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Contract cheating is a growing trend in academic misconduct, globally. For instructors who are now without the comforts of the class and exam hall, they are confronted with a new set of challenges for upholding academic integrity in this new teaching setting. And for students who are stressed, isolated, and don’t have the means to build strong student/teacher rapport--especially with those instructors whom they’ve never met in person--they may be more tempted to take shortcut solutions that can lead to long-term consequences.

This post is the first in a series of blogs addressing academic integrity and contract cheating. And we're kicking off this series today, on the International Day of Action Against Contract Cheating, to continue to raise awareness around the problem of contract cheating. 

In late July, Turnitin held an exclusive interview with Dr Robin Crockett, University Academic Integrity Officer at the University of Northampton, United Kingdom, who provided practical advice to help educators proceed when they feel a student’s assignment doesn’t look quite right. If you missed it, you can watch it on-demand here.

We’ve joined forces with Robin once again in an offline contract cheating Q&A to help you address some of the personal integrity challenges you’ve encountered in this new teaching environment.


Strategise

Q: What are your thoughts on the strategies employed for reducing the threat of contract cheating? For example, carrying out vivas (oral examinations)?

Dr Jim Turner, Senior Learning Technologist, Liverpool John Moores University, UK

A: Be aware that students can commission notes for vivas, too. For example, some essay mills offer complete dissertation/thesis packages, including proposal, data collection and analysis (likely to be fabricated), all the way to notes for viva and even a real-time feed for remote viva. It is possible to design assessments to reduce the opportunity to cheat but not eliminate that opportunity completely. Take care not to overdo ‘cheat proofing’ at the expense of learning and learning outcomes. 

If a student is prepared to pay enough money and/or a provider is prepared to engage and pay necessary attention to detail, any unsupervised or inadequately-supervised assessment can be contract cheated. Keeping timelines as short as possible can help but some essay mills offer very short turnaround times (some turnaround times being shorter than the length of an exam!).

Q: What is the best way to discipline students for academic dishonesty? Should they be disqualified or should the teacher engage students and give them a second chance?

Kelebonye Bagai, Teaching Instructor/Lecturer, Botswana International University of Science and Technology, Botswana

A: Students should not be allowed to benefit from misconduct, i.e. they should not be allowed to obtain academic credit for work that isn’t their own honest endeavour. On the other hand, some students are more vulnerable than others, and some essay mills are very deceptive, luring students with false statements.

Institutions have a duty to help students back towards honest endeavour. Once a student makes contact with an essay mill, they are potentially at risk of being exposed as a cheat in the future, they may be blackmailed—even if they didn’t, in the end, opt to submit a commissioned assignment.

Q: How do we encourage teaching staff to take misconduct more seriously in colleges focused on vocational training?

Thomas Cahill, Lecturer, City of Dublin Education and Training Board (CDETB), Republic of Ireland

A: Alert teaching staff to the consequences of an unqualified person graduating without the expertise/training because they’ve opted to cheat. Would you/they want to be prescribed medication by a medic who cheated their dose-calculation assessments? Perhaps not ‘vocational’ in the sense of the question but this does clearly illustrate the point.


Communicate

Q: Are there best practices for how a decision about a contract cheating case is reported to a student?

Kevin O’Connor, Trinity College Dublin, Republic of Ireland

A: You should communicate this information in confidence. Only include tutors and other parties on a scrupulous need-to-know basis, and make sure that a student is directed towards sources of support and information. Support could be, for example, face-to-face specialist tutorial support or an online module that addresses summarising and paraphrasing from sources, quoting, and referencing. Wherever possible, advise a student on the positive steps they can take to improve their practice as well as communicating the consequences of what they’ve done.

Ensuring that students engage with support should be part of the decision/outcome process. I’d even go as far as suggesting that if the student does not meaningfully access signposted support within a given time-frame, this could lead to a harsher penalty. Lastly, make sure that the policy and guidelines are in plain English (or other languages as appropriate). It isn’t reasonable to expect students to understand ‘legalese’. Any and all policies and procedures must align with privacy, data protection, and other laws as applicable.

Q: Is interviewing a student who is suspected of engaging in contract cheating an effective strategy for resolving cases?

Dr Uzma Ahmad, PhD Economics, Lecturer/Academic tutor in Economics, University of Sheffield International College, UK

A: Yes, interviewing is effective, but make sure that laws/regulations in your country/institution allow you to interview students in this context. I’d advise checking your institution’s academic misconduct procedure before carrying out any interviewing or investigation.

