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Look for the helpers in the battle against contract cheating

And how you can be a helper, too

Christine Lee
Christine Lee
Content Manager






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Fred Rogers once said--when there is a crisis, don’t lose hope: “look for the helpers.” Looking to helpers as models and sources of inspiration is a way to find direction and meaning. In the world of academic integrity, too, it’s easy to note the things that go wrong and to overlook progress and victories. It’s easy to get discouraged.

It’s time to take a break, look for the helpers, and applaud their work in the arena of contract cheating.

The battle against “contract cheating” (a term originated by Thomas Lancaster and Robert Clarke of Birmingham City University in a 2006 study), is buoyed by academic research. Lancaster and Clarke recognized contract cheating as the “successor to pure plagiarism,” and their initial work laid the foundation for continued research.

At the forefront of research today are Tracey Bretag (Director of Integrity, University of South Australia Business School) and Cath Ellis (Associate Dean of Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, UNSW Sydney). They’ve tirelessly pioneered research on contract cheating, responsible for raising awareness and driving action against contract cheating. Resulting actions are measurable: they include legislation against contract cheating in Australia, The Republic of Ireland, and New Zealand.

Bretag and Ellis’s accomplishments include:

This year, they were named by Times Higher Education as People of the Year: Who Mattered in Higher Education in 2019.

Their recognition is well deserved. And we applaud them.

How can we follow in their footsteps and become helpers, too? Because each of us can make a positive change in either incremental or disruptive ways.

1. One of the ways educators can help is to identify tell-tale signs of unoriginal work in student assignments:
  • Referencing and citation irregularities
  • Differences in student diction (such as different regional idioms) and voice
  • The assignment does not answer the question -- or sounds dated
  • Irregularities across student work history (which includes error patterns or grammar usage patterns)
  • Few references to ideas presented in class
  • Multiple references pointing to a single resource
  • Perfect referencing but not in the format you’ve assigned
  • Document metadata reveals inconsistencies--e.g., the author of the document isn’t the student
  • Shallow, formulaic structured content
2. Educating yourself and your students bolsters your ability to make a change: 3. Educators can become helpers by actively engaging in prevention:
  • Lancaster states that essay mills want run-of-the-mill assessments that they can turn out with minimal effort. Essay mills don’t usually like obscure assignments that require higher-level thinking.
  • Provide a mix of different kinds of assessments, and include in-class supervised assessment.
  • Have students write proposals of written assignments, as well as interim drafts

We commend all the helpers in the world. And we commend you for helping each other transform the academic landscape for the better.