and conspiracy, might be legal avenues via which contract cheating could be targeted. All three studies called for the introduction of new legal approaches to tackle contract cheating. Contract cheating is not illegal in Canada.[16]

A follow-up research study[39] proposed new laws, based on the principle of strict liability, to lessen the requirement for prosecutors to demonstrate that contract cheaters intended to help students cheat, instead holding contract cheaters liable for prosecution simply for offering services that could be reasonably interpreted as being used for contract cheating.

More broadly, despite the apparent potential of a legal challenge to contract cheating companies, prosecutions are currently rare, largely because of the limitations of existing laws. In addition, the simple act of outlawing a service would not necessarily reduce demand for it; the aforementioned research studies all call for a holistic, multi-pronged approach to tackling contract cheating.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Shepherd, Jessica (2008-05-06). "The rise of 'contract cheating' at universities". The Guardian. London.
  2. ^ "Student cheats contract out work". BBC/ 2006-06-12. Retrieved 2006-06-14.
  3. ^ Lightfoot, Liz (2006-06-13). "Cheating students put assignments out to tender on the internet". London: Telegraph/ Retrieved 2006-06-14.
  4. ^ "The cybercheats making a small fortune". London: Daily Mail/ 2006-06-17. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  5. ^ a b Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2006-06-19). "Eliminating the successor to plagiarism? Identifying the usage of contract cheating sites". CiteSeerX Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Thomas Lancaster bio Archived 2009-12-06 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Robert Clarke bio". Retrieved 2013-07-21.
  8. ^ "T. Jenkins and S. Helmore "Coursework for cash: the threat from on-line plagiarism", in Proceedings of 7th Annual Conference for Information and Computer Science, Dublin. Higher Education Academy pp121-126 (August 2006)" (PDF).
  9. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2007-08-30). "Assessing Contract Cheating Through Auction Sites – A Computing Perspective" (PDF). Retrieved 2007-09-13.
  10. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2008-03-07). "The Private Life of an Assignment" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-01-09.
  11. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2009-06-04). "Contract Cheating in UK Higher Education: promoting a proactive approach" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-03. Retrieved 2011-01-09.
  12. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2012-04-18). "Dealing with contract cheating: a question of attribution" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  13. ^ a b Curtis, Guy J.; Clare, Joseph (2017-04-20). "How Prevalent is Contract Cheating and to What Extent are Students Repeat Offenders?". Journal of Academic Ethics. 15 (2): 115–124. doi:10.1007/s10805-017-9278-x. ISSN 1570-1727.
  14. ^ Bretag, T. (2017). Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, Good Practice Note: Addressing contract cheating to safeguard academic integrity  Retrieved from
  15. ^ Lancaster, T., & Clarke, R. (2015). Examining contract cheating, essay mill use and academic misconduct by students on health courses.  Retrieved from
  16. ^ a b Eaton, S. E. (2019, February 15). The Ethics of Outsourcing: Contract Cheating in Medicine and Health Sciences. Paper presented at the Orthopaedic Surgery Citywide Rounds, Calgary, Canada. Retrieved from
  17. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2013-07-01). "Commercial aspects of contract cheating". Retrieved 2013-08-21.
  18. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2013-07-01). "Commercial aspects of contract cheating (Slides)". Retrieved 2013-08-21.
  19. ^ Wallace, Melisa J.; Newton, Philip M. (2014). "Turnaround time and market capacity in contract cheating" (PDF). Educational Studies. 40 (2): 233–236. doi:10.1080/03055698.2014.889597.
  20. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2007-07-26). "Establishing a Systematic Six-Stage Process for Detecting Contract Cheating". 2007 2nd International Conference on Pervasive Computing and Applications. pp. 342–347. doi:10.1109/ICPCA.2007.4365466. ISBN 978-1-4244-0970-9. Retrieved 2011-01-09.
  21. ^ a b Lines, Lisa (2016-11-16). "Ghostwriters guaranteeing grades? The quality of online ghostwriting services available to tertiary students in Australia". Teaching in Higher Education. 21 (8): 889–914. doi:10.1080/13562517.2016.1198759. ISSN 1356-2517.
  22. ^ Dawson, Phillip; Sutherland-Smith, Wendy (2017-06-05). "Can markers detect contract cheating? Results from a pilot study". Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 0 (2): 286–293. doi:10.1080/02602938.2017.1336746. ISSN 0260-2938.
  23. ^ Clare, Joseph; Walker, Sonia; Hobson, Julia (2017-08-08). "Can we detect contract cheating using existing assessment data? Applying crime prevention theory to an academic integrity issue". International Journal for Educational Integrity. 13 (1): 4. doi:10.1007/s40979-017-0015-4. ISSN 1833-2595.
  24. ^ Khan, Wasi (2015). Plagiarism detection 2.0: Detection of Contract Cheating (PDF). Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond. Brno: Mendel University. p. 215.
  25. ^ Khan, Wasi (Presenter) (Aug 3, 2015). Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond (Motion picture). Brno, Czech Republic: Plagiarism Across Europe and Beyond. Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  26. ^ Clarke, Robert; Lancaster, Thomas (2014-04-13). "Using Turnitin as a tool for attribution in cases of contract cheating". Retrieved 2014-10-28.
  27. ^ "Plagiarism tariff: let the punishment fit the demerit points". Times Higher Education (THE). 2010-06-16. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  28. ^ "Academic integrity: a quantitative study of confidence and understanding in students at the start of their higher education". Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  29. ^ "Hundreds fail to spot plagiarism". Times Higher Education (THE). 2015-04-22. Retrieved 22 May 2016.
  30. ^ Newton, Philip (2016). "Academic integrity: a quantitative study of confidence and understanding in students at the start of their higher education". Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 41 (3): 482–497. doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024199.
  31. ^ Newton, Philip M.; Lang, Christopher (1 January 2016). "Custom Essay Writers, Freelancers, and Other Paid Third Parties". In Bretag, Tracey (ed.). Handbook of Academic Integrity. Springer Singapore. pp. 249–271. doi:10.1007/978-981-287-098-8_38. ISBN 978-981-287-097-1.
  32. ^ "Stamping out cheating at Universities". Australian Government Media Release. 2019-04-07.
  33. ^ "tackling-contract-cheating". Australian Government Higher Education Standards Panel. 2019-04-07.
  34. ^ "Education, deterrence, detection: how to tackle the problem of essay mills". QAA news. 2016-08-18. Archived from the original on 19 September 2016.
  35. ^ Draper, Michael J.; Ibezim, Victoria; Newton, Philip M. (2017). "Are Essay Mills committing fraud? An analysis of their behaviours vs the 2006 Fraud Act (UK)". International Journal for Educational Integrity. 13 (1): 3. doi:10.1007/s40979-017-0014-5.
  36. ^ Robin Henry; Cal Flyn; Katie Glass (15 June 2014). "'£630 and I'll put you on the way to a first'". The Sunday Times.
  37. ^ Tauginienė, Loreta; Jurkevičius, Vaidas (2017). "Ethical and legal observations on contract cheating services as an agreement". International Journal for Educational Integrity. 13 (1): 9. doi:10.1007/s40979-017-0020-7.
  38. ^ Steel, Alex (18 September 2017). "Contract cheating: Will students pay for serious criminal consequences?". Alternative Law Journal. 42 (2): 123–129. doi:10.1177/1037969x17710627.
  39. ^ Draper, Michael J.; Newton, Philip M. (2017). "A legal approach to tackling contract cheating?" (PDF). International Journal for Educational Integrity. 13 (1): 11. doi:10.1007/s40979-017-0022-5.

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