People are no longer ashamed of cheating, warns Thomas Lancaster

Services that offer contract cheating make millions of dollars each year. And during the pandemic, their income has increased. This business, which makes money by helping students to cheat, is quite a threat to our academic standards, so we shouldn’t ignore it, says Thomas Lancaster, author of the term contract cheating, and a computer scientist at the prestigious Imperial College London.

Read the interview in Czech translation here.

The targeting of students by these companies has become more sophisticated. What is more, it is no longer hidden, as it was some years ago. The pandemic, which has moved teaching and exams to a virtual environment, has contributed to this significantly, says Thomas Lancaster.

Not only did the pandemic eliminate the possibility of consultation, but it also eliminated supervision and control. And students have been turning with far greater frequency to various online services to make their work easier. But the use of online services that write assignments for money represents a high risk to students. “Those who have used them can be easily blackmailed, lose money, or get back work which is just not of the standard they need,” Dr Lancaster says, adding that new forms of cheating, in which automated systems such as artificial intelligence are used, are increasingly coming into play.

Students can cheat in all kinds of ways. But their use of companies which offer contract cheating has recently become more widespread. How did this industry come to expand?
I’ve been looking at this field for more than 15 years, so contract cheating is not something we can say is completely new. But what we’ve really seen over the past five years is how the number of sites and people working in this field has increased substantially. There is a huge amount of money going through these businesses. Contract cheating is now a vast international industry. It is mostly operated in English, so the English version is the most developed in the world. This is logical, as you don’t have to be based in the country where you are writing work for the students if their academic course is in English. It means that a student in, say, England can hire a writer based in Kenya and get the work produced for a far lower cost than they would pay if they found somebody working locally. (According to the Financial Times, Kenya has emerged as a core hub of global contract cheating – editorial note.)

There is also a big increase as to how knowledgeable students are about contract cheating. It is not something which is at all hidden. Students will quite happily talk about contract cheating now with one another in a way that they wouldn’t have considered doing 10 or 15 years ago. Most students would never consider contract cheating themselves, but they know the option is out there for them if they choose to use it.

Then the writers are also happy to talk about what they’re doing, even though you might think they might not want to talk about working for an industry that is built around helping students to deceive their tutors.

I have seen people working as writers in this field thinking it is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. That it’s fine to help a nurse to get a degree they don’t deserve, so long as that nurse doesn’t end up treating them in the future. The writer will proudly put on their CV or LinkedIn profile that they are an academic writer in the same way that I might be happy to put on my CV that I’m an academic or you might write in your CV that you are a journalist, because these are legitimate fields of work. People are trying to get the same amount of legitimacy now for helping students to cheat.

And one of the biggest changes in how these companies operate is in the marketing and advertising to students. They have websites and social media presence. There were cases where companies were getting the students’ phone numbers, so they could send them text messages or contact them through WhatsApp. They do whatever they can to connect to the students when they are vulnerable and when they can encourage students to buy their services. And when students buy once, they are on the company’s mailing list. Then the company will keep contacting them again and again. It operates the same way as a legitimate business – trying to keep people as repeat buyers.

On the subject of legitimacy, do you think that the recent announcement by the British Government that essay mills will be banned in England will help deprive them of their value?
I think that the news that the English Government is going to ban essay mills from operating within England is very positive. And it is likely that it will soon extend to the rest of the United Kingdom as well. One of the big benefits of the new law is that it will send a very strong message to the students: These sites are not operating legitimately, and you should not be using them. At the moment the sites may not be ethical, but they are perfectly legal, and there is nothing to stop them from running and doing assessed work for students. The biggest benefit I see from this legislation is that it is going to make it very hard for firms advertising themselves as providers of contract cheating from within England (not many firms are operating from England anyway). It means that students shouldn’t see paid adverts on Google or Facebook or on the other online platforms they use. That should reduce the visibility, and also it should stop the advertising firms from making a lot of money by promoting these very dodgy services. But I don’t think legislation on its own solves the problem of contract cheating.

Do you mean when companies use different names for their websites, for instance?
Yes, and there are still issues. For example, what happens when students go for a non-commercial provider, such as a family member, or what happens if they go to somebody who is based outside England? We always need many different approaches to address contract cheating, with one of them being education. We have to make sure that students feel equipped to do their own work, that they understand what they have to write, that they know how to add references and that they appreciate the benefits of learning, so that they are ready to do high level jobs after they graduate. We have to try to set more interesting assignments students want to complete and that they feel they will benefit from and will be happy to add to their portfolio.

