With thanks to our colleagues Amber Jones (School of Arts & Social Sciences), Dr. Deborah Rafalin (School of Arts & Social Sciences), Nerida Booth (Student & Academic Services), and Richard Knott (Academic Learning Support) for their feedback on this article.
Every year we assist a small but growing number of students with cases related to “contract cheating”, or the act of getting (or paying) others to complete your coursework.
This year, with studies almost entirely online we think it’s important to provide some further information about the dangers of using these services.
We have seen evidence that these services are targeting students due to the crisis and the introduction of online teaching and we want to help you to avoid this. Worryingly, in particular international students may be targeted by these organisations.
A caveat: there are many ways students can get caught out by using unscrupulous ‘essay mills’ or other similar services, and this article isn’t exhaustive.
If you need more advice and support please see “sources of support” at the end.
What is contract cheating?
Contract cheating is getting someone else to produce work for you. Contract cheating is a form of ‘academic misconduct’. If students are found to have committed academic misconduct there are various penalties which usually lead to your work failing and having to resit.
However, contract cheating is one of the most serious forms of academic misconduct. If students are found to have committed contract cheating they are very likely to be referred to a disciplinary panel. The outcome is often expulsion from the university. This is because contract cheating is particularly dishonest, and includes an element of deception/fraud.
Contract cheating differs from ‘collusion’, such as working together with other students on your course to submit the same or similar work. It involves explicitly contacting other third parties to do the work for you, usually bespoke websites/companies.
Services could include writing your essay, doing research for you, a level of proofreading which involves re-writing your work, translating your work into English for you, or impersonating you in exams.
How the services present themselves
Many contract cheating services are advertised online and in person. Some may attempt to appear more legitimate than others.
These services frequently hand out business cards or flyers around university campuses, or on routes to and from campus. You may see posters advertising these services on or around campus. Some Youtube stars as young as 12 have been paid to advertise these services online.
“Proofreading” or “tutoring” services
Services may tout themselves as “proofreaders”, “editors”, or people who can look at your essay for grammar issues, or to provide feedback.
All of these services may be classed as contract cheating if used, but many are simply cover stories for services that will sell “bespoke” or “made to order” essays.
To give an example, a student may contact the service looking for someone to proofread their essay. A price is quoted, and the student sends the essay. At this point the service may offer to write something better, or make significant revisions to the work.
As you will know, university is a very different learning experience to school or college. While you may have had the use of a private tutor in the past you are now at a level where you are expected to learn independently.
Another example may be that the service or website asks for information about your essay question. They may then provide a ‘model answer’ or ‘sample essay’ for you to base your work on. In reality the intention is that you would submit this or make minor amendments. By this point you have basically bought an essay to submit, which is contract cheating.
In some cases these services drop all pretense of appearing legitimate. They may simply offer to help you cheat by writing the work for you.
Some of these services offer different packages and try and provide guarantees that you won’t be caught. Many services say they can guarantee that they can stop Turnitin detecting that you have purchased the essay, some even providing proof in the form of fake Turnitin reports which are easily seen through. The quality of these essays and their references are frequently poor.
In software development/coding there are many sites available to outsource the writing of code. In professional contexts these may be legitimate, but in the context of writing code to submit academically using these services is contract cheating in the same way as paying someone to write your essay.
In all these examples a third party is ‘ghostwriting’ or producing the work for you or to give you an unfair advantage. All these examples are against the rules and are serious breaches of university policy, and not only attempt to cheat the university but disadvantage other students.
Why these services should be avoided
If you are writing an essay – unless you have specifically been told to work collaboratively with other students on a group project -- you should not let anyone else see your work apart from a tutor.
By all means you can discuss your work with others and talk about what you are learning, but when you start working on your assignment it is time to stop working with others.
There are services available to support you in proofreading your work (see sources of support below). If you must allow another student to look at your work, only share a printed copy and note any issues in the margins. Do not share a digital copy, as it’s much easier for someone to take and amend your work.
However, we advise that generally you should avoid getting other students to ‘proofread’ your work (for spelling mistakes/grammatical errors), as this creates complications regarding ‘collusion’. Even the act of sharing your work in this way, even with good intentions, can be an academic misconduct breach in it’s own right if another student copies it.
As before, collusion is where you might work with a friend, when the assessment states you should work alone.
The university have set you the task of preparing a piece of work by yourself. Being able to do this is not only a test to demonstrate your learning, but will give you skills valued by employers. Producing this work demonstrates to employers that you can think critically, organise and use large amounts of information, and demonstrate attention to detail.
If you use these kind of contract cheating services, ultimately you will be cheating yourself out of that experience.
