Contract Cheating: Understanding and Responding to Academic Dishonesty

Learn How to Spot Contract Cheating
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Audrey Wick is an English professor and Cengage Faculty Partner


The paper didn’t pass the “smell test.” I had a student in class whose work and writing voice I knew, but his last paper of the semester didn’t seem like his own. The digital originality report didn’t detect any plagiarism, though.

Still, language was different, research techniques were unconventional, assignment requirements were stilted, and the general vibe of the paper told me that the student had help in writing it.

What is Contract Cheating?

Instructors who assign writing assignments have long dealt with plagiarism, but contract cheating is a separate area of concern. It involves a student seeking a third party for assistance with completing an assignment. The student “contracts” with someone else—a friend, a paid acquaintance, a homework site, a third-party internet service—to complete work that the student then submits to the instructor.

Because the work is unique and written by someone, it generally passes plagiarism detection sites. It’s not plagiarism in the traditional sense but instead allows a student to submit something akin to an individualized assignment. The problem is the student didn’t actually complete the work.


How is Contract Cheating Detected?

Contract cheating can be difficult to pinpoint, especially in writing assignments. Instructors need to be vigilant and responsive. Evidence of contract cheating include:

  • Skewed or clipped response to the assignment
  • Catch-all type submission that seems more universal than expected
  • Unconventional digital source use (often open source and fully online only)
  • Diction that doesn’t match the voice of the student
  • Formatting that doesn’t match previous submissions
  • Digital breadcrumbs that are suspect (like odd file names or incongruent dates of file creation)

Other examples of contract cheating are if a student “hires” another student to take an online exam or complete digital coursework on their behalf.


How Should Contract Cheating Be Addressed?

This can be complicated. First, it’s important for instructors to know their institution’s honor code as well as any academic dishonesty policies to which they must adhere. There is likely already a provision against contract cheating that may be listed as “collusion.” Students who do not complete their own work in class are subject to collegiate policies to maintain academic integrity.


Can I take proactive measures in class to prevent contract cheating?

Yes, this is possible! Here are a few techniques for writing assignments.

  • Change assignments on a regular basis to prevent students from sharing older content online
  • Mandate certain assignment parameters, like the use of collegiate library resources and credentialed databases for research
  • Require students to submit an essay in stages: topic selection, outline submission, rough draft, final draft, reflection journal, etc.
  • Have students complete some portion of the writing process in class


Stay the Course!

Recognizing and responding to contract cheating involves staying one step ahead of students and technology where possible. Stay the course! There is more help on the horizon. Holding students accountable can be challenging with the rise of online resources, but it’s important to maintain academic honesty.

If you suspect plagiarism on a student submission, you may benefit from reading Proactive Approaches to Stop Cheating and Plagiarism.