If you do it, do it right

A Guardian investigation has exposed how easy and cheap it is for British university students to get small businesses to do their coursework. We posed as Josephine, a 23-year-old student who wanted two assignments done. One was her second-year undergraduate computer science homework.
Another, for her “friend”, was a second-year undergraduate history essay from a module on social and political thought.

We registered Josephine on an auction website—www.rentacoder.com—where business people across the globe, and a growing number of students, post work they need done and then wait for bidders to offer to do it by an agreed deadline. In under an hour we had 11 bids for our computing assignment. Within two days we had 38 bids from India, Argentina, Ukraine, Vietnam and the United States. They wanted between $10 and $40 to do the work. In three weeks 399 bidders had viewed our task.

We made no secret of the fact that Josephine was a university student intent on cheating. Our post on the site read: “This is my java programming assignment that I need help with. I’d like the solution to be as simple to follow as possible, with explanations, as my lecturer is going to ask me questions about it.”

One bidder replied: “Don’t worry about your lecturer, he’ll never know.” Another wrote: “We can discuss to get you prepared for the question your teacher is going to ask you [sic].” It took two days for three bidders to offer to write our history assignment for between $35 and $40. In three weeks 198 bidders had looked at our post.

We chose a bidder in the US for our computing task. He was rated 8,83—“superb”—by those who had previously used him on the site. We accepted a bidder in India for our history assignment. He was ranked 8,33—“very good”.

We gave them two weeks to do the work. We then sent the assignments to be marked by the same history and computer science lecturers who had given us the tasks. We asked for Josephine to be marked as a normal student. The computer science coursework barely scraped a pass at 40%. Our lecturer had to go back to Josephine six times to ask where unfinished parts of the task were. She, in turn, had to go back to her American “helper” to find out.

“I would have given the program code element of the coursework about 50%,” says Bob Clarke, our lecturer in computer science, who works at Birmingham City University. “But with the notes and a bit of extra work included, Josephine would have barely passed with 40%.” Three-quarters of the history assignment turned out to be copied from an American history journal paper—immediate grounds for a university disciplinary action. The essay was put through plagiarism detection software, Turnitin, as an estimated 90% of essays in UK universities are. About 70% of its text was identical to the journal article.

Relatively few academics in the UK are aware of contract cheating—the term recently coined for students outsourcing their coursework on auction sites. Under lecturers’ noses UK students in the “low thousands” are estimated to be involved in the practice—and the figures have been rising since contract cheating spread here from the US in 2003.

The leading researchers in the field, Clarke and Dr Thomas Lancaster at Birmingham City University, predict there are double the number of contract cheats in UK universities as there were a year ago. Their studies have found that, on average, a contract cheat posts between four and seven assignments. To cheat habitually in this way suggests these students must be satisfied with the work they’ve paid for and must be getting away with it.

Why are contract cheats so hard to foil? It’s partly a matter of originality. Rentacoder warns bidders that the work they undertake should be their own, not copied from other sources as Josephine’s essay was.

Its website states: “In general all deliverables must be completely your own original work and may not be taken (in whole or in part) from any work that you do not have full copyrights to.” If it’s original work that a student submits, it will go unnoticed by plagiarism-detection software. Lecturers may be left to spot the Americanisms that have suddenly crept into a student’s writing, or an overnight improvement in performance.

But that’s not easy with today’s large class sizes and the growth of anonymous marking. And Josephine’s computing task was of poor quality. “If it had been first-class material it would have been easy to spot, says Jenkins. “This way it’s harder to catch out the weaker students.” There is another way lecturers can catch out the contract cheats: detective work.

Clarke has a radar to search auction sites all day and night for student coursework assignments. He’s got 800 students from across the world on his “frequent offenders’ list”—20 of whom are from the UK. Once he finds what looks like university homework he does his best to trace the student and contact their university. And he has had at least three students expelled so far.

“There’s a social dimension here; we’ve got to tell our students that they are here to learn, not to beat the system,” says Guy Haworth, a systems engineering lecturer at Reading University.—Â

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