Contract cheating happens when a student has a third party complete academic work on their behalf. Students often purchase the work from Internet-based companies. Common examples of contract cheating include essay mills, custom writing services, and professional exam takers. Canada ranks among the top four countries from which students place online orders for completion of academic work, outpaced only by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. A Google search of “write my essay” and “Canada” in June 2018 rendered over 1.5 million results.
The Canadian ‘black market’ for academic work
A single Google search cannot confirm actual prevalence. But even if only 1% of the search results are contract cheating services, they would represent 15,000 businesses whose customers include Canadian students. That is enough to raise concern. There may be a more accurate way to estimate the extent to which Canadian students buy academic work online. Curtis and Clare (2017) reported that an average of 3.5% of students admit to contract cheating. Using their study as a point of departure to extrapolate from national statistics data, we can estimate the extent of the problem in Canada.
This estimate of over 71,000 post-secondary students who engage in contract cheating in Canada has yet to be verified by empirical research, but it presents a starting point for deeper dialogue. Issues of academic misconduct have emerged in the Canada’s national news including cheating, teaching assistants taking bribes to increase students’ grades, and students hacking a dean’s computer account to change grades, but there remains a need to develop greater awareness about the scope and seriousness the “black market” for academic work.
How to detect contract cheating
Familiarity with a student’s way of writing can alert the instructor to instances when the student’s writing departs from the norm. Discrepancies in referencing can also be a key clue for instructors.
It is a myth that contract cheating is undetectable. There are strategies that educators can use to identify it in student work. One is for educators to get to know their students. Familiarity with a student’s way of writing can alert the instructor to instances when the student’s writing departs from the norm. Discrepancies in referencing can also be a key clue for instructors. This includes keeping an eye out for sources which have the wrong dates or titles or appear to be a combination of different sources. Companies such as Turnitin offer solutions to detect instances of writing that match other entries in their database. Although contract cheating companies may (somewhat ironically) guarantee a ‘plagiarism-free’ product, the work may not actually be original. In these cases, text-matching software can be helpful.
Instructors who suspect contract cheating can call students in for individual meetings. The purpose of the interview is not to accuse the student but to gather evidence by allowing the student to defend their work in a fair and transparent way. The instructor can ask questions related to (a) how the student undertook the work, (b) how the student chose references, and (c) the content of the work to see if the student understands both the assignment and the content of the work submitted.
The International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating
Given that Canada is home to over 400 post-secondary institutions offering full or selected programs, there is room for increased participation and action.
The International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating occurs annually each October. Institutions declare their commitment to raise awareness about contract cheating by registering their participation. Participation includes: (a) hosting awareness events, (b) sharing the Institutional Toolkit against Contract Cheating and (c) engaging in a social media campaign featuring photos of participants who join in a whiteboard declaration about why contract cheating is wrong. In 2017, 75 organizations from 22 countries took part, including 14 Canadian institutions. Given that Canada is home to over 400 post-secondary institutions offering full or selected programs, there is room for increased participation and action. There remains an urgent need for further research and advocacy about academic integrity in general, including contract cheating, in Canada.