Contract cheating: State of play

Published by Caroline Carlin on

Author: Simon Hawkesworth, TELT

Contract cheating, where a student either contracts someone to write the submission for them or has the content provided for them by another party, is an issue that’s increasingly troubling the HE sector. The fact that contract cheating can act to undermine academic integrity is compounded by the fact that, unlike other forms of unfair means, contract cheating has proved difficult to identify because of the ‘original’ nature of the content being generated. Identifying the behaviour using the most widely used technological approach, Turnitin OriginalityCheck, is ineffective, as the work submitted does not commonly appear in any of the categories used by Turnitin to match content. Turnitin have recently released Authorship Investigate, which looks to address this technological gap – though there hasn‘t yet been time to evaluate the effectiveness of this new initiative. As Newton (2018), one of the most active researchers on the subject states:

‘There are currently no reliable objective measures of the extent of contract cheating.’

Figures reported in several UK newspapers (Turner, 2017; Woolcock, 2018), of one in seven students engaging in contract cheating, are impossible to verify, and are largely extrapolated from Newton’s (2018) analysis of existing research, which were mainly studies concerning self-reporting of the behaviour, rather than identifiable cases of contract cheating. In the UK, Rigby et al. (2015) found that amongst a study of 90 UK undergraduates, half would be willing to purchase an essay under at least one of the scenarios presented, and that 7.8% would do so under any of the choices given.

However, despite the limitations of the current data, there’s little room for complacency. Any internet search using terms such as ‘essay writing’ or essay mills’, will produce results in large numbers, both for UK and global providers: suggesting that a market does exist. Indeed Owings and Nelson (2014) estimate that the essay mill industry: ‘has annual revenues somewhere upward of $100 million with estimated minimum profits of $50 million,’ and Rigby et al. (2015) suggests a figure in the UK of £200m in 2006, ‘ … with one company (UKEssays) reported to have 3500 writers’, so clearly, the market for these services is both substantial and continuing.

Rigby et al. (2015) suggests that the plethora of essay mill sites, means that buyers are faced with little expenditure of effort to find potential suppliers. Commercial essay providers are, as Rowland et al. (2018) suggest, also using marketing techniques to legitimise their services, or even to align them with applications whose role is to check for plagiarism; while work by Marsh (2018) and Aziz and Marsh (2019) highlight how these companies are using social media, and in particular, WhatsApp and LinkedIn, to target students.

The threat to academic integrity of this behaviour has resulted in calls for legal penalties and restriction to these practices. However, as research by Curnock (2018) and Draper and Newton (2017) have indicated in the case of Canada’s attempt employ legislation, it’s not clear how effective this might be. Australian legislators will soon instigate laws to impose stringent fines on companies (Rahim, 2019), and the impact of this will be watched closely by the global HE sector. It’s worth noting that in the UK, there is no law that specifically addresses contract cheating, and little indication of government intention to legislate for it, though government pressure has apparently resulted in moves by Paypal UK to withdraw services from essay writing firms who are supplying to university students (Aziz and Marsh, 2019).

It’s clear that there isn’t yet a clear understanding the nature and extent or the issue, never mind a broad, cross-sector strategy to address it. From a learning technology perspective, professionals in this field will increasingly be called upon to help in the development of strategies to combat it that will include: educating students and staff, understanding legislative requirements, and evaluating and supporting any technological innovation. All of these will need all need to be employed to combat this threat to academic integrity, which, as the QAA (2017: 5) remind us:

‘ …  represents a clear threat to providers’ ability to assure the standards of their qualifications, and as such to the reputation of UK HE as a whole’.

Sources of information

Aziz, I. and Marsh, S. (2019) US essay mill firm targets new students through WhatsApp [online] Available at: [Accessed April 2019].

Curnock, M. (2018) Essay mills must be outlawed if we’re to curb cheating. [online] Available: [Accessed March 2019].

Draper, M. J. & Newton, P. M. (2017) A legal approach to tackling contract cheating? International Journal for Educational Integrity, Vol.13(11). [online] Available at:  [Accessed March 2019].

Marsh, S. (2018) Cheating at UK’s top universities soars by 30%; Institutions including Oxford and Cambridge under scrutiny as number of academic misconduct cases surges [online] Available: [Accessed March 2019].

Newton, P. M. (2018) How Common Is Commercial Contract Cheating in Higher Education and Is It Increasing? A Systematic Review. Available at: [Accessed March 2019].

Owings, S., and Nelson, J. (2014) The essay industry [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2019].

QAA (2017) Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education – How to Address Contract Cheating, the Use of Third-Party Services and Essay Mills. QAA. [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2019].

Rigby, D., Burton, M., Balcombe, K., Bateman, I., and Mulatu, A. (2015) Contract cheating & the market in essays. [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2019].

Rowland, S., Slade, C., Wong, K., and Whiting, B. (2017) ‘Just turn to us’: the persuasive features of contract cheating websites. [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2019].

Turner, C. (2017) University Lecturers Are Topping up Earnings by Helping Students Cheat, Review Suggests. The Telegraph. [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2019].

Woolcock, N. (2018) One in seven graduates are essay cheats’. [online] Available at: [Accessed March 2019].


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