Guidance for staff on ‘Contract Cheating’
‘Contract Cheating’ is becoming increasingly widespread throughout the higher education sector and the University takes a hard-line where there is evidence of ‘Contract Cheating’.‘Contract Cheating’ represents a threat to academic standards and academic integrity and in turn to UK Higher Education as a whole. The University has an obligation to ensure that the awards it makes meet nationally agreed standards and that academic integrity is maintained. Further sector-wide information about ‘Contract Cheating is available in QAA Contracting to Cheat in Higher Education, October 2017.
1. What is ‘Contract Cheating’?
The University considers ‘Contract Cheating’ to have taken place where a student:
obtains or purchases work from another person/organisation; and
submits it for assessment as their own; and
such third-party input/assistance is not permitted.
‘Contract Cheating’ includes:
An ‘essay mill’ is an organisation or individual, usually with a web presence, that contracts with students to complete a piece of work for a student for a fee.
This guidance document is supplementary to the procedure for investigating and dealing with allegations of ‘Contract Cheating set out in:
Advice and guidance about the academic misconduct procedure can be obtained by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. How does ‘Contract Cheating differ to Proof-reading?
Quality checking, sense checking and revising work are clearly important elements in the preparation of a student’s assignment and students are encouraged to proof-read their own work before submitting it for assessment.
However, where a student is found to have used and/or paid for the services of a third-party proof-reader or copy editor, this may constitute cheating depending on the scale of the changes to the student’s work. For example, where the final work submitted by the student is substantially different to that which they originally wrote and the changes were made following proof-reading or copy editing by a third party for a fee, it would be prudent to take steps to assess whether contract cheating has occurred.
3. What can staff do to prevent and detect ‘Contract Cheating’?
(Please note that the practices below are guidelines rather than mandatory instructions. For further advice and guidance staff may email email@example.com):
- Staff could consider the design and use of resilient assessment methods, for example:practical exams;
- face-to-face assessment formats, such as
- oral presentations,
- peer assessment; and▪ video presentations
- Formal written examinations may also continue to be appropriate in some cases.
- Setting assignments with regular ‘checkpoints’ for reviewing early drafts and/or to discuss research and findings with individual students may be prudent. This may alsoenable staff to closely check the progress of a student’s work and become familiar with a student’s style. Any documents submitted as early drafts could be retained by therelevant Taught Programme’s Office (TPO) for comparison with the final submission of the work.
- Whilst a student’s performance may indeed vary during their academic studies andshould hopefully improve over time, staff should be alive to unexpected or drastic peaks. As such, although not always possible with large cohorts, staff are encouraged tobecome familiar with individual students’ writing styles, aptitudes and their use ofgrammar. Furthermore, whilst anonymous marking means that the opportunities to detect contract cheating may be reduced, work may still be identified by candidate number and this can allow assessment comparison in appropriate cases where suspicions have been raised.
- After setting an assignment, it may be helpful to search online for the assessment titleto see whether students are trying to commission answers and flag up the likelihood of cheating. Usually an essay mill will outsource the production element of a student’s workand copywriters will bid for the work. This particular transaction may well be searchable, (even though the exchange between the student and the essay mill may not).
- When marking an assessment, it is good practice to consider how closely the work aligns with:
- the themes and topics discussed in lectures;
- the module outline;
- other materials, such as reading lists.
- If the assignment addresses the general area of the assessment brief but misses the specific focus, this could indicate a ghost-writer has been involved and may require further scrutiny, such as holding a viva as detailed below.
- Concerns that a third party has written an assignment may also be raised where:
- sections of the essay have different styles or different voices;
- where referencing differs throughout the assignment; or
- where spellings or phrases are included which are not typically used in the UK.
- All student assessment work at Brunel will be scanned through WISEflow / URKUND which is a text-matching service.
- Work should be reviewed to ascertain:
- whether the student has followed the University’s guidance on citations and referencing;
- whether taught materials and recommended reading have been properly referenced; and
- whether a student’s submissions vary in style or if there are other identifying features.
- Viva assessment may be used as a means of checking the authorship of submitted work where suspicions are raised prior to a formal investigation, and/or during the investigation of an allegation of ‘contract cheating’ (as described at section 4 below). The following procedural safeguards should be adhered to in the preparation and conduct of the viva:
- The viva should be held as soon as possible to minimise the risk of ‘viva coaching’. However, the student should still be given at least 5 working days’notice of the viva and be informed of the purpose of the meeting.