This means that you also shouldn’t be giving your work to agencies to proofread or ‘provide feedback’.
Even if you ‘mix and match’ and only use part of the sample essay, it’s still likely to be detected and the temptation to submit the whole thing as your own is too great. We advise avoiding these services altogether.
These services count on students becoming stressed by deadlines, or falling behind in your work. These services are targeted toward exploiting you for financial gain, their motivation is not to help you succeed on your course.
No matter how desperate or stressed you are using these services carries a huge risk, and you will see why in the next section.
See “sources of support” at the end of this article on who to turn to instead.
How you will get caught
Software such as Turnitin has become very sophisticated, and now has a huge amount of submitted data it can scan when you submit an essay. This includes students at other universities as well as articles published by academics all around the world.
Sample or bought essays offered by companies have often been submitted in whole or part by other students, and so these will be on the Turnitin system and will be noticed easily.
Additionally, these essays are normally poorly referenced, or referenced using a different system than the one you might be using for your course. If you submit this work it’s likely to be ‘flagged’ by Turnitin.
Your tutors know their subject matter, and they know their field. They are likely to spot these problems, or differences in your writing style.
If you use a sample or bought essay, the difference in writing style is normally a give-away that work is not your own. When tutors are reading work it is very obvious when there is a shift of tone in the writing, and this makes it obvious that bits have been copied from other sources.
It is also possible that if a sample uses a strange reference or unusual source (for example, one that is not referenced in lecture slides, or is not commonly referenced in your field of study), this can raise suspicion among academics marking the work.
It is important to remember that just because work is on the internet, or is ‘open source’, it still has to be correctly referenced. This applies to words from a book or journal article (which might be online for free), but also the use of ideas, approaches, interpretations, code and data sets in your work. Any idea you have come across which is not your own, even if it is available for free, should be correctly referenced.
These services also demand payment. We have seen examples where disputes have arisen over payment and the services have informed or threatened to inform universities directly that a student has been cheating. This is a money-making enterprise where the industry relies upon dishonesty and cheating; they may have no scruples getting you into serious trouble or blackmailing you.
Please remember, this is not a guide on how to avoid getting caught! Just because we have listed a few ways you may get caught for cheating doesn’t mean you can use other methods to avoid this kind of cheating being detected.
The combination of complex plagiarism software, and your tutors’ experience in marking and academic research, means it is very likely any cheating will be detected. City take these offences incredibly seriously, and like all Universities have been improving their systems to detect these kinds of offences.
Consequences of contract cheating
If your School suspects you have been involved in contract cheating an investigation will take place which may then be followed by an Academic Misconduct Panel meeting.
If you are found to have cheated in this way then it is very likely you would be referred to a disciplinary panel. The outcome is often expulsion from the university. This is because contract cheating is particularly dishonest, and includes an element of deception/fraud.
Using these services is mostly seen as inherently dishonest. Simply claiming that you had no idea that your actions amounted to contract cheating will not be seen as an adequate defence, especially as the University provides resources to help students avoid this.
Mitigating circumstances can be taken into account when deciding on what level of sanction should be given in cases like this, but the act itself will always be seen as severe dishonesty.
No matter how desperate you are, it would be better to fail an assignment and resit than use contract cheating services. There are always other options and support is available (see the next section for more).
When the university investigates these cases the ‘standard of proof’ is not the same one used in criminal cases. The standard of proof in universities is ‘on the balance of probabilities’, and not ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. This means that the university only have to think that it’s more likely than not that a student has committed contract cheating. It does not have to prove the case beyond all reasonable doubt.
Where a student is on a course with PSRB requirements and found to have cheated in this way, they will be reported to their professional body and could bring your fitness to practice into question.
Sources of support
Sometimes it can be quite difficult to maintain good academic practice standards, and academic misconduct can occur unintentionally. However, contract cheating will never be seen as unintentional.
Time management is often a factor leading to academic misconduct. Feeling panicked about a deadline can lead you to make poor choices. Further, personal pressures and financial problems can also be a factor. If you find yourself feeling this way you should turn to the services available for support.
We highly recommend accessing the Academic Learning Support service. They provide online resources, skills guides, and one to one tutorial support.
You could also turn to your Personal Tutor, Module Leader or Programme Director for more support.
If you are experiencing anxiety or struggling emotionally, the Student Counselling & Mental Health Service are here to support you. You can find out how to access them here.
Union Advice are always available to assist too. While we are happy to provide advice to students after they have received an allegation of academic misconduct, it would be in the best interests of students to avoid getting to the allegation stage in the first place by not using these kinds of services.
Finally, in your Programme Handbook you will find a section relating to academic misconduct, please read this if you have not done so already.