Guy Curtis: Contract cheating is four times more common than we thought

Guy Curtis, researcher at the prestigious University of Western Australia in Perth, shows in his latest study that contract cheating is much more common than many thought. As a scholar of psychological science for almost 20 years, he also studies why students might cheat and what causes people to pay others to write their assignments.

Read the interview in Czech translation.

It's been a year since Australia –as one of the few countries in the world– made contract cheating illegal. A new law severely penalizes the business of ghost-writing in academia, so-called commercial contract cheating. Such an act can result in up to two years in prison or a fine of up to 100,000 Australian dollars (1.5 million Czech crowns) for those who provide and advertise cheating services. Moreover, right at the beginning of October, the Australian Federal Court punished the first culprit. Australia’s internet providers now have to block access to the website, which offered academic cheating services, including essay-writing.

US Education writer Derek Newton has declared commercial contract cheating to be “shockingly common, difficult to catch and fuelling a billion dollar global market of dishonesty”. Although these are strong words, your recent research also indicates that it could be a bigger problem than we thought.
Yes. Contract cheating is a very serious form of academic misconduct. And if we have an idea how much it is happening, then the universities have a better idea how much of this misconduct they should be expecting to catch. A few contract cheating scandals have already been made public, but they don't represent a large proportion of students. There are millions of students in higher education around the world. In my country, Australia, there are one and a half million students in higher education. And if we have a scandal with 400 students convicted of engaging in contract cheating, you might think: From a million, this is a vanishingly-small percentage. But these numbers don't necessarily represent the actual number of students engaged in contract cheating.

Why do you think so?
We think the industry is bigger and that the rate of commercial contract cheating is higher for a number of reasons. One is that there are lots and lots of websites that offer contract cheating services, and for those to be commercially viable it would have to be a good business.

The other thing we know is that if we were to ask students in a survey, even in an online survey where they don't put their name to it, a high percentage of students might not admit to unethical behaviour. It depends where in the world you are, but we are in the range of between 2 and 8 percent of students who would admit to contract cheating. The average in Australia, where I am, has been around 2 to 3 percent. When I discuss contract cheating in lots of settings, we have tended to agree that it is probably more than that. Since I have had that feedback regularly, I thought that it would be worth trying different ways to figure out how frequently contract cheating occurs and how many students do it.

To look at contract cheating from a different perspective, you moved from self-surveys to a different method, incentivised truth-telling. What have you found out?
Back to psychology, one of the things we know is that even when the survey is anonymous, people might not always admit to bad behaviour. So, if you ask people in the survey “Have you ever taken a pencil from your workplace?”, a lot of people will say yes, but probably not as many people who really do such a thing, even though there is no reason for them to hide it. People might hide it, because they don't want to appear bad, they don't want to admit to themselves they are doing bad things, or when they have done bad things, they don't have any reason to be truthful, or they might find the question intrusive.

So, we used a method where you provide people with an incentive to be truthful. We thought that if you ask people to be truthful and they know that truthfulness of their answers will increase their reward, more people will admit to a bad behaviour. We also looked at them to estimate how frequently the behaviour, in this case contract cheating, takes place and how much people would admit to this behaviour. All these things together – providing incentives to be truthful, looking at how much people admit to the behaviour, and looking at how much people think other people are doing the same thing – give us more information than self-reports, which just tell us whether students say they do it. In a new study we received three bits of information: how much I think other people are doing it, how much I think people admit to it and how much they do it themselves. Putting it all together suggests that 8 to 10 percent of Australian students engage in contract cheating.

It is a much higher percentage than in previous studies.
Yes, around about four times as much.

Do the results of your research show us anything about the psychological profile of students who tend to engage in contract cheating?
In that survey we didn't look at anything to do with a psychological profile of the students, but we looked at what we called demographic characteristics – their age, gender and so on.

One thing which predicted that students would admit to engaging in contract cheating was whether they had English as their first language or had English as another language. Students who did not have English as their first language were three times more likely to admit to engaging in contract cheating. We are talking about students studying in Australia, where the language of instruction is English. Studying in their non-native language is hard, and the pressure of doing so might be something that makes the students buy assignments rather than writing them themselves.

You make it clear that when some people engage in contract cheating, there is a challenge present, e.g., they are studying in a non-native language. What else have you observed as to why people engage in contract cheating? Are there any other things or personal characteristics that interact with engaging in contract cheating?
In the work which came out two weeks ago, we look at some personality traits that might predict students' intention to engage in contract cheating. In this new study we found that personality types called Machiavellianism and psychopathy, which are associated with various kinds of bad behaviour, predicted intensions to engage in contract cheating. They were related to attitudes towards cheating and to what they perceived as the normal behaviour. The other thing that we included in this new study, which was interesting, and I was thinking about it for a while, was anticipating feeling guilt or shame when students engage in the unethical behaviour. What we found is that psychopathy and Machiavellianism were associated with seeing cheating as more acceptable, more common and then expecting not to feel guilty or as guilty about it. Those things together predicted students' intentions to cheat.

In another paper, which is being reviewed now, we were looking at negative emotions and cheating. We found out that experiencing negative emotions like anxiety, stress and the pressure in their lives predicts an intention to cheating behaviour and plagiarism. When students are feeling bad, under stress, it is something which is connected to their engaging in cheating.

