On Campus

Cheating's new look

It's never been easier to find someone to do your homework. For a price.

It is widely felt that cheating in Canadian universities has reached grim proportions. For one thing, a study conducted recently by the University of Guelph found that 18 per cent of university undergraduates admitted to cheating on an examination or test — which translates into roughly one out of five students “breaking the rules,” even though they are fully aware that to do so places them in serious jeopardy. With the above in mind, the following paper will examine how students are cheating — what “methods” they are employing, in other words — as well as what types of students are cheating and how universities are dealing with the problem.

The above, and the italicized passages throughout this story, come from a customized research paper that Maclean’s ordered off the Internet from the website essayexperts.ca, a Toronto-based company that bills itself as an “academic assistance resource centre.” We requested a four-page, undergraduate-level research paper on the following topic: “I would like the essay to examine how students are cheating(using the Internet, cheat sheets, looking at other peoples’ work, etc.), which students are cheating, and how universities are dealing with the problem.” We asked that the paper be formatted according to Modern Language Association (MLA) style, and that at least six sources be cited. Within seconds we received a quote, saying the paper could be completed for $135.80, plus a $2 fee to have it sent directly to a Hotmail account. We gave our credit card number, and our paper arrived three days later, via email, neatly formatted in Word, and including a title page, a bibliography with the promised six sources and the following disclaimer: “All custom essays written by Essay Experts are meant for research purposes only and not meant for submission in whole, or in part, for academic credit.” Welcome to the modern age of cheating at university. It is sophisticated, callous and calls into question the entire purpose of pursuing a higher education.

Just how widespread is cheating? The study cited in the customized paper, by Julia Christensen Hughes of the University of Guelph and Donald McCabe of Rutgers University, found that 53 per cent of undergraduate students at 11 Canadian universities admitted they had “seriously” cheated on a written project. The most common types of cheating include working with others on an individual assignment, getting questions and answers from someone who has already taken a test, falsifying lab data, and copying a few sentences from the Internet or another source without footnoting.

There is some evidence that a pervasive sub-culture of “cut-and-paste” cheats are emerging who simply view the Internet as an easy means of accessing information they would presumably have difficulty finding elsewhere.

On websites such as superiorpapers.com, essaywriters.com and go-essays.com, students can purchase thousands of pre-written papers that can be delivered within minutes. The sites also promise more expensive customized papers, which can be turned around in as little as a few hours. We ordered a five-page pre-written paper entitled, “Canadian Crime: A look at crime in Canada and why more Canadians are beginning to carry firearms,” for $115 from essaywriters.com, a company based in New Jersey. Dr. Thomas Gabor, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, analyzed the paper. He found the work outdated, the assertions supported by weak references, and noted that an American probably wrote the piece because it mentions a shooting that occurred during a “Fourth of July parade in Montreal.” But most alarming was that several paragraphs appeared to be from an article written by none other than Dr. Gabor. “I haven’t examined the originality and hesitate to do so, or it may compel me to take some form of action,” says Gabor. Had a student handed in this paper, he says he would likely have failed them.

“Buyer beware,” says John Barrie, president of iParadigms LLC. “Think of the ethics of the people you are dealing with. If they’re so unethical as to sell you a paper for class, they may be so unethical as to plagiarize the paper that they sell to you.” Barrie’s company runs the anti-plagiarism website turnitin.com. His business is helping schools catch cheats. To sniff out fraudulent material, turnitin.com uses text-matching software and databases filled with previously submitted papers, published Web pages dating back to 1999, and commercial sources such as academic journals. He estimates that of the 80,000 papers submitted on an average day, from over 6,500 institutions around the world, nearly 30 per cent contain plagiarized material. Barrie says approximately 40 Canadian universities and hundreds of high schools currently subscribe to turnitin.com.

There is certainly widespread evidence that students will resort to cheating because they do not want to make the effort to learn and understand.

Perhaps the most intriguing and novel form of cheating occurring in cyberspace is taking place on websites such as rentacoder.com, getacoder.com and elance.com. There, on sites usually reserved for freelance computer programmers and designers, some students are essentially putting their homework out to tender — farming the job of getting their B.A. out to the highest bidder. And they don’t hide the fact that they are breaking the rules. “I will email you a word doc with exact details of the projects,” wrote one student on rentacoder.ca. “It is homework for a college class…I need this done by Sunday at midnight. If you finish by 12 noon on Sunday I’ll send you a $25 bonus and/or if the papers get an A I will send you a $25 bonus.” The student who wrote this request added at the end of their posting that they were looking for somebody to work on future jobs. In other words, they want a degree without having to do the work.

Christensen Hughes, who is also president of the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, says that, despite the advent of the Web, the most common form of cheating is still the oldest trick in the book: writing answers on body parts or pieces of clothing. “Females have been known to write on their thighs and wear short skirts,” she says. “Would an invigilator have the nerve to ask?” And according to her study, 46 per cent of faculty and 38 per cent of teaching assistants admitted they ignored suspected cases of cheating. “A lot of faculty are unsure of what amount of proof is sufficient,” says Christensen Hughes. “Or they are told they don’t have enough evidence, that their word isn’t enough.”

To resolve the problem, she believes administrators and faculty need to openly discuss viable policies that can be enforced, and that it is critical to educate students about the topic. “We spend a lot if time telling people plagiarism is bad and if you do it you’ll be punished,” she says. “But have we talked to them about why it is important?” To curb instances of cheating, Christensen Hughes notes that certain techniques can be used. Teachers can place stipulations on what sources are permissible; students can be required to hand in photocopies of their research; assignments can be done in-class; and professors can talk with students about projects in advance to have a sense of what the student is doing.

Yet no matter what avenue a university pursues in eliminating instances of cheating, it ultimately comes down to a student’s ethical standards and the willingness of a teacher to enforce the rules, while discussing the importance of those rules. “Integrity has to be a core value of academia,” says Christensen Hughes. Or as our custom-made research paper concluded: In the end, education and strict enforcement should be at the top of any school’s agenda.