Interviewing a student should be part of the evidence collection/collation prior to any formal hearing where the student is asked to explain the body of evidence collected. Initial interviews should be done in a manner whereby you don’t withhold information but you don't volunteer information to a student before they’ve given you their explanation.


Investigate

Q: Academic dishonesty cases require direct evidence in our institution. What specific evidence cannot be denied or questioned?

Dr. Cirilo E. Mirano, Jr., Lecturer, Business Studies, Shinas College of Technology, Oman

A: It might be relatively straightforward for a student to explain a single assignment that shows evidence of cheating; however, it is much less straightforward for a student to explain several assignments that show evidence of cheating. Therefore, always consider a portfolio of assignments submitted by a student to see the whole picture. 

If a student has submitted two (or more) assignments but there is evidence of conflicting document properties and metadata within these assignments, and the student has given conflicting explanations, then it’s unlikely that these assignments have been written by the same student. Where that’s the case, it doesn’t matter if one of those assignments might be the student’s own work because the other(s) simply can’t be. Keep your focus on what can’t be (or is very unlikely to be) the student’s own work.

It would be difficult to deny the presence of a ‘creating author’ name in the document metadata that uniquely identifies with a ghostwriter who advertises online. Also, if a student insists that they used the same software/computer throughout but submitted documents in different formats with different settings, then begs the question of why and how did they do this?

Q: Due to the anonymous submission of assignments, we guide students to wipe the metadata to ensure anonymity. Does this make it more difficult to detect contract cheating?

Dr Stephen Gow, Academic Integrity Coordinator, University of York, UK

A: Anonymous assessment—and degrees of anonymity in assessment—is a ‘hot’ topic in the UK at the moment. However, I’d question the need to direct students to wipe metadata because this cannot be guaranteed to remove all ID information, giving students a false sense of ‘security’ and it won’t prevent determined persons from trying to identify students.

As I recall from (limited) previous experience of anonymous assessment, some students’ work inevitably stands out due to individual ‘quirks’, and if a tutor recognises a student’s work despite a complete absence of name/ID in what’s being assessed, any subconscious bias will come into play. Perhaps part of a solution is more in-depth moderation rather than over-anonymisation?

Q: When we raise concerns with students about their document properties, we routinely get the response, “I used my brother’s/mum’s/Great Aunt Ethel’s laptop”. This can be almost impossible to refute. Any suggestions or advice?

Nia Faulder, Programme Manager for International Foundation Science & Engineering, INTO Manchester, UK

A: I’d advise looking at several assignments submitted by the same student. If a pattern appears, whereby the ‘creating author’ name is different in each assignment, and the ‘last-modifying author’ name is always the same student, this is more likely a result of documents being written in whole or in part by ghost-writers, then opened and saved by the student before submission e.g. to add or complete a title page, which would change the last-modifying author name to the name of the student.

If a student has borrowed their Aunt Ethel’s laptop, the expectation would be that at least some ‘last-modifying author’ names would align with the ‘creating author’ names. Sometimes, just asking the simple question, ‘Who is [creating author name]?” is revealing, as many students who commission don’t bother to check the document properties and have no idea what’s embedded in the file they’ve submitted.

Q: Students could open a blank document, then copy and paste the ghostwritten text into it. This shows a short total editing time but is otherwise not terribly suspicious from the metadata alone. Doesn’t this very easily get around historical place holders?

Richard Welford, IB Diploma Coordinator, Ecole Ruban Vert, Gabon

A: Some students make clean copies for entirely honest reasons, too. Depending on how a student copies a commissioned assignment into a new document, there can be tell-tale signs copied over in the XML*, sometimes revealed in document properties but this needs deeper digging. Sometimes, copying into a new document breaks referencing where referencing software has been used which is revealed by empty placeholders in the text.

*Both .docx and .odt format documents are actually zip-files comprised of XML (eXtended Markup Language) files, image files, etc. Those individual XML files contain the text, references, format settings, metadata, etc. If in doubt, it is possible to unzip .docx (Word) and .odt (LibreOffice) files and directly read the XML files inside. Use a hex editor to look at the innards of .doc files; sometimes it's possible to identify the same features in a .doc file as available in XML files.


A huge thanks to Robin Crockett for providing his expertise on the contract cheating investigation process and helping educators proceed when they feel an assignment 'doesn’t look quite right'.

If you attended the full Taking Integrity Online webinar series and asked a question that we didn’t have time to answer, you may be pleased to hear that there are more offline Q&As on the way.

In our upcoming blog posts, hear from Nottingham Trent’s Mark Sergeant and Loughborough’s Sandie Dann, and Kit Messinger as they share extra insight into online panel hearings and methods for supporting the student during this process.

Concerned about contract cheating at your institution? 

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