- The viva should not determine whether the allegation is substantiated but be used to gather evidence. A detailed written note of the viva should be taken.
- A written record of the viva should be added to the set of evidence that constitutes the case against the student.
- The viva should be chaired by someone independent of the allegation and be attended by the student (and their permitted representative) and an academic subject expert (normally the person making the allegation).
- The student should be allowed to present evidence at the viva, such as date- stamped draft copies of their work and the academic subject expert will normally ask questions about the work to ascertain whether the student understands what they submitted.
Remember: The test for considering allegations or suspicions of contract cheating is the balance of probabilities. This means the evidence should demonstrate that it is more likely than not that the student has engaged in contract cheating. It is not necessary to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the student has committed the offence.
4. What should staff do where they believe a student may have engaged in ‘Contract cheating’?
The University's Academic Misconduct Procedure sets out the formal process forconsidering allegations of ‘Contract cheating’.
A concern that a student has committed ‘Contract cheating’ should be reported to the Deputy Dean (Academic Affairs) of the student’s College. The Deputy Dean (Academic Affairs) will then determine whether a formal investigation of the concern is required and if so, will appoint an Investigating Officer to investigate the concern under the process in paragraphs 27-32 of the Academic Misconduct Procedure.
Once the formal investigation has been concluded the Investigating Officer will provide a report to the Deputy Dean (Academic Affairs) who will decide the next course of action. This may include referring the case to the Secretary to the Professional Suitability and Misconduct Board for consideration by the Vice Chancellor’s Representative (VCR) or an Academic Misconduct Panel. Alternatively, the Deputy Dean (Academic Affairs) may decide that the student’s conduct relates to poor academic practice, in which case the concern will be dismissed and the student will be warned about future practice and directed to sources of guidance and information. (Academic Misconduct Procedure, paragraph 33).
The VCR and Academic Misconduct Panel will make a decision on the balance of probabilities as to whether it is more likely than not that the student committed the offence of‘ Contract cheating’.
5. What if a student is found to have committed the offence of ‘Contract cheating’ on the balance of probabilities?
Where it is determined that it is more likely than not that a student has committed ‘Contract cheating’ on the balance of probabilities, the likely penalty is expulsion. However, each case is considered on its own merits and there are a range of possible penalties.
A student’s application to be admitted into a regulated profession may also be put at risk if they are found to have engaged in ‘contract cheating’. The Professional Suitability Procedure sets out the process to be followed when professional suitability concerns are raised.
6. What does the University do to prevent ‘Contract cheating’?
Along with raising awareness of the definitions of academic misconduct, the University takes other preventative action which may, where possible, include:
- removing posters appearing on campus which advertise essay mill websites;
- working with 3rd party vendors to block essay mill websites from contacting students via email and social media; and
- sending ‘cease and desist’ correspondence to companies selling essay mill services.
Should staff become aware of essay mill websites advertising their services or contacting students, they should email firstname.lastname@example.org.
7. Additional Support for Students
Staff should signpost students to the following services on campus to help them develop skills in studying, academic writing, the use of academic sources, paraphrasing and research.
- The Brunel Language Centre provides free English Language support to all current Brunel University students who have English as a second language, including for academic writing.
- The Graduate School provides workshops and seminars for Postgraduate Research (PGR) students on Academic Writing, Technical Writing, Thesis Writing, Writing for Academic Publications and Writing Research Grant Proposals.
- All Academic Departments at Brunel have a named Academic Liaison Librarian (ALL). This service is provided via the Library Academic Services Team, which offers tailored support, including citing, referencing and tips for avoiding plagiarism.
- The University’s Academic Skills Team (ASK) does not offer a proof-reading service or correct every mistake, but is happy to discuss a student’s work and provide support on topics including writing style and structure, presentations, time management and grammar. Brunel students can send ASK a 500 word sample of their work to email@example.com and obtain feedback. The aim of this is for students to develop good proof-reading skills for themselves. ASK also offers a comprehensive writing and study skills service including writing and learning workshops.
- All students have a Personal Tutor who can provide academic support and guidance.
- The Student Wellbeing Team helping students to overcome certain challenges so that they can achieve their university goals. For students with a disability at Brunel and who have registered with Student Wellbeing, the Assistive Technology Centre (ATC) provides a wide range of assistive technology, including spellchecking and proofreading software. Study skills support, including proof-reading, is also commonly facilitated by DDS for students with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.