You say that negative emotions predict an intention to cheat, you were also talking about other challenges experienced by people who tend to cheat. Do you assume studying online and the whole Covid pandemic to have an impact on plagiarism and contract cheating?
Looking at the pressure of studying online, and the challenges that are caused by the Covid-19 pandemic with anxiety and things like that, I think there are a lot of reasons to think that it won’t be good. For example, many universities switched from classroom teaching to online teaching very quickly. We know that good online teaching requires a great deal of planning to be done well, and even then, students may not find it as enjoyable as classroom teaching. Thus, I think lack of planning times means that some online teaching would have been done poorly. Research on students cheating has found that dissatisfaction with the learning and teaching environment is related to cheating. If students perceive online teaching as unsatisfactory this may encourage them to cheat.

In 2017, you and your colleague Joe Clare, who specializes in criminology, started to think about theories from criminology and how they could be connected to unethical behaviour such as contract cheating. You considered that a low proportion of the population commits most crimes. Have you found any connections?
This criminology research says that about 3 percent of people commit 80 percent of crime. But this is not necessarily the percentage of the students who engage in contract cheating. The thing that does seem to match is that people who do unethical things tend to engage in them more repeatedly. We were looking at the data I had from some of my students about different kinds of cheating behaviour. We found that of the students who admitted to contract cheating, 62.5 percent reported doing it more than once.

So, if you have done it once, it is likely you will do it again?
Maybe. Partly because if people do it and get away with it, then they know they can get away with it again. If they have done something that’s unethical, what people usually tend to do is to make excuses for themselves by telling themselves that what they did wasn’t really all that bad. If you have already made this excuse once, probably you will make it again.

In most cases, contract cheating is not easy to detect, especially in a big class of students. As a teacher, how do you detect contract cheating?
There are a lot of things that could be helpful. In a project for Australia’s national quality assurance agency that I was involved in recently, we created a document which is an investigation guide that includes a tool that can help to detect contract cheating.

Just to give you an overall idea: The electronic documents that students use to write their assignments include things that might be an indication of contract cheating. You can look at the document properties, where you find information like author's name and editing time. If the author’s name isn't the name of the student, or the editing time is very short, it might mean that text was pasted in which was written by someone else. There is also use of reference managers like Mendeley or Endnote (services which are, in some cases paid for, used by scholars for referencing in their scientific papers – editorial note). If you have first-year students using a reference software such as Endnote, you might ask where they learned to do it, and probably why they are doing it. We ask students questions that give them a chance to confirm what we already know about the document –such as the software they used and asking them questions about their knowledge of what is in the document. All this knowledge can help you find evidence to show if the assignment was written by someone who wasn’t the student.

Have you ever discovered contract cheating among your students?
In my job I help my colleagues deal with academic misconduct issues that arise among our students. Because our policies treat student misconduct as a confidential disciplinary matter, I cannot reveal details of contract cheating instances or how we caught them. I can only say, yes, I have discovered instances of contract cheating.

It's been a year now since Australia made contract cheating illegal. Have you observed any difference since the new law came into force?
I think it helps us at universities to tell the students that what these websites do is illegal. We know that some people won’t do something simply because it is illegal, so it is helpful in that respect. Our tertiary education regulator can prosecute and block websites that are selling assignments to students now. They haven't done it very much yet, but this is something they can do under the new law. However, what we have seen in Australia is that websites block themselves from being accessible in Australia, but they are easily accessible to students around the world.

You and other researchers in different disciplines from Europe, the UK, the US, and Canada are working on a new book about contract cheating. You have a unique set of data you have collected since 2004. Which trends in plagiarism have you observed over the past few decades?
Data from three long-running studies shows that plagiarism and cheating have trended down between 1990 to 2019. These studies have measured a lot of different forms of plagiarism and cheating. A type of plagiarism that seems to have declined the most is anything that is close to “copying and pasting”. This seems to be related to the invention and application of text-matching software like Turnitin, but it also seems to be related to better and more widespread teaching of academic referencing.

You wrote that the “downward trend in plagiarism from 2004 to 2014 was not continued in 2019”. Why do you think this was?
One of the three long-running studies, one that I lead, found little change in rates of cheating and plagiarism between 2014 and 2019. I have a few theories about why this happened, but no perfect answer. One thing to keep in mind is that all students who start at university have to learn rules about citation and referencing. There will always be some students who do not get their referencing right in their first few assignments as they are learning to apply the rules. Technically, some of these students would have plagiarised, but normally, we would give them feedback on how to improve their referencing rather than punish them, because we don’t believe they intended to do the wrong thing. I think there will always be some minimum level of plagiarism, even it there is no intent or malice, and we won’t see less than that in a survey. So, one possibility is that good educational practices and text-matching software reduced plagiarism to a minimum in our 2014 survey and that is the level it stayed at in 2019.

Could we blame it on the internet, and globalisation?
It is one of the things that we have been discussing for the last 20 years. On the internet students can easily get the text and copy and paste it into their assignments. But I think the internet also makes it easier to find out when somebody has done that. This is especially true when text-matching software will automatically detect sources that students have copied and pasted from the internet.

What can universities do to promote academic integrity?
We need education for the students, education for the staff, enforcement policies, awareness campaigns, emphasis on the moral code and anything else that potentially can be done. I don't think there is only one thing that fixes academic integrity. A big part of the problem is learning. Students are always coming to the university with a need to learn referencing systems: they might not have learned them in school before. It takes a while to learn about them. Sometimes students make mistakes; sometimes we have to help them when they make mistakes. But they should know they have to do their assignments themselves.