A breakthrough study by Swansea University has revealed that the use of contract cheating, where students pay someone else to write their assignments, is rising rapidly around the world.
For the study, published in Frontiers in Education, Professor Phil Newton from Swansea University, analysed 71 survey samples from 65 studies dating back as far as 1978, covering 54,514 participants.
Because the products of essay-mills are designed to be difficult to detect, it is hard to develop objective measures of contract cheating. This new study therefore systematically reviewed findings from prior 'self-report' research papers; questionnaire based studies wherein students were asked if they had ever paid someone else to undertake work for them.
The findings of the research show that as many as one in seven recent graduates may have paid someone to undertake their assignment for them, potentially representing 31 million students across the globe.
Across the sample, contract cheating was self-reported by a historic average of 3.5% of students, but this was shown to be increasing significantly over time. In studies from 2014 to present, the percentage of students admitting to paying someone else to undertake their work was 15.7%. Cheating, in general, also appeared to be on the rise according to the studies reviewed.
Professor Newton suggests that the data he found is actually likely to underestimate levels of contract cheating, for the simple reason that students who engage in contract cheating are less likely to volunteer to participate in surveys about cheating.
Essay-mills are currently legal in the UK, although they are banned in the USA and New Zealand, while other countries are actively developing legislation. Professor Newton warns: "The UK risks becoming a country where essay-mills find it easy to do business".
Commenting on the results of his research, Professor Newton, director of learning and teaching at Swansea University Medical School, says:
"These findings underscore the need for legislation to tackle essay-mills, alongside improvements in the way students are assessed and awareness-raising of the fundamentals of academic integrity. We need to utilise assessment methods that promote learning and at the same time reduce the likelihood that contract cheating can happen".
A proposal for a new law emerged from previous research by Professor Newton, in collaboration with Professor Michael Draper from the Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law at Swansea University. The proposal came from their earlier study, which concluded that existing UK laws would not be effective in tackling Essay Mills. There is currently an active petition calling for the government to introduce a new law.
Both Professor Newton and Professor Draper were authors of a report issued by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) last year, which contained advice and guidance for higher education providers and staff on many different approaches to contract cheating. Earlier research from Professor Newton showed that academic integrity is not a topic that is routinely covered in teacher training programmes for staff and that students have a poor understanding of the consequences of engaging in contract cheating.
Professor Newton's study, 'How Common is Commercial Contract Cheating in Higher Education and is it Increasing? A Systematic Review', is published in Frontiers in Education.