Blog 80

Is anyone else worried about the number of students purchasing essays through a third party?

Susan Murtha, Faculty of Health

I’m on sabbatical this year until July and I am really not supposed to be worried about academic honesty. But I am. Mainly because I have started to build a 4th year course with a writing component, so I am worried about the whole issue around contract cheating. For example, did you know that on average 53% of nearly 13,644 (across 11 universities) Canadian undergraduates admitted to cheating on written work at least once in the 12 months interval prior to survey administration (from 2002-2003, McCabe and Christensen, 2006)? 450 students (about 3% in this study) self-reported engaging in contract cheating i.e., “turning in a paper obtained either for free or purchased from a paper mill or website”. The researchers went on to determine trends for cheating in the USA for the International Center for Academic Integrity (http://www.academicintegrity.org/icai/integrity-3.php) between 2002 and 2015. They report that 62% of approximately 71,300 undergraduates admitted to cheating on a written assignment. Even if only a small percentage of these students are purchasing essays it stills undermines our academic standards and devalues the degree for those students who earned equivalent grades but did not cheat!

In 2017, in the UK “the university standards watchdog has issued new government-backed guidance to help address contract cheating” and they believe this will help to reduce or potentially eliminate the problem. But it’s been left to individual universities to figure out how to deal with the problem (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/09/universities-urged-to-block-essay-mill-sites-in-plagiarism-crackdown). At York, our method for dealing with breaches of academic honesty is to provide a resource website about academic integrity through the Teaching Commons (http://teachingcommons.yorku.ca/resources/teaching-strategies/academic-integrity/ with the hope that faculty members will review it and incorporate suggested changes into their courses. Individual Faculties also have their own academic integrity websites.

I’m not sure if this available information about academic integrity is actually deterring contract cheating. It just seems that the opportunity to take advantage of these essay writing services is ubiquitous. Am I alone in still seeing in many different places on campus those little post-it notes advertising ‘essay writing’ services? Between that and the many different known websites that advertise essay writing services (e.g., Lashzone, Essayexperts), it seems that the idea of using a third party to write a paper is becoming accepted. I am even surprised at how much folks who work for these essay mills believe they are producing what they think are “model essays” for students not realizing that they are helping students to engage in breaches of academic honesty (e.g., http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2017/12/12/the-crumbling-facade-my-experience-working-for-an-essay-mill/). For me it would be interesting to know if contract cheating is going up/down or staying the same at York over time.

This leads me to ask – why are students doing this? From what I have read, when students were asked why they purchased an essay they said they felt they had no other choice as they feared not getting the grades they needed to graduate, or there was an English language barrier, or they simply saw their peers engaging in contract cheating and getting good grades and therefore thought they might as well do the same (https://sputniknews.com/asia/201712291060394690-universities-crack-down-chinese-student-plagiarism/ ).

I think that many of us would agree that the skill required to communicate in a written format is extremely important as a degree level expectation. Given that,  what can we do about contract cheating? As a start, I have begun to collect some suggestions for how to discourage students from purchasing essays through a third-party, which I share:

  • Avoid re-using the same assignment each year
  • Avoid using standard assignments from textbooks
  • Include an individualized element (e.g. different data sets).
  • Provide multiple opportunities for feedback and to build writing skills over the term while helping students manage their time when it comes to writing.
  • Assess process as well as product (e.g. on the initial drafts I could allow for some peer to peer grading, or have the students hand in an annotated bibliography, or hand in the articles they used, etc.)
  • Make assignments visible (course code, CD name, watermarks, email address, etc.) to “spider/web crawler software” and search engines if you wish to be able to catch and charge students with a breach of academic honesty. Apparently if an assignment has been posted on one of the known websites then that assignment can be traced back to your course if you have used identifying details in the title and the body of the assignment such as the course code, etc.
  • Utilize a different type of writing assignment such as building a webpage or wiki.

When I was teaching my courses I usually just referred students to the Senate policy on our course outlines (other instructors ask students to complete the academic integrity tutorial) because I felt there just was not enough time to go through the policy in class. At the time I also did not think I knew enough about the details about the policy to respond to any questions. I simply assumed that students actually learn from the information available to them and apply it to their course work. While I was Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning, one student told me that he got 100% on the tutorial and had not read any of the Senate policy. He thought it was because most of the questions were intuitive (…sigh). I realize that one student doing this does not mean on average this is so. So I think it’s important to keep referring students to these resources. But, I do believe we need to spend actual time in class talking about academic honesty with our students (to see what students want from their professors to address their uncertainty about academic honesty see the blog at https://words.usask.ca/gmcte/2012/09/06/do-students-know-what-academic-dishonesty-is/). In the Faculty of Health, in my capacity as Associate Dean it was the students who sat on the Academic Honesty panel who came to me and asked for better/more/different information to be sent out to students to help inform them about what we mean by academic integrity and the repercussions of cheating. This inspired the creation of a ‘prezi’ formatted presentation for faculty members to use to open the dialogue about academic honesty with their students and/or for students to review (see https://prezi.com/xqzpbx2qvggd/york-university-academic-integrity-presentation/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy).

I would be interested to know if anyone has used any strategies (suggested above or new ones) and if they worked. If you send me any information, either by responding to this blog or directly to my email address (smurtha@yorku.ca), I will be happy to collate the responses and send them to anyone interested, or if warranted write a follow-up blog with your feedback.

I end by asking what more could we as faculty members be doing? Perhaps our next step across the university should be to engage our students in figuring out methods for educating their peers (for example see the 3 minute video created by students that was the winner of the “Integrity in the Real World” contest, organized by the International Center for Academic Integrity in 2015 from the University of Monterrey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gaDgoH_p7Ds&feature=youtu.be). After all, it is their degree that is being devalued.

Return to blog homepage

9 comments on “Blog 80

  1. In my classes, essays are used to assess the students’ ability to integrate theory with individualized practice. By being very specific as to what they may use as evidence in their papers, I find that students are simply not able to find third party papers to plagiarize. However, I have had a couple of instances of papers being submitted by students who had clearly written them for other classes. I refuse to grade these, so students get a “0” until they submit work that meets the requirements of the rubric.

  2. I think one of the challenges students face is understanding the nuance between what is academic dishonesty/cheating and what is not. For example, asking a peer to edit your paper…when does that go from being a good practice to being one that is potentially dishonest? The SPARK handout above is useful in understanding how to better give feedback but not necessarily how academic honesty/dishonesty exists across a spectrum. Another example is when writing a research paper and citing sources, if all of your ideas are informed by research you’ve done, what gets sourced as a paraphrase and what does not? I think we need to focus on making these nuances more clear to students so that those who are unintentionally cheating are more aware.

    1. Thank you for your comment Auroosa. I agree there is so much more to the spectrum then I discussed in my blog. It is also a good idea to make explicit what is implicit in terms of our expectations regarding academic integrity/honesty in our courses.

      1. I’m glad you found this useful. Hopefully, we can begin to seriously address this most nasty problem in academe. Delighted to see how proactive you are in doing so.

  3. We are always dismayed when we discover students cheating. This year, in one of our courses, we had students prepare a 10-minute video instead of a 10-page paper. It worked great.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *