How IT departments can help combat contract cheating

Commentary: A new form of plagiarism, called contract cheating, has emerged. Here's what higher ed CIOs can do to stem the tide of ghostwritten work.

Contract cheating, in its various forms, has become an arms race. We will never be able to prevent all cheating in education because, just like hackers cracking computer code, as soon as we build better armor, these companies become better at cheating.

The first kind of digital cheating we saw was basic copy-and-paste plagiarism. In response, the first plagiarism-detection services used crawlers to index all the content on the internet, look for similar strings of words, and flag them as suspect. This was a great deterrent and provided an even better learning opportunity for teacher and student.

After those services became successful at catching copy-and-paste cheating, students started to collude and trade papers or parts of papers across different courses and different semesters. At that point, plagiarism-detection services began indexing student papers to prevent students from sharing their work with others.

Today, there is still basic plagiarism, but there is a new form of plagiarism called contract cheating (sometimes referred to as ghostwriting) where students hire someone to write an original paper specifically to fill an assignment’s requirements. We suspect that students are spending millions of dollars on contract cheating sites. The industry operates underground, so we don’t have substantial data to establish how much money is lost. It is safe to say that as pressure continues to mount, students will continue to seek out these sites and will hire someone to write an original paper for them right down to the specific word count, topic and style.


College campuses are unwittingly letting the contract cheating business proliferate by not taking more aggressive actions to identify these underground companies — which, by the way, are not operating so much underground. Their marketing efforts are aggressive and frequently dishonest. The good news is higher ed CIOs can take a few steps to stem the tide.

Disrupt advertising and spamming

Cheating sites advertise with flyers, on bulletin boards, on Craigslist and YouTube, on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, and use campus email lists. Frequently, these companies masquerade as tutoring services, and they email directly to campus email lists. Students unwittingly click on an ad and all too soon, descend to the point of buying a paper.

IT departments must be vigilant in protecting students from email ads by catching messages with spoofed addresses and blocking access to the known cheating sites on the school’s internet.

Build workflows to manage evidence


College campuses need clear policies about penalties, but it will fall to the IT department to provide evidence when misconduct arises. There is a paper trail from when a faculty member suspects cheating, to escalation, to investigation, and then to the dean’s office. IT is involved in investigating the paper trail, and we know of many colleges adapting software from the legal industry to manage cases of academic misconduct.

As the number of cases increase, there will be a greater load placed on IT departments. They need to be prepared now to handle what could become a major issue almost overnight.

Warn and educate students at the critical point

Some of the simplest actions yield great results. For example, when a site is blocked on the campus internet network because it is a paper mill, communicate to students that this site violates the college’s academic integrity policy, action will be taken, digital evidence will be surfaced by IT, and cheaters will face consequences.

Most importantly, provide a location to go for help like the counseling office or an academic adviser. Students need to realize that campuses have active, aggressive policies in place to prevent cheating and that experts in IT have the knowledge and software to produce evidence.


Bill Loller is the vice president of product management for Turnitin.

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