A simple Google search for essay-writing services brings up numerous results of companies offering custom-made essays for students to pay for and pass off as their own. With a plethora of online options, the practice of buying original essays and having them delivered within days or hours has become easier than ever. However, this form of academic misconduct – known as contract cheating – remains nearly impossible to catch.
Ryerson University’s approach to tackling this problem is focused on student education and ensuring awareness, while it awaits specialized detection tools to become commercially available. The Ryersonian spoke to the school’s director of the Academic Integrity Office, John Paul Foxe, about how prevalent the problem is, the writing support resources available to students, and how the school is combating this form of cheating.
How large a problem is contract cheating at Ryerson?
It’s a difficult question to answer. Within the academic integrity community and higher education sector, this is a known problem. It’s very difficult to measure this problem because this is something that is difficult to detect, so we don’t have a good sense.
There has been some research done asking students to self-identify if they have purchased assignments or papers, and the numbers vary somewhere between two and seven per cent.
We know it’s a problem; it’s difficult to quantify how big. One study in the U.K. looked at the number of businesses doing this and they were able to show that the number of businesses is increasing, the size of those business is increasing. So that tells me these businesses have customers.
What is Ryerson doing combat the problem?
The focus of our (academic integrity) policy, Policy 60, very broadly speaking, is education. We work a lot with students, we work with faculty, and we work with staff members to let them know what our policy is all about, what are the things that everybody needs to know. This would be included in the education that we do. Our education is ongoing, but we wanted to try and highlight this one particular issue.
These websites … They will try to sell their services in such a way where they will even say: ‘You’re not doing anything wrong. This is completely above board.’ So students can be deceived. It’s very possible that a student could read that and say: ‘It says right here that I’m not doing anything wrong.’ What we want to make sure is that students have the full information. We don’t want a student to do this not knowing and saying, ‘You know what, I thought this was OK.’ We want students to fully understand that this is academic misconduct, according to our policy, and then hopefully, they don’t do it. The idea is that they have that full information.
Are there resources on campus to help students struggling with their writing skills?
There’s so many resources on this campus [to improve writing skills.] What I tell students is that … through your tuition fees, you have already paid for all these resources that are available to you that are fully legitimate and above board. So you’ve already paid and you will not get in trouble. So why then would you want to go pay more money to someone external and risk engaging in academic misconduct?
Within our library, we have so many resources there. Within student learning supports, we’ve got writing support that’s built right in. We have English-language support. There’s so many resources on campus. We always say to students, talk to professors if you’re struggling with something, go and speak to them about find out if there are extra resources available through the professor. Sometimes timing is an issue, can you ask for an extension?
Are there are any tools that help detect this form of cheating?
(Detection tools) are in development. As far as I know, they are not yet commercially available. If we have a tool for this specific thing, for contract cheating, imagine if I’m a professor and I ask a student to do a piece of writing in class so I know that this is the student’s genuine writing because they’ve done it in class. Then, I take that piece of writing and I upload it into this tool that doesn’t yet exist. The idea is that the student does an assignment later in the semester and you upload this assignment into the tool and what the tool does is that it compares the two pieces of writing and it says whether the same person wrote both assignments. That science already exists.
What would you say to students who are considering engaging in contract cheating?
I would encourage them to think about what they’re doing. Why is it that they’re here in the first place? What is the value of their degree? When people engage in contract cheating, it lessens the value of their degree. If you think about it, students are here, yeah, because they want to get a degree, but hopefully because they want to build their knowledge base, they want to build their skill base and by doing this, that’s not going to happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
By: Ilina Ghosh and Dana Dwaik