You are talking about good motivation for those who are studying. But aren't we rather losing sight of their responsibility?
I agree there has to be a certain amount of responsibility taken by the person buying the work. But we have to collaborate with student unions and student bodies to get everyone on the same side. The last thing I want is for this to be positioned as a battle between students and academic staff. Because really, most students want exactly the same thing as each other and as their teachers. Students don’t want other students to have qualifications they don’t deserve. Ultimately, I would like to think that when two students apply for the same job, one who did the work and one who is taking shortcuts, the student who has done the work is the one who gets the job. Not the student who has cheated.

I wouldn't like to sound sceptical, but let's hope so.
Of course, this is not always going to be the case, so that’s another reason why we need to have students on our side. We also need to make sure that all our university processes are current and that they talk about contract cheating. That we have procedures which try to identify contract cheating when it happens as well. And when we do something about this, we don’t just feel that it is going to be a lot of work to put the case through the system and decide sometimes not to put the case through. Essentially, if the students feel they won’t be caught, they have an incentive to go out there and use contract cheating providers. But yes, there are all kinds of different measures we have to consider. A legal approach solves the advertising side of things, but it doesn’t eliminate contract cheating, as we have seen through the studies I have been involved in.

Have you found out exactly how these sites operate?
These sites are very sophisticated. It’s not uncommon for firms out there to be running 50 or more different websites, all with slightly different names. One of them might be a URL; it looks like it is promoting in the UK, but then it might also have a version to approach students in the USA, or any other different country codes. These firms are trying to look like they are operating in those different countries, but if you try going to the physical address where they advertise, often you’ll find no sign of the firm or that it’s just a mailbox address. Nothing more. You can also see that firms have versions for different subjects. There might be a version of the firm assigned for purely nursing students or purely law students; they also show slightly different pictures on their sites. The nursing version will have pictures of happy-looking nurses. Quite often, if you look closely at these sites, you will see versions with nursing students in the UK, but when you look at the students, they aren’t wearing the type of uniforms a UK nurse would wear. This is not the site you might think it is based on the advertising.

The file-sharing site Chegg is a somewhat different matter. After looking closely at this site, the biggest in its field, you concluded that it has contributed to the growth of online cheating. In the resumé of your recent study, you promise further data. How has this situation developed in the past few months? Do new data show the continued rise of Chegg?
Yes, earlier this year, I published a paper with Codrin Cotarlan in the International Journal for Educational Integrity. Codrin is an undergraduate student in the Department of Computing at Imperial College London, so it was great to work with a student partner to address contract cheating, and great for Codrin as well to get our work featured in such an important publication. We have found that there is one site, Chegg, where there has been a massive increase, of nearly 200 percent, in the number of requests made during the pandemic. Many of these requests looked like assignment or exam-style questions. This has been one of the biggest challenges when learning moved online. Students themselves looked online to see what other sites were available to help, perhaps because they felt that support was no longer available, or that their work was not being supervised within any university setting.

I have worked on this further with another student partner this past summer. We are still working on the processing of the data, but what we have seen is that increased use of Chegg has continued. So even though many students have gone back to studying in person for at least part of the time now, students have still seen sites like Chegg as being useful to them.

It appears that students have got used to it…
This is all slightly different to the type of contract cheating services that we have studied in much of the last 15 years I have been working in this field. It is a different way this site operates, particularly because when somebody puts the question up many people can buy the same answer. But if it is something that is answered very quickly, like a maths question for an exam, then sometimes the students can buy the answers together. Sometimes once they have paid for their subscription, they just quickly find the answer and they can copy this down onto their exam script or slightly reword it and have something ready to hand in. And that is quite difficult to detect. We’re talking about thousands of questions being posted on Chegg every day, and because they are often posted as images rather than text, they are very hard for teachers to search through and try to find their questions that would have appeared on the site. This is something that is very troubling for the academic community.

In February, you wrote that Chegg does not really want to eliminate contract cheating. In response, Chegg claimed that your findings were oversimplified and that “Chegg is absolutely not a cheating site and is designed to support student learning”. Would you still agree that sites like this do academic integrity a disservice?
It is very hard to comment on the Chegg side of things. That’s why I’ve tried to approach this as a researcher, to see what’s going on and to observe.

Okay, let’s not speculate.
I would like Chegg to do more to try preventing students from posting their exam questions. There are simple things that could be done, like you have a time delay between a question being posted and the student seeing the response there. This would eliminate the use of Chegg during a short period of examinations. Students won’t need the answers after half an hour; they've got time to wait much longer for the response. I would like to think that Chegg will address this, because this is an established and powerful company which would be successful without needing to take this type of work. Chegg is very successful in the educational technology space, but it also needs the continued confidence of investors. Unfortunately, what I’ve covered in this study based on the visible evidence has been reported now by many of my colleagues in the UK and around the world. They have seen a big increase in the number of academic misconduct cases, based on assignment questions and answers being posted on Chegg. It is not something we can just ignore, because it is quite a threat to our academic standards.

As you have said, Chegg is not the only file-sharing site. Have you picked up on any other sites?
I don’t want to provide a handy checklist of these sites. There are many sites that operate just in particular countries. And we can also see sites which are just online collections of teaching resources, which is not that different to how students over the years have collected their own local set of resources, their own set of previous exam questions and answers or previous assignments. For example, the United States has fraternities, and many students when they joined a fraternity would get access to an archive of answers designed to help members of the fraternity. What we have seen through many of the websites now is just the same process operating online. But this is on a much larger scale, and it is open to people from all around the world.

To give you a further example, another student, Rahul Gupta, and I looked at Reddit, which is a massive online community with lots of forums where people can discuss nearly any subject of their field of interest. At the European conference of academic integrity and plagiarism earlier this year, which was held online, I presented a study with Rahul Gupta. We found on the subreddits a lot of offers for “homework help”, as they call it. People could put questions up, and volunteers would go ahead and answer these questions for the students. Again, we also saw a growth in the use of these sites which corresponded with the pandemic. Some subreddits where answers were provided are free, and we also saw some forums where people compose their questions and connect with a writer. Reddit isn’t something that is used only in the wrong way. Most of the discussions there are very useful, but when these are misused, then academic misconduct can occur.

Do you think it could easily become a business again?
Yes, it is another form of contract cheating, another way students are getting access. And what would happen is that the requests would be posted on Reddit, but the discussions would go to Discord, where it is all very private and nothing can be tracked. So, a student could then communicate directly with the writer, get the answers back and submit this as if they had done the homework themselves. I think it is worth just mentioning that by using any of these sites, students run a big risk. They might not get anything back. A lot of services now are asking students to pay through methods that are untraceable or not easy to reverse, like using cryptocurrencies. That means there is very little comeback if a student doesn’t get the work back or if they get back work which is just not of the standard they want. Or it may even reach the situation where the person they’ve hired decides actually they want more money from them, and when the student doesn’t pay, they report them to their university. So I would really encourage students to think twice before trying to contract cheat, and if they are struggling with their assignments, to look at the support available within their university first.

We cannot expect that these problems, intensified by the pandemic, will blow over quickly. In recent days it has been reported that Covid cases are again on the rise in Europe. Universities are probably about to turn to hybrid models of learning and teaching, even if they do not return to the wholly online model. What are the biggest threats now?
I don’t see teaching ever going back to how it was before the pandemic, and we shouldn’t now be in a situation where we don’t have any plans for the future. When Covid first hit, universities had to adapt very quickly. They had to move teaching online and didn't really have time to prepare or think about how to teach, or how to do the best for students. They just wanted to try to get continuity of operations. Unfortunately, we are not through Covid yet, but we all have had a lot more time to think about how to deliver online teaching, how to try to give students the best experience possible and what kind of assignments work well in this type of environment. You can’t just take what you did before. Simply taking an exam and having students take this online without supervision is not a very good solution for anyone. We also have to know there are a lot of benefits to a certain amount of online teaching which give people a lot more flexibility in how they learn. Online or hybrid operation can bring benefits for students and also for academics. But we should also know that students don’t necessarily want to learn online all the time, which I quite understand: we all need contact and the opportunity to work face to face. If we don’t deal with all of this, we will find that students knowingly or unknowingly could be drawn to firms offering contract cheating. Because these firms just look like they are the right solution at the right time for students.

You are a computer scientist. What do you see as the role of technology in contract cheating?
One of the most troubling areas is the very rapid growth in the power of technology that most academics don’t understand, and many students don’t understand either. This is particularly the case as artificial intelligence evolves. For many of us artificial intelligence is just a black box: You put a request through the black box, and you get something out at the other end. The problem is that now artificial intelligence is becoming powerful. You can already ask for an essay and get an essay generated through automated writing tools. The essay quality may not be brilliant at the moment – I have seen a few examples – but this quality gets better every day as the amount of data available to train these systems increases and as companies invest tens of millions in improving their writing technology. Of course, this investment is not specifically aimed at essay writing. It could be aimed at writing online websites or anything that's read.

The standard of academic writing produced using artificial intelligence techniques is getting better. The standard of the content – in terms of meeting the subject needs – is getting better. Now we even see sites which are getting decent-looking references placed into the essays they generate. Students could also use a combined approach to get a good quality essay back: They could use these automated writing services, then take the output as a draft to the academic writing services at their universities to ask for help. Then they could end up with something quite good without having to put a lot of work in. There are also automated translation tools, which again are incredibly useful and have got much better in the last few years. Students can find an answer which only exists in another language and translate it into English. And it is very hard for the type of tools that are available to detect this because it looks quite different to the original text. It is something that the writing services and the assessors need to be aware of.

Don’t you think the line between what is and what is not contract cheating will eventually shift because of growing use of artificial intelligence? I suppose that today almost everyone, even professional translators, use machine translators, which help us to be quicker.
Very much so. We have to adapt to changes in technology and think how we’re going to integrate them into education, not fight against them.

I’ve seen the whole educational system change throughout my own career. When I was a student, I was excited to go to university just so I could get access to this new technology I’d heard about, the Internet. At the same time, I had to rely on taking my own notes in lectures. If I was ill, I’d have to hope someone else in the class had taken decent notes and would be willing to share them with me. If I didn’t understand a concept, I’d have to hunt around in the library and try and find a book that explained things in a different way, or even go out there and buy a textbook.

Education today is so much better than it was. Everything is more accessible to students, there’s the expectation that you can find help somewhere around the clock. But when technology gets misused, or it’s use isn’t understood, that’s when things become a problem.

Take writing, for example. Not everyone is a good writer, and it is often very hard to draw the line between something that has been computer generated, something which has been outsourced and something that a student has really tried to do and just couldn’t get it to the standard they wanted. But that latter student is the one who I feel should be rewarded, even though education isn’t really about people getting marks for effort. What if that student is going into a profession that relies on automated writing? Don’t we have to prepare students for that career? This isn’t completely new. Even in journalism, we’ve seen the use of automated stories being used to give reports on sports matches or stock price changes for many years now. So how can we approach that problem through a different route? We have to ask instead: Do the students understand what they have written?

The biggest problem is that the field of academic integrity and academic misconduct isn’t standing still. Every time we try to put interventions in place to make one kind of cheating unviable for students, another format for cheating emerges. I’ve seen it throughout my career. I started working on detecting plagiarism, students realised they couldn’t just copy words from the internet without being caught, then contract cheating became a much larger issue. We’ve seen it with exams. It’s always been possible for students to sneak in notes, but now we know students are hiring miniature earpieces so someone outside an exam room can communicate answers to them.

Then there are people working on technologies now we can barely contemplate, a whole metaverse. (One definition describes the metaverse as a future form of the internet which will include permanently shared 3D virtual environments connected in a single virtual universe. Individual users could enter it at any time and influence its appearance, so there would be a constant interweaving of the physical and virtual world – editorial note).

I said it earlier, but there’s just never going to be one solution to academic misconduct. We need the whole community to get involved and to be ready and willing to adapt. I still know people who have never really adapted to the internet being everywhere in education, and to me that seems like the most natural thing in the world. We must do the best we can, and we shouldn’t think we can solve all the world’s problems. We need teachers to take responsibility to make sure that students are equipped for the future and the unknown. We need students to take pride in their work and do the best they can. The best solution I have is for us to work with our students as our equal and highly skilled partners. Let’s prepare for the unknown future together.